Shadow of war throws new focus on nuclear energy

One source of near-zero carbon for energy production that is often overlooked and excluded from serious consideration is that of nuclear energy. In ordinary circumstances this might be understandable, but in a dire climate emergency, I find it baffling that anyone serious about this issue would peremptorily dismiss nuclear without first subjecting it to detailed ongoing assessment. I wrote about this conundrum in the Business Post in May.

WE HUMANS are notoriously poor judges of risk. It’s a design quirk in an ancient brain system that served our ancestors well on the Serengeti but is woefully inadequate to deal with the deluge of complex and often contradictory danger signs and signals we face in the modern world.
Most of us instinctively fear flying, yet statistically, it is far safer than driving. In the 12 months following the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York in 2001, an additional 1,600 road deaths were recorded in the US as more people chose driving over flying. This is almost half the total fatalities in the attack itself.

For many people, nuclear power conjures up an instinctive fear reaction. Isn’t it dangerous? What if it blows up? What about the radiation? In the last 40 years or so there have been two major nuclear accidents – Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 – yet the total death toll from these and all other nuclear incidents is less than 50. In the same period, tens of millions have died as a direct result of fossil fuel burning.

In 2006, then German chancellor (and physicist) Angela Merkel declared: “I will always consider it absurd to shut down technologically safe nuclear power plants that don’t emit CO2.” Just five years later, the absurd became real as Germany, in a knee-jerk response to the Fukushima incident, set about shutting down its 17 nuclear plants.

As of now, only three remain operational, and these are slated to be decommissioned by the end of 2022. A study on the social costs of that decision found that it has imposed an annual $12 billion in pollution costs, as well as leading directly to an extra 1,100 deaths a year from air pollution in Germany, which has replaced nuclear energy with new coal, gas and lignite-burning power plants. And this is of course before the climate impacts of this “absurd” decision are tallied.

Across the EU, nuclear power stations in 13 states generated 26 per cent of total electricity in 2019. Globally, around 10 per cent of total electricity production is from nuclear, rising to 18 per cent in the richer OECD countries.

A paper published by NASA’s Goddard Institute in 2013 found that in recent decades, some 1.8 million lives have been saved globally as a result of replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power, and it has prevented the release of 64 billion tonnes of carbon emissions. The study projected an additional seven million lives being saved in the next four decades if nuclear were to displace fossil fuels on a wider scale.

An ironic footnote to the Fukushima incident occurred one year later, when the power plant operator, TEPCO admitted it had failed to take necessary safety measures, such as disaster-proofing its emergency diesel generators, largely for fear of inviting lawsuits or protests against its nuclear plants.

The environmental and anti-war movement share a common heritage, as seen in the title of the international organisation, Greenpeace. Cold War anxiety about the very real threat of nuclear obliteration became conflated with antipathy to nuclear power.

The oil shocks of the 1970s led to a partial re-think. France embarked on an ambitious plan to build a fleet of domestic nuclear power stations that would reduce its strategic dependence on oil from volatile regions. Today, it has 56 operational power stations that produce over 70 per cent of its domestic electricity. You have likely never heard the name of any French nuclear power station, as they are well run and remarkably uncontroversial.

Half a century later, the shock of a major war in Europe has once again thrown the spotlight on energy security. Germany’s rash decision to scrap its nuclear power plants has increased its worrying dependence on Russian gas imports.

Politically, the green movement has been the most consistent opponent of nuclear energy. There are signs this monolithic approach may be changing. In Finland, where 30 per cent of its electricity is from nuclear, the Green Party in 2020 modified its blanket opposition to nuclear power. It is now offering conditional support for so-called small modular reactors. This is an emerging technology with a good safety profile and are expected to be far quicker to deploy than traditional large nuclear power plants.

Ireland’s plans to build a nuclear plant at Carnsore Point in Wexford in the late 1970s were scuppered by a strong anti-nuclear protest movement led by activists and musicians such as Christy Moore. As a result of this pyrrhic victory, the giant coal-burning plant at Moneypoint was commissioned instead.

The Electricity Regulation Act, 1999 went a step further and prohibited the production of electricity for the Irish national grid by nuclear fission. Despite this bizarre ban, Ireland now imports nuclear power via the interconnector to Britain, and this will increase when the French interconnector becomes active.

Ireland has ambitious plans to both expand and simultaneously decarbonise electricity production to cater for an upsurge in heat pumps, electric vehicles and data centres in the decade ahead. Offshore wind holds out huge promise, but a grid with a large percentage of renewables still needs to be balanced by an “always-on” energy source.

For a truly zero-carbon grid, the final 20 per cent or so of “baseload” energy could be provided via one or more smaller nuclear power stations, and these would have the added benefit of improving our indigenous energy security. Ireland’s first commercial solar farm was recently opened and it now harvests energy from nuclear fusion in the sun.

Imagined fear of the nuclear power bogeyman has in recent weeks given way to fears of being captive to real-life bogeymen like Putin. South Korea has recently dropped plans to phase out its nuclear plants, while US president Joe Biden has earmarked $6 billion in new funding to extend the life of existing plants facing closure.

In an ideal world, we could achieve all our total energy needs purely from renewables, but in the real world, this is impossible. Given the overwhelming gravity of the climate emergency, we need to set aside our prejudices and preconceptions and do an honest, rigorous assessment of all available clean energy solutions. And yes, that includes nuclear.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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