In short: in a greenhouse gas emissions sense, yes, nuclear energy is green however, in a fully-formed renewability sense, no, nuclear energy is anything but green.
Is Nuclear Energy Really Green?
Nuclear energy, essentially, is a reactionary process whereby particles are fired towards an atom to split it. The neutrons that are released from this splitting process then collides with other atoms, causing them to split and release more neutrons which proliferates this process. This act, called nuclear fission, generates significant amounts of heat.
The heat generated within nuclear reactors are then separated by a fluid cooling agent to convert the heat into steam. This steam is now pressurised and pushed through turbines that spin electrical generators to produce electricity.
All kosher right? Not quite. The particles which are fired towards atoms are little pellets of uranium but not just any type of uranium, a very particular rare quality called U-235 which is less than one percent of all the uranium in the world.
Given the rarity, there are only a few locations, such as Kazakhstan, Russia, Australia, Canada to name a few, where this kind of uranium can be mined for use in nuclear power stations.
On average, a typical nuclear reactor core will use around about 200 tons of uranium every year.
Nuclear benefits: Greenhouse gas, air pollution and death
Whilst the process of nuclear fission is emissions friendly, particularly in comparison to other types of fossil fuel or natural gas dependant energy generating sources, it still isn’t completely in alignment with goals of net-zero emissions due to the need to mine uranium for its operation.
Per year, nuclear energy does however saves more than 471 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.
Nuclear energy, the provider of approximately 10% of global electricity, releases about three tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year; coal, the worst offender provides 36% of the world’s electricity and releases approximately 820 tonnes; oil at 3% of global electricity, emits about 720 tonnes and natural gas, 22% of global electricity, emits about 490 tonnes.
Other benefits of nuclear power include less air pollution and around nearly 100% less accidental death rates per unit of electricity requiring production than brown coal.
Although, the water vapour and heat that nuclear power plants emit still produce, albeit small, carbon dioxide emissions.
Nuclear disadvantages: too slow, costly and toxically hazardous
The race against irreversible impacts of climate change has spurred on nearly 70 countries and coalitions, including heavyweights the United States, China and the European Union, to commit to a reduction of 45% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.
The obligations this places on industry is felt most by the global energy sector which produces about three quarters of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
If 2050 is the yardstick we’re aiming for, then nuclear energy cannot plausibly be considered a viable renewable energy investment.
A 2021 World Nuclear Industry Status Report estimated that construction time for nuclear reactors was just under 10 years.
Practical examples of nuclear power station builds however, demonstrates how these estimates can be completely blown out e.g. the Olkiluto 3 rector in Finland was proposed in 2000 but wasn’t completed until 2020, the Hinkley C nuclear power station in the United Kingdom initially represented that it would start production in 2017 but is now slated to open in 2026 and the most recent proposed nuclear plant in Georgia, United States started build in 2013 but still isn’t finished.
Due to environmental concerns associated with nuclear energy, one can’t just be built anywhere and it takes a significant amount of time to find a site, secure the land, obtain the necessary permits, install a nuclear reactor and build the power plant itself.
These requirements also cost substantial amounts of money, pushing into billions of dollars, which few governments or contractors are willing to spend when there are clearly better, quicker and cheaper methods of energy production.
This then leaves the nuclear stations we already have, which in the United Kingdom as at 2021 were only six active power plants, in the United States only 55 power plants and in France only 56; these three countries also being the largest producers of nuclear energy globally.
But majority of these power stations are old, most of which were constructed between the late 1950’s – 1980’s when nuclear energy first started rising as one of the bigger players of global energy, creating fear within governments as to their safety with many other power stations from similar eras having already been shut down due to their antiquity.
Safety and security issues
The radioactive waste created by fuel rods within nuclear reactors are hazardous. To date, no private entity or government has figured out a way to sequester or manage the large volumes of radioactive waste from nuclear stations.
Highly radioactive waste materials remain intact for tens of thousands of years. The most serious component of radioactive waste are the plutonium isotypes present in the waste material, which has a half shelf-life of 24,000 years.
Aside from radioactive waste materials, there are further risks of radioactive leaks which if it infiltrates water sources can have dire impacts on crops, animals and humans also dependant on those water sources.
Additionally, in these turbulent global political times, nuclear reactors may be targets for modern warfare and so securitisation of nuclear energy power stations cannot be guaranteed either.
Share your thoughts…
- Does an energy sources which still requires mining for minerals still count as a renewable source of energy?
- Why do you think nuclear energy is still on the table when there’s significantly more benefits to harnessing wind, solar and hydro-electrical energy which are also safer options?
Mich würde auch interessieren, ob Frankreich weiterhin plant, Kernenergie stark zu nutzen. Vermutlich schon?
Publisher’s translation: I would also be interested to know whether France still plans to make heavy use of nuclear energy. Presumably already? NdT
It’s a good question… and we still don’t have the answer!