Nuclear power is being touted as a proven and safe way to generate clean energy, but why isn't it more widely used?
Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images
As the world advances towards its goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, nuclear power is being touted as a way to bridge the energy gap – but some, like Greenpeace, have expressed skepticism and warned they have “no place in a safe, secure… future”. clean, sustainable future.”
Nuclear energy is not only clean. It is reliable and overcomes the intermittent nature of renewable energies such as wind, hydro and solar.
“How do you provide cheap, reliable and pollution-free energy in a world of 8 billion people? Nuclear power is really the only scalable version of that, renewables aren't reliable,” Michael Shellenberger, founder of environmental organization Environmental Progress, told CNBC.
Governments have started pouring money into the sector after years of ‘walking in the water'. according to a Schroders report of 8 August.
According to the report, 486 nuclear reactors are planned, planned or under construction as of July, representing 65.9 billion watts of electrical output — the highest amount of electrical output under construction the industry has seen since 2015.
Just a few years ago, the The International Energy Agency had warned that nuclear power was “at risk of future decline.” The 2019 report stated at the time that “nuclear power is starting to weaken, power plants are closing and new investment is sluggish, just as the world needs more low-carbon electricity.”
Schroders noted that not only is nuclear power scalable, but it is also much cleaner – emitting just 10-15 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour. This is competitive with both wind and solar power and far better than coal and natural gas.
According to Schroders, nuclear power is also the second largest source of low-carbon energy after hydroelectric power, more than wind and solar power combined.
Shellenberger believes that renewable energy is reaching its limits in many countries. For example, hydropower is not viable in all countries and those that do have hydropower are ‘siphoned off', meaning they can no longer use any other land or water resources for that purpose.
Nuclear energy is a great alternative because it generates “very little waste, is easy to manage, does no harm to anyone and has very low costs if you keep building the same type of power plants,” he added.
That's why nations are reconsidering nuclear power, Shellenberger said. “That's because renewable energy can't get us where we need to go. And countries want to be fossil fuel free.”
Even if the tragedies of Chernobyl and Fukushima cannot be forgotten, the use of nuclear energy is one of the safest methods of generating energy, even considering the need to store nuclear waste.
“Many of them [storage facilities] are heavily protected. You are protected against earthquakes, tornadoes and much more. But there's a reason there hasn't been any significant tragedy or concern surrounding nuclear waste storage.”
Shellenberger said, “Twelve years after Fukushima, we're getting better and better at running these facilities. They're more efficient, they're safer, we're better educated.”
There were new designs for nuclear power plants that also improved safety, “but what really ensured nuclear safety was the boring stuff, the training, the routines and the best practices,” he told CNBC.
So if nuclear power is a tried, proven, and safe way to generate electricity, why isn't it more widely used?
Fleck said it boils down to one key factor: cost.
“I think the biggest problem with nuclear power is actually cost economics. It is very expensive to build a nuclear power plant in advance. There are many overruns and delays. And I think for investors who want to invest their money. In space, they need to find players who have a proven ability to expand that capacity.”
But not everyone is convinced.
A Report by the global campaign network Greenpeace took the view in March 2022 that, alongside widespread nuclear safety concerns, nuclear energy is too expensive and too slow to implement compared to other renewable energies.
Noting that a nuclear power plant takes around 10 years to build, Greenpeace added: “The extra time nuclear power plants take to build has significant implications for climate targets, as existing fossil fuel power plants continue to emit carbon dioxide while they are waiting for a replacement.”
In addition, it is pointed out that the extraction, transport and processing of uranium are not free of greenhouse gas emissions.
Greenpeace conceded that “nuclear power plants overall perform comparably well with wind and solar power”. However, wind and solar energy can be implemented much faster and on a much larger scale, with a faster impact on carbon emissions and the clean energy transition.
Nuclear power is a “distraction” from the “answer we need” – such as renewable energy and energy storage solutions to mitigate renewable energy unreliability, said Dave Sweeney, nuclear analyst and nuclear freedom campaigner at the Australian Conservation Foundation.
“This is the path we need to take to keep the lights on and the Geiger counters down,” he told CNBC's Street Signs Asia on Friday.