Why countries gamble on nuclear energy to combat climate change?

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Finding suitable renewable energy has been widely sought to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. We estimated that 63 percent of the electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, which have high carbon content that causes severe climate change. We are dependent on electricity for transportation, domestic heating, and industrial process. At least 40 percent of carbon emissions came from electricity generation. In 2015, the Paris agreement set to minimize global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius to reduce the risk of climate change by a fraction. In 2018, carbon dioxide emissions reached 33.1 billion tonnes. It is up more than 40 percent since 2000.

The current technologies for renewable energy resources are still not mature for us to rely on our electricity generation. We breached the limitation by 2030, according to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), if we can't prevent the global temperature at 1.5 degrees Celcius annually. We are in a rush to cut off or lessen carbon emissions as climate change gets out of control and affecting our planet in the worst way possible.

Nuclear energy was discovered by a scientist at Columbia University named Enrico Fermi, he conducted an experiment that shows neutrons can split up many kinds of atoms. He did not get the elements he expected after he tried the splitting of Uranium atoms with the help of neutrons but he discovered that it was much lighter than Uranium, about half the atomic mass of the uranium. An Australian colleague Lise Meitner help uncovered the discovery when she tried adding atomic mass to the fission products but they did not reach the original uranium mass.

Meitner concludes with Einstein’s theory that a loss of mass to an atom could result in a change of energy. In 1939, another scientist Neil Bohr who also work with Meitner visited America and shared their work with Einstein as to their discovery of the self-sustaining chain reaction cause by series of fission. In 1942 Fermi and his group had gathered to test and develop their theories to the possible nuclear reactor which was named Chicago Pile-1 and they successfully self-sustained nuclear reaction.

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AN Aerial view of Taishan Nuclear Power Plant. (Wikimedia)

Nuclear Energy can help decarbonize the electricity supply while providing affordable and reliable electricity for the future growing population. The most common element use in nuclear power plants is uranium, although you can see this on many rocks. The power plants use a rare type of uranium, which is the U-235. Even though nuclear energy itself is a renewable source, the material used is not. Nuclear power plants don't produce greenhouse gasses during operation. It has the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of electricity as wind and one-third of the emissions per unit of electricity compared to solar energy over its life cycle.

Nuclear plants supply 800 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. It cut our emissions by 506 million metric tons. We can avoid 64 billion metric tons of greenhouse pollution annually. In 2019, nuclear power plants produced about 55 percent of their emission-free electricity. It is equivalent to 2.5 times the amount generated by hydropower, almost thrice the amount generated by wind, and more than 12 times the amount generated by solar energy.

According to James Hansen, a climate scientist at Columbia University, fossil fuel will continue to burn as it is the cheapest energy source. If we don't allow nuclear resources to help, the carbon emission spikes to a point where it is hard to control and lessen. In the late 1870s to 1950s, a significant drop in carbon emissions after transitioning from burning fuels to nuclear fissions.

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A BN-800 Nuclear Reactor. (Wikimedia)

Although environmentalists will push the use of nuclear resources, there are associated hazards and risks when opting for this energy source. Nuclear energy produces radioactive waste that can be extremely toxic, which can cause burns and bone decay when exposing to people. A radioactive waste takes about 10,000 years to neutralize. Not to mention, if the safety risk and precaution are not improved it might end up like the Fukushima Daichi Accident in Japan last 2011. The accident was due to a major earthquake and 15-meter tsunami that disabled 3 nuclear reactors and caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi plant. The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale set it to level 7. It released high radioactive for 4-6 days.

There are many recorded nuclear accidents throughout the decade. The most devastating is the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl. The Chernobyl incident caused about 30,300 people to die. Besides, over 2.5 million Ukrainians suffered from health tribulations due to nuclear waste. These accidents caused other countries with running nuclear power plants to develop stringent safety measures.

Some countries opted to shut down their nuclear plants. Germany went through a lot of anti-nuclear rallies over the years that eventually reach into a nuclear phase-out. Aside from its environmental and economic disadvantages, it can lead to eutrophication, an extensive enrichment of nuclear waste on the lake due to runoff from land. The nuclear power plants associated with warfare can be a target of terrorist attacks. Terrorists can use it as a nuclear bomb like what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. It calls for maximum security and safeguards to build and operate a nuclear power plant.

According to the World Nuclear Association, more nuclear power plants are in ongoing construction with China leading at 29 currently under construction, and 59 proposed. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that we can expect a growth in nuclear energy around the world particularly in Asia and Pacific Rim, coinciding with the increase of demand in the region. According to the IAEA, there are a total of 495 projects that are being planned to be constructed for new nuclear power plants, and 316 are planned to be constructed around the said areas in Asia and Pacific Rim. Although slow-paced than the initial plan, the increased need of demand for energy is for China, India, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, UK, Hungary, the Czech Republic, UAE, Turkey, Belarus, Poland, Vietnam, Jordan, and Bangladesh.

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The reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 2013. (Wikimedia)

Although we can see its beneficial and efficient result, we can't expect all countries are capable of constructing a nuclear power plant. The risk associated with nuclear energy is too much for a country with low-level technological development and limited financial resources. it can be very complicated and costly. The lack of well-prepared and trained professionals, technicians, high-qualified workers, and have small electrical grid can be factors.

It cost so much to ensure stability and long-running. For example, the US requires building at least 1000 new reactors that would replace old reactors to produce a quarter of the US energy demand. The prices of two AP-1000 reactors being built in Georgia would have cost roughly 7 million dollars. But there have been more economically friendly reactors that have been introduced such as SMRs (Small modular reactors). These reactors have a compact design and factories can easily make them and be transported by truck, rail, or ships.

Although it might likely cost a fortune into building these power plants, the operation can generate revenues and lesser carbon emissions. Again, finding suitable renewable energy has been widely sought to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. We estimated that 63 percent of the electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, which have high carbon content that causes severe climate change. Unless scientists developed renewable energy technology for mass usage and more efficiency, we can withstand the growing population and energy demand.

Scientists recommend and prefer nuclear energy rather than going back to fossil fuels. Weighing which of the two shall be taken extreme measures of development between the nuclear energy or carbon fuel, the latter would still be recommendable. We are stuck with nuclear power plants to address the growing population and energy demand, but I think the best option is a balanced mix between renewable and nuclear for now.


Note: The cover image of this post is created by the author using Canva.

Reference

  1. How Nuclear Power Can Stop Global Warming
  2. Nuclear energy provides nearly 55 percent of America’s carbon-free electricity.
  3. The History of Nuclear Energy
  4. How can nuclear combat climate change?
  5. Smaller, safer, cheaper: One company aims to reinvent the nuclear reactor and save a warming planet
  6. Fukushima Daiichi Accident
  7. The history behind Germany's nuclear phase-out
  8. Non-renewable energy comes from sources that will eventually run out, such as oil and coal.
  9. Advantages and Challenges of Nuclear Energy
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I support the use of nuclear energy and I understand that there are risks. However technology is improving at a rapid pace so I believe many of the issues in the past won't happen again. All the people involved in those projects do not wish to see these accidents.

As you said, it may be costly to build and start these plants, the amount of clean energy produced is amazing. Especially since we do not produce enough renewable energy from wind or solar at this point in time. Also I think diversification in energy sources is a good thing as you never know when you will have issues with one source.

I couldn't agree more. There are risk associated to nuclear but we are left with no choice. If the existing renewable technology does not live up to the demand, countries will continue to rely on nuclear for the growing energy demand. A balanced energy mix is the most sought after all.

They're for weapons. The nuclear power is just for diplomatic relations.

I couldn't agree more.

Just echoing other comments, Nuclear done right in a safe way is a good alternative to burning fossil fuels until renewables/fusion can step up to meet totals demand. As technology, risk management practices and risk culture develop the likelihood of serious accidents will (and has) dramatically reduce.

But lets not forget Uranium is not in limitless supply either, so more work on a solution for the next 1000 years is probably needed.

I do agree. Nuclear has too much risk but proper safety mitigation can lead to efficient energy generation while waiting for renewable technology to mature. Thank you for your insight.

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