Nuclear power is touted as a proven, safe way to generate clean energy, but why isn’t it more widely accepted?
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As the world moves towards a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, nuclear power is being touted as a way to bridge the energy gap, but some, such as Greenpeace, are skeptical, warning that “nowhere is safe. a clean, sustainable future.”
Nuclear energy is not only clean. It is reliable and overcomes the intermittent nature of renewables such as wind, hydro and solar.
“How do you provide cheap, reliable and pollution-free energy for a world of 8 billion people? Nuclear power is really the only scalable version of that, renewable energy is not reliable,” Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress, told CNBC. .
According to a Schroders report on August 8, governments have started pouring money into the sector after years of “holding water”.
As of July, the 486 nuclear reactors planned, proposed or under construction had 65.9 billion watts of electrical capacity, the industry’s highest capacity under construction since 2015, according to the report.
Just a few years ago, the International Energy Agency warned that nuclear power was “at risk of future decline.” A 2019 report said that “nuclear power has begun to decline with plant closures and little new investment at a time when the world needs more low-carbon electricity.”
Schroders noted that nuclear power is not only scalable, but also cleaner—emitting only 10 to 15 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour. It is competitive with both wind and solar, and significantly better than coal and natural gas.
Nuclear power is also the second largest source of low-carbon energy after hydropower, ahead of wind and solar power, Schroders said.
According to Shellenberger, renewable energy is reaching its limits in many countries. For example, hydroelectric power is not viable in all countries, and those that do have it are “extracted,” meaning they can no longer use land or water resources for this purpose.
Nuclear power is a great alternative “very low waste, easy to manage, won’t hurt anyone, very low cost when you build the same type of plants over and over again,” he added.
That’s why nations are taking a second look at nuclear power, Shellenberger said. “That’s because renewable energy can’t get us where we need to be. And countries want to get off fossil fuels.”
In an interview with CNBC’s Street Signs Asia last week, Adam Fleck, Morningstar’s director of research, ratings and ESG, said social concerns about nuclear power are “somewhat misunderstood.”
Although the Chernobyl and Fukushima tragedies cannot be forgotten, the use of nuclear power is one of the safest ways of energy production, even if we take into account the need to store nuclear waste.
“Many of these (storage facilities) are highly protected. They’re protected from earthquakes, tornadoes, you name it. But there’s a reason there haven’t been significant tragedies or concerns about nuclear waste storage.”
“Twelve years after Fukushima, we’re getting better at operating these plants. They’re more efficient, they’re safer, we have better training,” Shellenberger said.
There are new designs for nuclear power plants that improve safety, “but what really makes nuclear safe is the boring stuff, the training and routines and best practices,” he told CNBC.
Too expensive, too slow
So if nuclear is a tested, proven and safe way to generate energy, why isn’t it more widely used?
Fleck said it comes down to one main factor: cost.
“I think the biggest problem with nuclear power has actually been the cost economics. It’s very expensive to build a nuclear plant up front. There are a lot of overruns, a lot of delays. I think for investors who want to put money into this, they have a place where they can develop that potential.” they need to find players with strong experience.”
But not everyone is convinced.
In addition to general concerns about nuclear safety, a March 2022 report by global campaign network Greenpeace argued that nuclear power is too expensive and too slow to deploy compared to other renewable sources.
Noting that it takes about 10 years to build a nuclear power plant, Greenpeace said, “the additional time required to build nuclear plants has major implications for climate goals, as existing fossil-fueled plants continue to emit carbon dioxide while they await replacement.”
In addition, it shows that the extraction, transportation and processing of uranium is not free from greenhouse gas emissions.
Greenpeace acknowledged that “as a whole, nuclear power plants are comparable to wind and solar power.” However, wind and solar power can be deployed faster and on a larger scale, resulting in a faster impact on carbon emissions and the clean energy transition.
Nuclear power is a “distraction” from “the answer we need” such as renewables and energy storage solutions to reduce the unreliability of renewables, said Dave Sweeney, a nuclear analyst at the Australian Conservation Fund and nuclear-free campaigner.
“This is the way we have to go to keep the lights on and the Geiger counters down,” he told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” on Friday.