Moving away from America’s horrific use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war, President Eisenhower of the US delivered his ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech in 1953, to the UN. Three years later, the world’s first full-scale, civil nuclear power plant opened in the UK. Reactors soon began springing up in numerous countries, as early nuclear power brought promise of a new age.
Yet despite the improved performance of nuclear electricity production, the number of reactors around the world have stagnated, since the late 1980s. Though, the world is not homogenous in how it uses nuclear power. New reactor openings are concentrated in China and Russia.
Is nuclear going to fade away into thin air?
In Western Europe, there is a mixed picture. In France, its use is substantial, yet neighbour Germany is undergoing a nuclear phase-out. Across the channel, the UK government stresses its commitment to nuclear, having had no new reactor opened since 1995.
Nuclear power provides reliable, low-carbon electricity, a crucial element to tackling climate change. Its decade-old usage has saved the world two years’ worth of output of CO2. However, its decline, as solar and wind capacity soars, has kept low-carbon electricity generation down at 36% of the total in 2018. That is the same as 20 years prior. Like the vapour plumes from cooling towers, is nuclear going to fade away into thin air?
France’s commitment to nuclear power is deep-rooted. From the beaches of Normandy to the rolling hills of rural France, nuclear power stations are highly prevalent across the country. In 2020, 67% of generated electricity came from nuclear in the country, by far, the highest in the world.
Air pollution in France is much lower than other European nations
Électricité de France (EDF) is a majority state-owned company responsible for the management all the country’s reactors. It is also responsible for the Flamanville 3 project, the only new reactor under construction, which has undergone delays and spiraling costs. These problems were less prevalent for France in the 1970s, when their nuclear power ambitions stepped up.
The Messmer Plan gave nuclear power the spotlight in a France with low fossil fuel reserves, in the wake of the oil crisis of 1973. Costs were minimised. By doing so, the country became self-reliant, reducing energy imports. This is a positive reason for nuclear power amongst the public. Together with effective advertising campaigns, and even tours of nuclear plants offered, French support for nuclear power is high.
In addition to this, air pollution in France is much lower than other European nations. This is because nuclear, in part, has reduced the need to burn fossil fuels for power. Fossil fuels not only release CO2, but also sulfur dioxide and other pollutants. By having nuclear power for decades, not only are CO2 emissions saved from release, but lives are also saved.
Pollutants released from fossil fuel combustion, cause and aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. A study calculated that between 1971 and 2009, 1.84 million lives were saved globally due to nuclear power use instead of fossil fuel combustion for energy.
The French government plans to reduce electricity generation from nuclear down to 50% of the total by 2035. This is to both to reduce ‘major hazards’, and diversify energy sources, indicating a shift to increasing renewables such as solar and wind.
Just before France, across the channel in 1956, the first full-scale, civil nuclear power station in the world was opened, Calder Hall, in then Cumberland by The Queen. Today, about 17% of the UK’s electricity is generated through nuclear, down from a peak of 28% in 1997. Half of the UK’s nuclear capacity is to be retired by 2025, and EDF’s Hinkley Point C is the only station under construction.
Greenpeace’s website calls Hinkley Point C ‘the most expensive object on Earth’, at a cost of up to £25 billion. Like Flamanville 3, it too has been riddled with delays. Cost has had major implications on new reactor projects, with three proposed plants scrapped in 2018 and ‘19.
Hundreds of millions of pounds of investment are directed towards Small Modular Reactors and Advanced Modular Reactors
Despite this, two other projects with EDF, and Chinese state-owned CGN, plan to go forward. Sizewell C in Suffolk, almost identical to Hinkley Point C, could start construction soon. Bradwell B, also similar, is in public consultation stages. Each of these power stations could provide reliable, low-carbon electricity of up to 7% of the UK’s demand, for 60 years.
In the government’s ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ issued last November, hundreds of millions of pounds of investment are directed towards Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and Advanced Modular Reactors (AMRs) research and development. These are new breeds of reactors that could help decarbonise more than just electricity generation and reduce construction costs, due to their smaller size.
Finally, a report issued by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) from last March, states that the greatest concern about nuclear power in the UK is nuclear waste. The Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) describe that waste has been successfully processed at Sellafield in Cumbria for over half a century. Though, long-term storage locations deep underground still need to be found, both Finland and Sweden have undergone successful consultations for locations.
Nuclear power has a death rate of just 0.07 per TWh produced
In Germany, a phaseout of nuclear power has been on the table for decades. Nuclear power’s fate was sealed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had u-turned in favour of the phaseout by 2022. This was following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster caused by an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, in 2011. It shares a Level 7 classification, the highest possible, on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), only with Chernobyl.
Nuclear disasters have been a reason to oppose nuclear power use. They cause immense panic, worldwide headlines, exclusion zones and deaths. However, with all the disasters, nuclear power has a death rate of just 0.07 per TWh produced. This is very much below fossil fuels. Gas at 2.82, oil at 18.4 and coal 24.6 deaths, shows that fossil fuel usage not only contributes greatly to climate change, but is also causing a high number of deaths.
To make up for the gap in electricity generation left by closing nuclear power plants, Germany used coal temporarily. An estimate of $12 billion is the social cost of replacing nuclear for coal, of which 70% comes from premature, avoidable deaths per year.
Nuclear power is not popular in Germany. However, to appease the public with a phaseout, the German government had to contend with nuclear power plant owning companies in court. On the 5th of March, the constitutional court ruled against the government, which must now pay $2.86 billion to Vattenfall, Eon, RWE, and EnBW as compensation for financial losses, due to the closures.
it has arguably saved lives and has undoubtably reduced CO2 emissions since its conception back in the 1950s
Nuclear power is a low-carbon source of electricity generation, available reliably when the ‘wind does not blow, and sun does not shine’. It is shrouded with fear of disasters, links to nuclear weapons, and escalating delays and costs. Although, it has arguably saved lives and has undoubtably reduced CO2 emissions since its conception back in the 1950s.
Nuclear power has played a valuable part to the energy mix. It may never regain its hype and promise of new age, following tragic disasters. However, new innovations with nuclear may be around the corner. With SMRs, AMRs, and possibly even nuclear fusion decades into the future, nuclear power is not over and out just yet.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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