9. Nov, 2018

Nuclear energy a solution for global warming?

 Confronted with the decline in nuclear power worldwide, nuclear industry leaders and their political and media allies are trying to impose the idea that this technology is an appropriate and indispensable solution to fight climate change. Nuclear power can make a vital contribution to meeting climate change targets while delivering the increasingly large quantities of electricity needed for global economic development, according to a new IAEA report. With electricity demand expected to rise sharply in the coming years as countries need more power for development,” said IAEA Deputy Director General Mikhail Chudakov, Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy. “If nuclear power deployment doesn’t expand in line with this scenario, the other technologies may not fill the gap—and we may not meet our climate target.  Even in Holland, the country of tulips, green meadows and clean water, often seen as an ideal candidate for exploiting green energy in the form of building more windmills, the political climate seems to be changing.  

Dutch parliament majority now also seems in favor of nuclear power plants. Conservative parties in Holland seem to like the idea to build more nuclear power plants to fight global warming.  This concerns the party for Freedom (PVV), the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the Forum for Democracy (FvD) and VVD. The Green and Social-liberal parties still say no to nuclear energy expansion. Surprisingly, even intellectuals with a leftish profile (cognitive psychologist and writer of bestsellers Steven Pinker is a recent example) are now ready to embrace ''ecomodernism', that is accepting nuclear energy as the last resort for saving the world from environmental destruction and poverty. 

But how realistic are the current predictions made by proponents of nuclear energy?  For example in France, a country that beats the world record with producing 75% of its electricity from nuclear power, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are four times too high to reach the climatic objectives. In 2014, fossil fuels still accounted for more than half of the country’s primary energy consumption.  So even with a drastic increase in electricity from nuclear power, fossil burning by industries,  households,  automobiles and aircraft will likely continue, instead of  replacing fossil burning. And apart from the enormous costs involved in building safe nuclear plants, storing reactor  waste, dismantling  and replacing the current unsafe older plants, there are more problems to look at.

It has often been argued that  like wind, solar and hydro electricity, nuclear produces far less GHG than coal or petrol. But critical minds have also  pointed to  negative factors for the environment such as  dumping of millions of gallons of warm water in the oceans, radioactive pollution of beaches and water near nuclear plants,  and reactors using huge quantities of steam and water vapor that also warm the atmosphere.  It has been argued that every nuclear generating station spews about two thirds of the energy  it burns inside its reactor core into the environment. Only one-third is converted into electricity. 

The mining and enrichment of uranium; the manufacturing, transport and reprocessing of nuclear fuel rods and waste; the building and dismantling of the reactors. At every step, nuclear energy produces greenhouse gas (GHG).  The problem of disposal of high-level reactor wastes has proven to be much less of a relatively simple problem than has been argued by nuclear lobbyists. And what about floods and forest fires? Which now seem to become an increasing threat of climate change and may damage even the more solidly built nuclear plants. The bottom line (in my view) is  NOT to be tempted by nuclear lobbyists, who most likely are motivated by the perspectives of new markets, and not by what is best to save the environment. For the next decades, it would be wiser to stimulate electricity as an energy source in private cars and public transport. This would certainly help to improve the air quality in our big cities, although it would still depend on fossil energy plants. Discouraging further growth of international airports and air traffic, as long as kerosine remains their major energy source. would be a very crucial step, but unfortunately not easily taken by national governments still depending on the major airports. A clean environment will also ask sacrifices,  of which the increasing prices of air tickets or gasoline, may be hard to digest for those living on a low budget.