By Braiden Smith
The UK is legally bound to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 – the first major economy in the world to do so. If Britain wants to be serious about achieving this goal, and leading the way forward to a greener, cleaner future then we must embrace nuclear power.
Unfortunately, the government is yet to go nuclear with energy production. Currently the UK has only 15 reactors in service, with 14 of those set to shutter up by 2030. Meanwhile, construction of new ones is stalling or failing to break ground, like the cancelled Wylfa plant in Wales. If this Conservative government wants to truly conserve the environment, then it must stop the lentil-munching inclined continue to spread their doom and gloom about nuclear power and go on the offensive with nuclear power’s green-fingered credentials.
With global energy demands rising, supply is racing to meet it. China alone is estimated to add the equivalent of a new 600-megawatt coal plant every 10 days for the next 10 years. That’s on top of the fact that China already burns 4 billion tonnes of coal each year. Until the world’s largest polluter decides it wants to play ball this will need to be offset. The land gobbling solar and wind alternatives won’t be able to do this alone.
The reality is that even when considering the emissions produced when mining the material for reactors the carbon footprint from nuclear power is miniscule in comparison to fossil fuels and on par with wind and solar, but with all the extra spice. Shifting away from fossil fuels to renewables quickly will also not lead to the desired results that Green New Deal advocates hope for. The Germans tried to shift to renewables and saw their energy prices shoot up to double that of France’s which stuck to nuclear and now sources 93% of their energy from low carbon sources, the majority of which being nuclear. Meanwhile now only 38% of German energy consumption comes from low carbon sources. Unlike fossil fuels which pump their toxic waste into our atmosphere with their well-known results, nuclear power plants produce no CO2. In fact, since 1978, thanks to nuclear energy, an additional 64 gigatonnes of CO2 has not been introduced into the air we breathe.
Now yes, there is still the small problem of dealing with the spent fuel from nuclear reactors. Yet, this isn’t the apocalypse in a can that some may make it out to be. At the moment waste is safely collected and then stored in a warehouse or, better yet, underground (currently only Finland has the correct facilities for long-term underground storage). Expansion of this capacity would however be relatively easy to do if nuclear power was more prevalent. Furthermore, the waste produced doesn’t actually take up a significant amount of space allowing for its easy and safe containment.
However, this need not be the future. Modern solutions have revealed ways in which spent fuel can be reprocessed and reused, greatly increasing its capabilities. Alternatively, by opting for substitute fuels such as thorium might be the more attractive option. Unlike other fuels thorium is more abundant in nature, it’s difficult to weaponise, and is much less wasteful than conventional fuels. On top of all this, thorium is massively more efficient than its competitors. One tonne of it alone contains the same energy potential as 200 tonnes of uranium or 3.5 million tonnes of coal.
If this isn’t enough then one must only look to the new technologies being rolled out around the world. Old reactor designs would waste 96% of their uranium’s energy capacity, new designs now mean that this wasted potential can be fully harnessed. Researchers at the University of California have also created a new form of fuel that, in the event of a power failure, sees radioactive material fall into a containment tank automatically. This removes the need for back up generators, water, or most importantly, humans to prevent a meltdown.
However, we only get one chance to make a good impression. Despite the advances in safety and technology whenever nuclear power is discussed the naysayers will always point to the classics: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukashima-Diatchi. Yet, these disasters were isolated in their creation and disasters on this scale are far and few between. These three, albeit terrible, disasters don’t even come close to producing a death toll comparable to that found in coal or oil extraction.
We’ve also learned a great deal from these incidents. As a result of them nuclear energy is now one of the most heavily regulated of all sources of energy. As was previously said, these disasters were also very specific in their creation. The Fukashima-Diatchi plant for example was over 40 years old when the 2011 earthquake/tsunami struck – a disaster unlikely to strike the coast of Kent anytime soon. The rhetoric from opponents that suggest that if we built new reactors a catastrophe would befall us that no man has seen since the launch of Fallout 76 has meant one thing. New reactors stay on the drawing board, innovation is scuppered, and old reactors continue to chug along long passed their use-by date.
Then there’s the gold standard of nuclear horror, so terrible that HBO had to take a go at it. The Chernobyl story is so infamous now that it really need not be discussed. We know what went wrong and we know humans are naturally attracted to mistakes. It is because we know this that new technology removes us from the equation. To top that off we’ve even made sure that Soviet Socialist inefficiency has been relegated to the history books.
Today, with supercomputers designers can simulate the fate of the Fukashima-Diatchi plant and disaster-proof their designs. Today, new technologies remove the risk of human inadequacy. Today, we’ve moved forward to the point that the only real barrier now is cost. Yet the arguments against nuclear power remain in the past. It may be an expensive option to start, and it might be difficult and complex, but when has that stopped us before? There have always been risks in human advancement, yet we still landed man on the moon.