from the word “nucleus” which means the most central and important part of an object. This is of course because nuclear energy was discovered after experimenting with reactions of uranium atoms and neutrons¹. But it is interesting to think that just as the reaction that creates nuclear energy is found in the nucleus of uranium atoms, the controversy over the continued use of nuclear energy is at the core of practically any discussion about it. There is endless debate around the pros and cons of nuclear energy; and this article aims to get at the core of those too!
As with every public policy debate, it is important to acknowledge some undisputable facts. Decisions are never made in a vacuum; and in the case of nuclear energy the context has perhaps been particularly influential in getting government and other investors to back or not the development of nuclear power reactors. So perhaps it makes sense to talk about the pros and cons of nuclear energy in the context of today’s challenges.
The first thing to acknowledge is the fact that our world relies on energy both in terms of volume but also in terms of needing a constant stream of energy to function. It also needs to be affordable so both governments and people can access it. It is important to remember that even today, about 1.2 billion people—nearly as many as the entire population of India—still live without access to electricity². What is more, while energy demand is stable in some places in the world, in others it has risen exponentially over the last few decades. For example, in China energy consumption increased by 600% over the last 20 years³. So in response to the question where can we find affordable, reliable and constant or potentially increasing volumes of energy, nuclear energy provides some clear wins.
Nuclear power produces inexpensive electricity as the cost of uranium, used as a fuel in this process, is low. Having said that, setting up nuclear power plant is expensive and to recover cost and investment the plant needs to run for several years and decades. The normal life of nuclear reactor is anywhere from 40-60 years and once set up it provides a constant stream of energy⁴. This is an important consideration when compared with the potential disruptions in the energy supply that full reliance on renewables could bring about given today’s technology. At the same time, the high investment needed to build a nuclear reactor means that to make this a viable investment, the reactor will need to run for several decades which risks locking a country’s energy supply to one particular energy source and technology.
Compare to other sources of energy, particularly non-renewable alternatives, nuclear energy is more efficient. In other words, the amount of fuel required to power a nuclear plant is comparatively less than what is required to power other plants. Energy released by nuclear fission is approximately ten million times greater than the amount of energy released by a fossil fuel atom⁴.
Uranium of course is a non-renewable resource and as such can be depleted. As reassuring as estimates that with the current rate of consumption of uranium it could last for another 70-80 years, this does not provide as long-term a future for our energy supply as we would wish for⁴. So a major drawback to nuclear energy is the potential that it will not be around in a century or so given a lack of uranium. Renewable energy does not face a similar constraint.
But proponents of nuclear energy would argue that despite the potential future shortages, it is still worth investing in nuclear energy today. They would argue that nuclear energy is one of the few forms of energy that has such a low environmental impact. And this is a potent argument indeed, not only due to the need to address climate change and its catastrophic impacts but because we also need clean air, water and land. Given that nuclear energy stations do not produce air pollutants or greenhouse gases when they generate electricity, this makes them an attractive choice to radically reducing CO2 emissions and curbing climate change. There is also evidence that the life-cycle emissions from nuclear energy are comparable to other non-emitting sources of electricity like wind, solar and hydropower⁵.
But, it is also not the full story. One of the major concerns with nuclear energy is the waste. Both in terms of the by-products and waste generated by the process of making nuclear energy but also the disposal of plants after they have completed their life-cycle. It is estimated that a nuclear power plant creates 20 metric tons of nuclear fuel per year, and with that comes a lot of nuclear waste which is usually processed and buried in specialised containers in the Earth. Given the slow rate at which radioactive levels decay, this does not seem like a sustainable way forward.
What is more, the extraction of uranium in the first place is not a clean process. Transporting it also represents a pollution hazard which of course is linked to one of the biggest concerns regarding nuclear energy; namely ensuring it is safe to operate and use given the potential for accidents which can seriously harm people and the environment. For example, the Chernobyl accident of 1986 in Ukraine was the worst nuclear accident in history. Its harmful effects can still be seen today. More recently, there was another accident that happened in Fukushima in Japan. Although the casualties were not as high, it caused serious environmental concerns.
So the picture is far from black and white: there are certainly many arguments for and against nuclear energy but they are often tainted by the bigger challenges we have to face. Ultimately the question is whether nuclear energy can help us reach a more sustainable future. Is nuclear energy an interim solution that can help us reduce emissions while we seek to invest in better technology for renewables? Or will nuclear energy lock us into investing in nuclear power plants for years at the cost of developing other more efficient and environmentally-friendly energy technologies?