Nuclear power is perhaps one of the most misunderstood forms of energy production currently in existence. Many people consider nuclear power to be a thing of the past and a disaster waiting to happen if a reactor was ever to be built in Australia (where it’s banned).
Interestingly, climate change protestors and many environmentalists are completely against the use of nuclear power despite its benefits, which are numerous. But are the concerns expressed by many across Australia based in fact or fiction? And is nuclear energy a genuinely viable alternative to many current finite forms of energy production in Australia?
A simple explanation of how nuclear power works is needed before we go further. Nuclear energy is the energy stored in the nucleus of an atom and can be obtained via two types of reactions: fission and fusion.
This article, however, will focus on fission primarily, as all nuclear reactors currently in service use fission reactions to generate electricity. Fission produces energy through the splitting of atoms. This process leads to the release of heat energy which is used to generate steam that then turns a turbine, producing electricity. And the fuel that is most commonly used in fission reactions is uranium, however other elements such as plutonium and thorium can also be used.
Currently, around 450 nuclear reactors provide 11% of the world’s electricity. In order of the largest producers, the countries that generate the largest amounts of nuclear power are the US, France, China, Russia, and South Korea. These countries have utilised nuclear power for decades with the production of only minuscule amounts of greenhouse gases and very few complications.
The benefits of nuclear power are numerous. Although, as mentioned above, nuclear reactors produce no greenhouse gases, other greenhouse gases that can be attributed to nuclear power include those emitted by the mining of uranium, various stages of the fuel’s development, transport through all stages and reactor decommissioning. However, even these greenhouse gas emissions are minimal, with one study finding these emissions are roughly the same per kilowatt-hour (kWh) as wind power.
Energy production methods such as wind and solar still can’t provide enough baseload electricity to meet the demands of the world. Fortunately though, nuclear power is the most reliable form of energy production currently in existence anywhere in the world. In the US, nuclear reactors operated at full capacity more than 92% of the time in 2018. And this is not limited to just the US; many other countries that rely heavily on nuclear power also regularly experience reliability rates as high as 90%.
Contrary to what you might have heard, nuclear power actually releases less radiation into the environment that any other major energy source and is among the safest of all forms of energy production technologies. Interestingly, a by-product of coal production called ‘fly ash’ is actually the major source of radioactive releases into the environment.
Currently, the two greatest concerns regarding nuclear-sourced power are the risk of accidents and what should happen to the leftover nuclear waste. Both concerns are met with real, possible, viable answers.
Firstly, how can an accident be almost guaranteed not to occur?
In total, since the beginning of the use of nuclear power, there have been three large-scale accidents involving nuclear reactors: Three-Mile Island (US), Chernobyl (Ukraine) and Fukushima (Japan). The Three-Mile Island accident was a partial meltdown in 1979 that only released a minimal quantity of radiation. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission stated this (post the accident):
“The approximately 2 million people
around TMI-2 during the accident are estimated to have received an average
radiation dose of only about 1 millirem above the usual background dose. To put
this into context, exposure from a chest X-ray is about 6 millirem and the
area’s natural radioactive background dose is about 100-125 millirem per year
for the area. The accident’s maximum dose to a person at the site boundary
would have been less than 100 millirem above background.”
As a result of this partial meltdown, stricter regulations were put into place immediately, which changed the entire industry.
The Chernobyl disaster is, without a doubt, the worst nuclear accident ever. 29 relief workers died as a result of high doses of radiation exposure in the aftermath. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) concluded that there were no long-term health consequences to people exposed to the Chernobyl fallout, with the exception of thyroid cancers in children who drank milk contaminated with iodine-131 and were not evacuated. By 2008, UNSCEAR had attributed 15 deaths to this cancer.
Furthermore, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was found to have had safety measures intentionally disabled and also to have purposefully ignored hazards that had been identified prior to the disaster.
The Fukushima disaster in Japan, in 2011, occurred as a result of a large earthquake followed by a tsunami which flooded the power supply and cooling systems of three reactors, causing a meltdown and the reactors to explode. This led to the formation of a 12-mile exclusion zone around the plant and the evacuation of 154,000 people. According to a report submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2011, however, there was no major public exposure, let alone any death from radiation.
Finally, this brings us to the issue of nuclear waste disposal. In the US, it’s estimated that current technological advancements mean that more than 90% of nuclear waste could be recycled to extend the production of electricity by hundreds of years. However, some waste will inevitably need to be stored or disposed of.
Currently, much of the world’s nuclear waste is stored in impenetrable concrete and steel casks within operational reactors, with its radiation slowly declining. But this isn’t the only form of storage. The US-based Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico stores low-level and military derived nuclear waste in a 2-kilometre thick bed of crystalline salt. The WIPP also possesses the potentiality of storing the world’s nuclear waste for the next thousand years.
Permanent repositories for nuclear waste are being improved yearly and with the potential of recycling nuclear waste, the total amount of radioactive material will be reduced significantly.
Currently, Australia is the third largest supplier of uranium to the world’s reactors, which is estimated to save the equivalent of over 280 million tonnes of CO₂ emissions from being produced – another reason why nuclear power should be considered as a form of energy production in Australia. Also, nuclear reactors would fit well into current infrastructure and energy grids in use in Australia.
Nuclear power isn’t a perfect form of energy production that possesses no risks, and I genuinely hope no one gets that impression after reading this article. It does have risks, as does every coal plant, wind farm and solar farm. What’s important is mitigating those risks and understanding the issues without letting prejudices and biases cloud our judgement.