If we want a low-carbon future, we have to drop our nuclear-phobia
One of the major benefits of nuclear energy is its low carbon footprint. As nuclear energy is produced via nuclear fission rather than chemical burning, it produces no carbon. The only carbon emissions associated with nuclear power is the use of fossil fuels during their construction, mining, fuel processing, maintenance and decommissioning. Globally, nuclear power plants have avoided 64 billion tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere and prevented 580,000 deaths from respiratory diseases. Moreover, nuclear power operates at a higher capacity than renewable energy sources or fossil fuels. For example, in the US in 2016, nuclear power plants – which generated 20% of all electricity – had an average capacity factor of 92.3%, meaning they ran on full power on 336 days of the year. By comparison, hydropower operated at 38% capacity and solar power at 25% capacity. The data suggests that nuclear power is able to both reduce our emissions whilst meeting our energy demand, so why is it not more widespread?
One of the main arguments commonly put against nuclear energy is the risk from radiation. These arguments normally reference one of the three large-scale incidents involving nuclear power reactors: Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania (1979), Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986) and Fukushima in Japan (2011). However, the risks are often exaggerated. In the case of Three Mile Island, a report by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that the additional radiation that residents were exposed to (1 millirem) was less than that of an X-Ray (6 millirem). Chernobyl was much deadlier than Three Mile Island, with 29 deaths, and there were also some long-term consequences: a report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) found an increase in thyroid cancer amongst those who were young at the time of the incident, those who drank contaminated milk and those who were not evacuated. But then, Chernobyl was obviously a very special case (unusual enough to be turned it into a TV series!), which tells us more about the bizarre command-and-control structures of the Soviet Union than about nuclear energy.
Lastly, regarding Fukushima, a report submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency found that there was no major public exposure to radiation following the incident. All of this clearly shows that the dangers from a ‘nuclear fallout’ are not as threatening as they are portrayed to be, particularly when looking at how few deaths there have been from nuclear accidents.
Another source of concern amongst anti-nuclear activists is the risk of nuclear weapons. The argument follows that the more nuclear power plants are built, the greater the threat of nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, this is not true. Nuclear energy and weapons share one main feature: they both involve the release of energy from atomic reactions. However, nuclear weapons require the fusion of two atoms together to catalyse an uncontrolled explosion, whilst nuclear energy involves harnessing the decay of naturally occurring radioactive elements in a slow and controlled reaction, generating heat that turns steam turbines. In other words, yes, “nuclear energy” and “nuclear weapons” both have “nuclear” in their name, but they are otherwise not that similar. We must also consider that the facilities required to create a nuclear weapon exist in only a few countries in the world and are heavily guarded (Shellenberger 2020).
The concern about nuclear waste is another aspect that has prevented us from fully appreciating nuclear energy’s benefits. There is the perception that nuclear waste can be improperly disposed of and leads to the contamination of the surrounding environment. However, in the United States and in other countries, the majority of spent fuel is stored in safe, impenetrable concrete-and-steel dry casks on the grounds of operating reactors with its radiation slowly declining over time. The United States is also home to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the New Mexico desert that could store the entire world’s nuclear waste in a 2-kilometre thick bed of crystalline salt, ensuring that there is no risk to humans. Other countries such as Finland have developed more innovative approaches, as they have carved a permanent repository in granite bedrock in an island in the Baltic Sea to the West of Finland. The disposal of nuclear waste can be done in an efficient and safe manner, as shown by the above examples, and we should not let a misconception on nuclear waste disposal be the reason we disregard nuclear energy altogether.
Lastly, there is the cost of nuclear power plants. A 2007 paper written by D.R. Myddelton highlights the historic failures of administering civilian nuclear energy in the UK throughout the 1950s and 60s, all culminating with a daunting figure of an estimated £32 billion (in 2007 prices) in losses to the British taxpayer. However, Myddleton explicitly states the reasons why Britain’s experience with nuclear power was so disappointing: because of state monopolies and government intervention. To free market sympathisers, this should come as no surprise. It is an argument for subjecting the nuclear energy sector to market forces, not for scrapping it.
We must also consider that although it may be true that the majority of the UK’s 15 active power plants would not have been built without government subsidies, they are there now, and should be put to use. Therefore, whilst it is true that nuclear power plants have historically been associated with going overbudget and being behind schedule, as they have a lifespan of between 40-80 years, the importance of cost overruns declines over time (Shellenberger, 2020). There have also been investments by tech pioneers such as Bill Gates and Peter Thiel in nuclear start-ups whose designs are smaller, faster to build and better suited to compete in the energy market. Over time, more investment into these technologies will provide us with the ability to create cheaper and more efficient nuclear power plants.
The reality of where we are is that we need to reduce our carbon emissions whilst satisfying the energy demands of 7 billion people, and one of the few energy sources that can do both effectively is nuclear power. In the future, the British government should resist interventionist temptations in the nuclear energy industry to avoid making the same mistakes it did in the past. The best approach is to deregulate (whilst maintaining appropriate safety measures in place) and allow the free market to maximise its efficiency. Only when the world realises there is a safe and free-market compatible future with nuclear power can we start to maximise its true potential.
Roberto White is a research intern at the Institute of Economic Affairs, and a Politics student at the University of Warwick.