Nuclear power: the ongoing green controversy

A RECIPE FOR DISASTER?

Just over six years ago an earthquake off the coast of Tohoku measuring a whopping 9 on the Richter scale sparked the largest tsunami ever recorded to hit Japan. It struck the coast at Fukushima, causing much destruction, including 15,894 lost lives and major damage to public and private property. The tsunami and earthquake also played large parts in causing the meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Although the meltdown event itself caused no deaths, the radiative aftermath is still being felt across the Pacific ocean and there is still plenty of nuclear waste to be disposed of on site, largely in black bin bags. Earlier this year, robots were sent in to commence the clean-up operation, only to have their circuits fried before being able to start work.

Many people, even in Japan, are unaware just how bad the disaster (and its associated fallout) at Fukushima were. In the present day, nearby residents have been told it is safe to live where radioactivity recordings of 20 milliSieverts per year have been made. Compare this with the notorious Chernobyl disaster, where readings of 1-5 milliSieverts per year led to evacuations. Clearly, it is greatly desirable to avoid such disasters in the future.

One approach to the problem is to upgrade the early-warning systems for an approaching tsunami to make them much more efficient. As my MRes project for MPE CDT I am currently researching how adaptive meshes can be used to improve the efficiency of computations in the numerical modelling of tsunamis, with the Tohoku tsunami as a case study.

Another possible solution is for Japan to review its usage of nuclear power in its energy grid in light of the country’s vulnerability to extreme weather events. This is indeed something which has been done by the Japanese government since the event. However, the problems posed by climate change are making it increasingly important that the world turns away from fossil fuels and toward lower CO2 emitting options.

Provided nuclear power plants can be managed such that meltdowns are highly improbable, many argue we should not abandon this relatively ‘clean’ alternative to fossil fuels, which has the potential to generate vast amounts of electricity.  Nonetheless, much of the environmental movement rejects nuclear power, usually with the opinion it is just too risky. This was something I found particularly clear during the events surrounding COP21 in Paris, 2015, when I accidentally upset quite a few people by showing support for nuclear power.

This controversial issue strikes a strongly dividing line between environmentalists and I am determined to get to the bottom of what exactly drives this. I recognise that this subject is far too vast to be covered in one blog piece and so my intention is merely to start a discussion and see what the possible alternatives might be.

GONE FISSION (SORRY)

There are two ways to extract energy from atoms: split them or fuse them. Nuclear fission corresponds to the former, and is the mode of electricity generation used in plants world over. In a highly controlled, contained atmosphere, heavy atoms such as those of uranium or thorium are split, leading to an enormous amount of atomic energy being released, resulting in extremely high temperatures.

Just as when heat is released from burning coal, gas, oil and biomass fuels, the high temperatures due to nuclear reactions are used to boil water, resulting in steam rising therefrom and turning the turbines which would be turned manually by wind or water in the case of most renewable sources. Thus, the only immediate byproduct of nuclear power is harmless water vapour. But surely some radioactivity somehow ‘leaks’ out of the plant? In fact, a traditional coal-burning plant emits more radioactive materials than a modern nuclear power plant.

fission

After a year or so has elapsed, another byproduct must be removed from the reactor, however: nuclear waste. These byproducts include radioactive isotopes cesium-137, strontium-90 and iodine-131, and are potentially very harmful to humans. Despite this, the nuclear industry is generally very thorough in its safe handling of waste, transporting it in thick, coated containers.

One major proponent of a turn to nuclear power in the face of climate change is James Lovelock, who can be quoted as requesting for the UK government to agree to store a large proportion (but small quantity) of its nuclear waste in a lead-lined box in his back garden (for no price, except the delivery), which he would happily tend to flowers nearby and pose for photos with. The government declined his offer. An alternative fate for nuclear waste stems from recent developments concerning the recycling of nuclear waste, potentially creating simplified waste forms. One possible approach is provided by the newly developed integral fast reactor, which could meet the UK’s energy needs for 500 years through consumption of its nuclear waste stockpile.

The second type of nuclear energy generation, fusion, is a magical world-provider, future-ensurer, climate-change-trivialiser… the power of a star inside a power plant. The process fuses low mass atoms such as hydrogen, under extreme temperatures, to create heavier ones, releasing untold amounts of energy in the process. Unlike fission, this type of energy generation contributes zero nuclear waste, meaning it is both perfectly ‘clean’, and cheap to fuel. There isn’t even any need to go mining for exotic elements, since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.

The issue with fusion, however, is a developmental one. The fact the process requires reactors to be able to reach, and sustain, temperatures on the order of millions of degrees Celsius is not something we can crack easily. Stars are able to contain such unbelievable heat because of their gigantic gravitational field, holding their plasmic entrails within. On Earth, however, we would need to achieve containment within a solid casing. Materials science hasn’t, so far, been able to find anything which could feasibly do this. As such, we aren’t currently able to maintain fusion for more than a few seconds, and the joke goes that our achieving nuclear fusion on a sustainable, useful level is ‘always 20 years away’ from fruition. Perhaps it will indeed turn out to be too good to be true, but surely the only way to ever have the ability to control this dream energy source is through continued investment in the nuclear sector.

RISK VS. EFFICIENCY

Pro-nuclear arguments are largely utilitarian: supporters accept that terrible meltdown events might very occasionally happen, thereby causing environmental damage and severe health risks, but also hold that these concerns are vastly outweighed by the amount of clean electricity generated, as compared with the corresponding greenhouse emissions of fossil fuels which themselves have climate-catastrophic strings attached.

In Lovelock’s book ‘The Revenge of Gaia’, he tabulates the fatalities of workers and public due to different energy-producing industries from 1970 to 1992. The resulting deaths per terawatt year (which is possibly the most utilitarian metric conceivable) of the coal industry is 342, natural gas industry is 85 and hydroelectric industry is 883. The nuclear industry, by contrast, corresponds to only 8 deaths per terawatt year. Some have even argued that, had Japan never adopted nuclear power as a fuel source, many more deaths would have occurred from coal power sources than were caused by the Fukushima event.

Despite the fact nuclear power is extremely efficient, producing vast amounts of electricity from tiny amounts of fuel, we may derive from the fatality statistics that nuclear accidents rarely lead to many deaths. What is not accounted for in this data is the fact that a nuclear meltdown can cause environmental and health-related damage long after the event. Later deaths and severe illnesses can not always be so easily correlated with one particular disaster event. This is an intrinsically difficult thing to quantify, since many, many things in our daily lives are radioactive on some level, from smoke detectors, to rocks… even food.

three-eyed-fish-simpsons

The word clean perhaps isn’t something that immediately springs to mind when someone mentions nuclear power. 20th and 21st century TV and film have more often than not portrayed nuclear power as a ‘dirty’ form of energy – think Mr. Burns’ nuclear power plant in the Simpsons, giving rise to three-eyed fish. However, many studies suggest not just that the nuclear fission process as a whole yields very low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also that nuclear waste is not so much of an issue, when handled properly.

A graph displayed in my previous blog piece illustrates the results of one study which found nuclear power to be less carbon intensive than solar power. That piece also explored the murky origins of rare earth materials found in modern technologies, including renewable power sources, suggesting that there are both ethical issues and shortages. As one might imagine, the mining of uranium isn’t the most ethically responsible either. Upon my accidental upset of a group of environmentalists at COP21, I heard the story of one woman who had spent a lot of time visiting African communities which have been ravaged by the nuclear industry coming in, getting local residents to mine for uranium and going off to generate vast amounts of electricity for the West, leaving very little for the communities to benefit from.

WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

History shows us that competition frequently leads to technological innovation. The space race lead to the invention or development of long distance communication, Velcro, water filters, MRI and CAT scanners. Today, the capitalist system means profit drives tech companies to make wickedly fast, portable, energy-efficient computers, be able to transport an item from warehouse to doorstep in a matter of hours and develop incredibly powerful apps that can, err… make the user have the face of a dog or age by 50 years in live motion. In the same way, warfare has been a major driver of innovation, especially in the fact that nuclear power is only an option for us today because nuclear weapons were brought into existence in 1945.

historyofnucleartesting_header_03

In ‘The Revenge of Gaia’, Lovelock remarks that two of the central fears in the ‘pampered and cosseted developed world’ are cancer and nuclear war, neither of which were in the forefront of people’s minds in times when life expectancy was lower and technology less developed. It is interesting that humanity pushes forward into uncharted territory through innovation and soon becomes utmost afraid of these new things it discovers and invents there (respectively).

The reason for Lovelock’s comment is that, in fearing the horrors of cancer, we should beware of placing too much emphasis on the aftermath of past weapon deployment. The impact of the nuclear bombs dropped in tests and on Japan over the 20th century on the likelihood of our developing cancer is in fact negligible. Following nuclear tests leading to and during the Cold War, enough radioactive material has been carried across the globe by atmospheric and oceanic currents that radioactive substances such as strontium-90 can be found of the teeth of any person on the planet born after 1963. Tests conducted between 1945 and 1980 alone had a total yield of approximately 510 megatons, with atmospheric testing alone accounting for 428 megatons. That is, more than 29,000 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Fear not, however, as the quantities of these substances found in your teeth are so small, and pose such a small risk to your health, that you should be more worried about the radioactivity of certain rocks when on holiday in Wales or Cornwall.

Putting aside, for now, any discussion of the objective morality of possession and potential usage of nuclear weapons, surely now that nuclear fission exists, we could pursue its development without military intentions. An important development in this vein is the discovery of nuclear fuels which cannot be used in missiles. Thorium-based fission uses fuels which are not only much more abundant in the earth’s crust, but crucially un-weaponisable. Great! Now we can build extremely efficient energy sources, even in unstable countries, without worry. Sadly, it hasn’t panned out quite like that. Investment in thorium-based nuclear fission is minuscule. I suspect the reason why is exactly the reason you might think it is so good: you can’t make missiles out of it.

That competition drives innovation so clearly highlights a big issue within the climate change problem: it is difficult to derive any notion of competition from acting in a ‘green’ way. In my opinion, it is crucial that we find ways to make tackling climate change a desirable thing for businesses to do. Kevin Synnott, contributor to this blog, has come up with some good ideas in this direction, many of which are linked intrinsically to climate science communication.

WHITE ELEPHANTS AND OTHER MONEY WASTING SCHEMES

I hope you would agree from what I have discussed above that, in principle, implementation of nuclear power on a large scale might well prove to be an effective means of combatting climate change. This is not to say that all nuclear developments are necessarily a good thing.

1279

In the UK, the government, along with the energy provider EDF Energy and others, are making plans to plough vast sums of taxpayer money into a nuclear facility in Somerset, called Hinkley Point C. This is not the best type of reactor we could build right now and, frankly, its development involves a real waste of potential. The planned reactor is of an outdated, overly-expensive and relatively inefficient 1980’s model. Money would be much better spent on a more up-to-date model, but long-standing funding ties are blocking this from coming into being. There is even evidence to suggest this particular reactor might be unbuildable, as with uncompleted projects of the same type in Olkiluoto, Finland, and Flamanville, Normandy.

As George Monbiot has argued in a recent article, whilst nuclear power provides a path towards a green future, so-called white elephant projects such as Hinkley Point C are not the answer. They give nuclear power a bad name, through expense and risk, and continuation of waste contribution.

As one goes through the list of possible energy sources open before us – fossil fuels, wind power, solar power, biomass-burning, nuclear fission… – it is difficult not to feel a sense that they all have flaws which cannot be ignored, be they ethical, economic, environmental, or some combination thereof. But this makes perfect sense! As Milton Friedman famously said,

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

The idea that we can generate electricity to turn the wheels of human civilisation with absolutely zero cost to the Earth or to ourselves is, when you think about it, rather ridiculous. Assuming that we insist on continuing to have a sustained provision of electricity for our usage, the question is not how to get this for free, but how to obtain it by means which inflict least destruction and which ensure the brightest possible future.

We can debate all day long about whether nuclear power or renewables provide the best solution to the grandest of problems faced by climate change, but in reality the best, clearest approach is the way of reduction. This opinion on energy is gaining traction, with even Peter Wilby of New Statesman showing support in his column last week. Reducing energy requirements not only lessens demand and the consequent emissions, but also means less new infrastructure is needed, less money is spent on both personal and governmental levels, and a simpler, more fulfilling life could be lived by all.

Does that sound like a better world to you? Cutting waste, reducing energy demands and being aware of product origins really isn’t that hard. I whole-heartedly recommend at least trying all three.

[Further myth-busting: here]

[Image sources: header image, fission diagram, fishbomb test, Hinkley C]

2 thoughts on “Nuclear power: the ongoing green controversy

  1. Pingback: Are you imprisoned in Plato’s cave? | Cut waste, not trees (down)

  2. Pingback: Summary of the UK parties on climate change | Cut waste, not trees (down)

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