The question of whether or not to use nuclear power as part of the energy production sector is hardly a new one. Ever since the energy crisis of the 1970s, there has been an expansion in both the use of nuclear power, and a growth of anti-nuclear movements. However, with increasing concern surrounding both our climate crisis and the associated energy production challenges, the discussion surrounding the pros and cons of nuclear power and whether or not it is an ‘environmentally friendly’ solution for the future is growing in relevance.
When trying to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of embracing nuclear power as an energy source, Germany provides an interesting and timely example. Ever since the post-war period, Germany has been one of 31 countries in the world operating nuclear power plants, with nuclear sources contributing around 22% of gross energy production in the country in 2010. However, After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster,the country decided to shut down its entire nuclear energy sector, the phasing out process due to end by 2022.
This decision has caused much controversy. On one hand, since the inception of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s and the subsequent Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, there has been little electoral support for nuclear energy; 81% of the population supported the nuclear phase-out in a 2015 poll. On the other hand, the phase-out has faced severe criticism for compromising the effort to cut-down on fossil fuels in the country. Germany has pledged to shut down all coal-burning energy plants by 2038, but it seems likely that in the the meantime the energy gap generated by the rejection of nuclear energy will be filled by fossil fuels – decisively more polluting.
The row over which policy is superior to the other from an environmental perspective therefore calls us to take a step back, and briefly revisit some of the ecological pros and cons of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels.
The most obvious benefit of nuclear power versus fossil fuels is that the CO2 and other smog-producing air pollutant emissions of the former are almost equal to those of renewable sources, whereas the latter are infamous for air pollution. In fact, nuclear energy produces produces more clear-air energy than other source. Furthermore, the use of nuclear power for energy production enables the disassembly and reuse of old nuclear weapons – whilst arguably not an ecological benefit, this does help pave the way for a less disaster-prone planet.
However, even if a straightforward evaluation of nuclear power leads us to conclude that it is a more environmentally friendly option than fossil fuels, significant issues still remain. Firstly, even if most experts these days have little concern over the safety of nuclear power plants, the public hasn’t forgotten the infamous nuclear accidents of recent history. Ecologically speaking, the impact of nuclear accident remains an issue for years, even decades, after the disasters first take place with impacts felt in the ground, air and surrounding marine life. The other main environmentalist concern over nuclear energy is the way nuclear waste is processed. A typical nuclear power plant generates some 20 metric tons of used fuel per year, which remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. Leaving tonnes of nuclear waste for future generations, including the increasingly environmentally aware ‘Fridays for Future’ children of today does not seem very ecologically conscious or sustainable.
So, what should we make of it all? The easy answer would be to sweep the issue of nuclear energy under the rug and press for urgent development of renewables and descaling of polluting fossil fuels instead. However, the reality is that nuclear energy, with its nuances and unclear environmental positions is part of and will remain a significant part of the energy production for some years, if not decades, to come. Facts and statistics do not lead to a clear answer, and different states seem to be going about the issue in different ways. Perhaps, for now, the best stance is to press for more discussion and research of this energy production problem to shed more light on the complex reality of nuclear energy.
Photo by Thomas Millot via Unsplash