HBO’s critically-acclaimed miniseries Chernobyl has recently brought nuclear energy back into the limelight, to mixed[i] reviews[ii]. Although the show’s creator Craig Mazin stressed in a tweet[iii] that “the lesson of Chernobyl isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous,” some viewers[iv] have taken away that message regardless.
There’s no question, however, that nuclear power has a role to play in the fight against climate catastrophe. While nuclear energy technically isn’t renewable[v]—the Earth contains a limited supply of uranium, the primary fuel used in nuclear reactors—operating a nuclear plant does not produce[vi] any CO2 emissions. We simply can’t afford to ignore such low-carbon energy options.
For all of Chernobyl’s dramatic images of radiation sickness and abandoned fallout zones, it’s important to remember that nearly 450 nuclear power plants[vii] are currently operating safely in 30 countries. Nuclear power currently supplies[viii] 11% of global electricity production each year, and 4.8% of the wider energy supply.
So, the question isn’t whether or not nuclear power is a part of a carbon-negative future. The question is how much of a role it will play. Lots of factors will determine the answer, from economics to technological innovation to public and political will.
The Drawdown Organization[ix] acknowledges that, unlike almost every other solution it recommends, nuclear power is what is known as a “regrets solution”[x], with serious drawbacks from radioactive nuclear waste to the danger that could result if enriched uranium falls into the wrong hands.
Despite these concerns, Drawdown ranks nuclear power as #20[xi] on its top 100 solutions to reverse climate change. Let’s take a closer look at why.
The Utility of Nuclear Power
Even though Drawdown predicts the use of nuclear power will decline to 12% of global electricity production by 2050[xii] from a peak of 13.6% in 2030, it still has the potential to remove 16.1 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
The reason is that nuclear power has a larger and longer history than renewable energy. France is the standout example here, generating 76%[xiii] of its electricity with nuclear. From just 1979 to 1988, the French managed to reduce their carbon emissions by nearly 3% every year while growing its economy; as environmental writer Robinson Meyer notes[xiv], “No country has done anything like that before or since.”
Even countries less associated with nuclear power like the U.S. have a much larger and more comprehensive infrastructure than you might think. Nuclear may only be responsible for 20% of electricity in the U.S.—nevertheless, its 98 operational reactors[xv] comprise the largest share of nuclear power worldwide: a whole 30% of the global total. Moreover, that 20% is more than the percentage produced by all renewable energies combined. Nuclear’s ability to generate power no matter what the wind conditions or what time of day (or night) make “our nuclear fleet . . . the the workhorse of the clean-energy sector.”[xvi] In other words, no solution to climate change is as constantly dependable as nuclear energy.
The Problems of Nuclear Power
That said, even writers and researchers who advocate for nuclear power don’t consider it as a silver bullet[xvii]. Obstacles hindering the growth of nuclear power are few but significant: namely, the undeniable financial costs and the potential human ones. Of all low-carbon energies, nuclear remains the only one that has become more expensive over time[xviii]; modern reactors cost between 4 to 8 times as much as older ones. In just 7 years, in fact, U.S. infrastructure costs rose[xix] from $2-4 billion in 2002 to $9 billion.
The reasons for this are good ones: primarily increased safety features and tighter regulations enforcing them. Since nuclear plants cost so much to build and bring online, however, the history of nuclear power is thus littered with stories of abandoned or failed plant projects. A utility company in South Carolina, for instance, recently abandoned a 6-year project[xx] to build a new plant despite having sunk $9 billion into the endeavor.
Is there a future in which nuclear power will be economically competitive? A burgeoning industry in the next generation of reactors suggests it’s possible. Reactors are classified by generation, and most of the world’s reactors belong to Generation II[xxi]. (All 98 nuclear reactors[xxii] operating in the U.S. are Generation II.) A handful of companies, however, are eager to introduce Generation IV reactors. These projects aim to solve the worst problems associated with nuclear energy, from radioactive waste to high costs[xxiii]. While almost all of them are in planning stage[xxiv], experts believe we’re seeing a nuclear renaissance.
That boom will inevitably go bust, however, unless people are comfortable with nuclear power in their backyards. Only two accidents have earned the highest possible grade of severity on the International Atomic Energy Association’s (IAEA) INES[xxv] (International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale).
Chernobyl is one; the other is the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Accident[xxvi], in which 3 Gen II reactors suffered meltdowns after inundated by the 45-feet high tsunami that occurred after the Great East Japan Earthquake[xxvii]. The evacuation order for one of Daiichi’s two host towns (the Japanese version of Pripyat, Okuna) was only lifted this past April[xxviii]—and 60% of the town is still off-limits. The no-go zones in Japan and Ukraine[xxix], the increased cancer rates post-Chernobyl (though exact numbers[xxx] are subject to fierce debate[xxxi]), and the $1.6 billion expense[xxxii] for the “New Safe Confinement” shelter to protect the aging sarcophagus at Chernobyl are stark reminders of the consequences when nuclear power goes awry.
Most nuclear power plants operate safely and provide low-carbon energy. If things do go wrong, however, the impact is massive—and that is why nuclear energy remains so controversial. It remains to be seen whether governments and their citizens will consider the risks worth the benefits.
[viii] Drawdown, 19.
[x] Drawdown, 21.
[xii] Drawdown, 21.
[xiii] Drawdown, 19.
[xviii] Drawdown, 19.