Hyperbole bordering on hysteria has misinformed the debate about nuclear energy and obscured the facts. We have decades of data that clearly indicate nuclear is both safe and clean. The dangers have been wildly exaggerated and solutions to legitimate concerns like waste management have not received the attention they deserve.
What are the Dangers of Nuclear Power?
The process of generating nuclear energy creates mutagenic gamma rays, which are a penetrating form of electromagnetic radiation that damage tissue and ionizes DNA. These high-energy photons must be contained or shielded by the design of the reactor and waste storage facilities to prevent harmful impacts on living organisms. In nuclear reactors, radiation becomes a problem when there is an accident that prevents cooling, this can lead to fires and explosions that break the containment seal.
While nuclear power plants can be targeted by terrorists and radioactive material can be used to build a dirty bomb, there is no way a nuclear reactor can explode like a nuclear weapon. That is because nuclear fuel is not enriched beyond five percent whereas weapons-grade uranium requires much higher levels of enrichment. However, peaceful nuclear energy can be a prelude to a first-stage nuclear weapons program.
Nuclear plants are also a danger in wartime as illustrated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the first day of the war, Russian troops took control of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, and a week later, Russian troops began shelling Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine.
Natural disasters like earthquakes and tidal waves can lead to accidents at nuclear power plants. Climate-related extreme weather events also pose a danger as illustrated by the wildfires that recently drew dangerously close to the Chornobyl nuclear power plant and even closer to the Vector nuclear waste storage facility. The most serious danger associated with nuclear energy may be the issue of waste management.
What is the Nuclear Energy Waste Problem?
Some German officials have argued that the waste problem excludes nuclear as a sustainable energy solution. “We’re talking about a very toxic, highly radioactive waste, which is producing problems for the next tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years. And we’re directing this problem, when using nuclear power, to future generations,” said Christoph Hamann, an official at Germany’s federal office for nuclear waste management.
The nuclear energy waste problem is about finding ways to properly secure radioactive materials such as spent reactor fuel and uranium mill tailings. Over 30 countries currently manage several hundred thousand tons of nuclear waste including tens of thousands of tonnes of spent fuel much of which is kept in water storage ponds.
Present-day waste management efforts are inadequate and there is a lack of clear strategic planning. This concern is even more prescient as we increase our nuclear power capacity. A recent PNAS study indicates that small modular reactors (SMRs), often portrayed as the future of nuclear power, will generate even more waste than traditional nuclear reactors.
A comparative assessment of waste from different energy sources reveals that nuclear power is less of a problem than it may seem. Nuclear energy generates only a tiny fraction of the waste generated by fossil fuels. The waste generated by coal and oil is also far more lethal. Even if we ignore the issue of air pollution, the waste generated by the coal industry in one hour is equivalent to all the waste produced by nuclear power in the last 60 years. Even renewable energy generates substantially more waste than nuclear. The volume of nuclear waste is 1/10,000th that of solar and 1/500th of wind. While nuclear waste remains dangerous for very long periods of time, toxic heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, and chromium, found in the chemical waste of wind and solar remain dangerous forever.
There are safe ways of storing nuclear waste and governments are beginning to take action. Recently the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta released a joint strategic nuclear energy plan that includes waste management. The U.S. has proposed a safe waste management plant that includes the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, however, it was shelved due to public resistance. According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. generates about 2,000 metric tons of used fuel each year and a total of 83,000 metric tons since the 1950s. Used fuel is stored at almost 80 sites in 34 U.S. states including the 600-meter deep Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Waste is either enclosed in steel-lined concrete pools of water or in steel and concrete containers (dry storage casks). Over the last 55 years, more than 2,500 cask shipments of used fuel have been transported across the United States without any radiological releases. While nuclear waste is safely transported, there is no safe way to transport fossil fuels.
Finland is opening what may be a model nuclear waste storage facility on the island of Olkiluoto. The facility known as Onkalo is a spent fuel repository that has been called a “game-changer” by the IAEA. What makes this project unique is that it is the world’s first working example of a geological disposal facility. At the Onkalo facility, nuclear waste is stored in corrosion-resistant containers (copper and bentonite clay casings containing argon gas), 1,400 feet underground in bedrock that has been static for a billion years.
We are also seeing game-changing approaches to the management of nuclear waste that include repurposing it as fuel. Reactors can be run on nuclear waste in a scenario that would make today’s nuclear waste tomorrow’s fuel. More than 90 percent of its potential energy still remains in the fuel, even after five years of operation in a reactor so used nuclear fuel can be recycled to make new fuel and byproducts. Although the U.S. does not recycle used nuclear fuel, thousands of tons of spent fuel have been recycled in France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, and India. Fast reactors use nuclear waste as fuel and according to Jess C. Gehin at the Idaho National Laboratory, the nuclear waste in the U.S. alone could power the entire country for a century. According to CNBC, Oklo is an example of a startup that is working to make micro-nuclear reactors that run on nuclear waste from conventional reactors.
Even if we ignore these solutions and do not definitively solve the waste problem to everyone’s satisfaction, nuclear power may still be worth it. As explained by professor Anthony J. Evans from ESCP Business School, “the waste products produced by nuclear energy may well be a price worth paying for a realistic means to meet climate change targets.”
Finally, we need to consider the possibility that in the near future nuclear waste may be far less of a problem than it is today thanks to nuclear fusion.
Is Energy Production from Nuclear Plants Clean?
Nuclear energy is clean energy because it does not emit carbon (CO2) or other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is increasingly being cast as a climate-conscious replacement for fossil fuel-powered electricity which is currently responsible for a quarter of all climate change-causing GHGs.
Although nuclear energy produces no GHGs the mining process to procure uranium does emit GHGs. The mining of uranium can also expose workers to radiation, cause radioactive contamination of wilderness areas, destroy habitats and adversely impact Indigenous communities. However, when evaluated from a life cycle perspective (including mining), recently released Japanese research published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, found that nuclear energy releases fewer GHGs and uses fewer resources than most other sources of power. According to a review of the study in Mining.com, “natural resource use of nuclear power generation was similar to that of renewable energy and significantly lower than that of thermal power generation…Along with lower GHG emissions, nuclear power generation also used fewer natural resources, making it an environmentally favorable source of power generation.”
Nuclear power is a clean source of energy but it is not renewable. Uranium U3O8 (aka yellowcake) is used to power most nuclear plants. Most of the known recoverable uranium resources are in 4 countries (Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, and Russia). The finite amount of uranium in the world means that fission reactors are a non-renewable form of energy. At current rates of consumption, known uranium deposits will last 100 years, however, fusion and breeder reactors could exponentially expand the lifespan of nuclear fuel.
Is Nuclear Energy Safe?
There have been seven major accidents in reactors or facilities dealing with nuclear waste. Concerns about nuclear energy have primarily been fueled by three highly publicized accidents. Two of these accidents rendered land areas in Ukraine and Japan unfit for human habitation.
The first nuclear accident occurred in 1957 when the UK’s most advanced nuclear reactor project caught fire in the small village of Seascale. However, this is not among the three nuclear accidents that have stymied atomic power. In 1979, Three-mile Island lost cooling at its nuclear facility and even though there was no major release of radioactive material, the film China Syndrome painted an apocalyptic picture of nuclear energy that swayed public opinion.
The 1986 incident in Chornobyl was the worst nuclear reactor accident in history. The meltdown of the core occurred when safety systems were disabled to perform tests, this caused overheating and an explosion killed 50 to 100 people. It is estimated that the radiation released will cause anywhere from 1,000s to 10,000 deaths over the next 50 years. In 2011 the Fukushima reactor core melted down in the wake of a tidal wave. This caused a failure in cooling systems and resulted in a hydrogen explosion that released radiation into the air and seawater. There were no immediate deaths from the explosion, however, it may contribute to as many as 180 additional cancer deaths worldwide. Non-cancer deaths related to the Fukushima disaster are estimated to be around 2,200, this includes those caused by evacuation stress, interruption to medical care, and suicide. While any loss of life is tragic, the number of deaths from nuclear energy is dwarfed by the millions killed by fossil fuels each year (8.7 million globally in 2018).
Fear of nuclear power is unwarranted. It is not hyperbole to say that nuclear power saves lives. A 2013 NASA study found that nuclear power has saved around 1.8 million lives and the number of lives saved has undoubtedly increased in the last 9 years.
Nuclear energy ranks last in death per energy unit produced (terawatt hours) according to the Wall Street Journal. Even if we exclude the civilization-altering threat of climate change, fossil fuels, especially coal is by far the leading cause of energy-related death. According to Our World in Data, Nuclear energy has caused 99 percent fewer deaths than coal power generation. Despite the hype, nuclear power is among the safest forms of energy in the world. Along with renewables, nuclear reactors have the lowest per kilowatt death rate of any energy source. Coal kills 2,000 to 3,000 times more people than nuclear, and oil claims 400 times as many lives.
The statistical probability of an accident is 4 per million years. According to research from the American Institute of Physics (Bodansky, 1996), there is a 1.3 percent chance of a nuclear accident and a less than one in a million chance per reactor that there will be a single fatality from cancer. Conversely, fossil fuels silently spew toxic waste into the air we breathe every day causing or exacerbating respiratory ailments, coronary heart disease, and cancer. The extraction of fossil fuels also makes many people sick and costs many lives.
The Benefits of Nuclear Power Outweigh the Costs
There are many advantages to nuclear energy, it is safe, it is clean and despite its relatively small footprint, it produces vast amounts of power. Nuclear energy can release 1 million times more energy per atom than fossil fuels and it is also much safer. The high energy density of uranium requires far less of it to be mined compared to coal, so it is also far safer than coal from the point of view of the environmental impacts associated with mining.
Nuclear energy causes exponentially fewer deaths and accidents than fossil fuels, it can also help us to minimize a climate catastrophe that would cause millions of additional deaths. By helping us to transition away from fossil fuels, nuclear energy can play a substantial role in the decarbonization of our economies. Nuclear-generated electricity already prevents more than 470 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in the U.S. that would otherwise come from fossil fuels. That is equivalent to taking nearly 100 million passenger vehicles off the road.
According to the World Nuclear Association, the world’s 445 reactors are preventing 2.5 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 emissions from going into the atmosphere every year and UNECE reports that nuclear power has avoided about 74Gt of CO2 over the last half-century. In addition to being safe and clean nuclear energy may be the best hope we have of staving off the worst impacts of climate change. By 2050 nuclear power could avert more than 240Gt of CO2 emissions.
The message appears to be getting through. According to a CNBC article by Catherine Clifford nuclear power is on the verge of a renaissance. As Clifford explained, “despite its fraught origin story and the psychological effect of high-profile accidents, nuclear energy is getting a second look.” Nuclear is emerging as the key to our energy future.