The advantages of nuclear power are obvious. First, it produces heat without fire and doesn’t emit pollution in the form of smoke; thus the energy is carbon free. Second, although the cost of building a new nuclear plant is significant, operational costs are generally low, because uranium is plentiful and cheap. Furthermore, nuclear power generates more energy than so-called renewables such as solar, wind and hydroelectric power, particularly in proportion to the amount of land it occupies.
Given the current energy crisis, and the need to move away from fossil fuels towards carbon-free alternatives because of climate change, it is therefore good news that the UK government has recently agreed to fund the building of a new nuclear power plant as part of its strategy to reach Net Zero carbon emissions. A final decision on the location of the plant will be made in 2022.
George Freeman, the UK’s minister for science, research and innovation, and a key figure behind this move, has emphasised that abundant energy can come from nuclear power: it “has the potential to be a truly revolutionary and inexhaustible energy source that can help us reduce our dependence on unreliable fossil fuels and tackle climate change.”
South Africa, the Czech Republic and Romania are also increasing their use of nuclear power and making it the foundation of their carbon-free energy production goal. By contrast, other countries, such as Germany, Italy and Belgium, are closing nuclear plants rather than building new ones. In 2000, Germany’s power-generation mix was around 29%, but today it is planning to phase out nuclear power, along with carbon-producing energy sources, by 2022—mainly due to intense campaigning from the Green Party, which has expressed health and safety concerns about nuclear power. In April of this year, New York State’s then governor, Andrew Cuomo, authorised shutting down the Indian Point nuclear power plant, 30 miles north of New York City, even though the authorities had deemed it safe, and even though it was providing most of the that city’s carbon-free energy.
Governments’ pledges to transition away from nuclear power are usually accompanied by pledges to compensate by increasing investment in renewable energy sources. But in most cases, such investment has failed to substantially reduce carbon emissions. In Germany, when nuclear plants were closed down, there was an initial increase in carbon emissions, and eventually, its investment in renewables did little more than replace the energy output of the former nuclear plants, with the result that the level of fossil-fuel consumption was no lower than it had been before. (The carbon intensity of German electricity remains higher than the EU average.) In New York, the plan is to make up for the energy-production gap that was created by closing the Indian Point nuclear plant by building three new natural gas plants, which will result in increased pollution.
Divesting from nuclear power simply doesn’t enable countries to reduce fossil-fuel consumption. The advanced economies that have mostly decarbonized their grids or are on track to do so—such as France, Finland and Sweden—have succeeded by using nuclear power or hydroelectricity (or both) in addition to increasing wind and solar. That has worked because nuclear and hydroelectric power generators are reliable, efficient and able to produce electricity around the clock, without having to wait for the sun to shine or the wind to blow. While the shortcomings of renewables may (or may not) eventually be solved through research and development, they are currently not efficient, reliable or powerful enough to supply the necessary amount of carbon-free energy by themselves (even when their output can be stored—for example in batteries).
Thus, at least for now, nuclear power must be included in the mix in order to timely achieve a post-carbon civilisation. Indeed, many prominent environmentalists—including Mark Lynas, James Lovelock (the formulator of Gaia theory), and the Guardian’s George Monbiot advocate nuclear power as a pressing necessity—even though some of them are former sceptics and don’t see it as ideal. Zion Lights, a former Extinction Rebellion activist who was once opposed to nuclear power, has changed her mind and now embraces it as a “logical step” toward the goal of combatting climate change. Gerry Thomas of Imperial College London, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the health impacts of the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, also supports nuclear power.
Given the enormity of the ecological threats posed by climate change, why are so many of those who are the most alarmist and apocalyptic about environmental issues also among the most vehemently opposed to nuclear power? Some opposition, predictably, comes from those who stand to profit from fossil-fuel or renewable-energy production. And many attacks on nuclear power seem to be motivated by gut emotions rather than rational argument. For example, Extinction Rebellion presents nuclear power as if it were the devil’s excreta, and frames renewables as “truly clean,” suggesting that they are somehow morally purer. Some opposition is no doubt rooted in the recognition that, while nuclear fission can be used in power plants to light up entire cities, it can also be used in weapons to utterly destroy them.
It is understandable that many reflexively associate nuclear power with nuclear weapons, and thus with the horrific bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the spectre of the apocalyptic destruction that could result from a nuclear war. However, we can and should make a distinction between nuclear technology that is used to generate electric power and nuclear technology that is used to make weapons. Nuclear fission has other benign uses: for example, it is used in medicine to produce radioactive isotopes that treat cancer and help diagnose disease. It would be absurd to argue that doctors shouldn’t use nuclear fission technology because nuclear weapons exist. Something that can be used for destructive purposes in one context can be used for socially beneficial purposes in another.
In addition, nuclear power plants have become much safer over the years, and public perception has generally not caught up with these advances. The reactors in many existing nuclear power plants have more safety systems than earlier-built ones. For example, they have duplicate emergency cooling systems to prevent overheating even in the case of system failure, so-called “core catchers” that would contain the reactor core in a worst-case meltdown event and passive safety systems (emergency mitigation procedures that don’t require direct human intervention)—including systems that use gravity to automatically disable them in the event of an accident and that enable active remote monitoring of their condition. Designs for proposed new plants include even more new safety features.
Another source of opposition seems to be the tendency of some environmentalists to view modern society through a bleak, Malthusian lens. They believe that modern lifestyles are execrable: that we consume too much, eat too much, reproduce too much, use too much energy and extract too many resources from the earth—all to make possible what they view as spiritually barren, materialistic societies. Their mythos seems to be that these activities are somehow an abuse of Mother Nature and will lead her to exact a punishment on humankind, just as Zeus is said to have tortured Prometheus for defying his divine authority by giving people the gift of fire.
This type of environmentalist seems to fear that nuclear power will give modern society a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, enabling the Babylon of modern civilisation to carry on its disgusting, gluttonous way of living while avoiding what they see as the morally beneficial effects of austerity. This worldview is based on the same false assumption as Malthusianism: it grossly underestimates the human capacity to use resources in new, creative and socially beneficial ways. And its aspirations for the alleviation of human suffering are miserly. For example, in the poorer, energy-deprived parts of the world, nuclear power plants could produce abundant energy, which could also support the production of abundant food and clean water and thus help lift millions out of poverty. The discovery that atoms can be split to create energy is an example of humanity’s ingenuity. It would be ludicrous not to take advantage of that ingenuity to fend off threats to human flourishing such as climate change.
Of course, nuclear power, like most things, has downsides, which must be addressed. Its Achilles’ heel is that it produces radioactive waste. It is essential that we dispose of that waste safely. But much of the popular perception of this problem is behind the times. Not only do today’s advanced reactors produce significantly less waste than previous types; they can also recycle much of it to generate more power.
Another objection to nuclear power is that it requires uranium mining. Because much of the mining is done—and will probably continue to be done—in poorer countries, some are concerned that richer countries will benefit at the expense of those poorer countries, in an echo of the bad old days of colonialism. For example, if one of the natural resources in a country is extracted and exported on a massive scale, that country’s ecology may eventually suffer damage, and its economy may become too dependent on a single industry and thus vulnerable to exploitation.
But this concern about mineral mining is just as applicable to renewables as it is to nuclear power. The construction and operation of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries that store renewable energy require the mining of lithium and other minerals, resulting in just as much so-called destructive extraction. And renewables come with their own versions of environmental destruction. Wind turbines are known to occasionally kill birds and bats. The creation of solar farms requires the conversion of extensive plots of land to that purpose, which can damage wildlife habitats. It is true that the extraction of natural resources, regardless of the form it takes, necessarily affects the natural environment and the local economy, and yet it is essential in order to build and maintain a world in which human beings can flourish. Therefore, the rational response is not to ban the extraction of natural resources, but to apply human ingenuity to find ways to mitigate its negative side effects. A good start would be to work collaboratively to create better environmental and labour regulations and to require good working conditions.
Nuclear power plants may have been démodés, once upon a time. But that must change. Today, opposition to nuclear power is based partly on outdated and incomplete information, and partly on magical thinking. If we want to solve climate change, the least we can do is to avoid closing existing nuclear plants that have been deemed safe, and to build more nuclear plants. We can, at the very least, make use of them to mitigate climate change until human ingenuity produces an even better, cleaner and more powerful alternative that can meet the world’s energy needs.