The Nuclear Narrative
In the mid-1940s Isaac Asimov, one of the most influential science fiction writers of the 20th century, wrote the first book in his acclaimed “Foundation series.” In the book the use and understanding of nuclear energy was a defining feature of the protagonists. To Asimov and his contemporaries, nuclear power was indicative of a higher civilization whose understanding of science allowed it to surpass those who could not harness it. In 1977 a United Nations Resolution stated that “The use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is of great importance for the economic and social development of many countries.”
Since that time humanity’s perception of nuclear power has warped from a sign of scientific progress to a reminder of the devastation our harnessing of the atom could wreak. Nuclear accidents panicked people and media portrayals such as The Simpsons served to stigmatize the energy source further.
This change in perception has of course induced a political response across nuclear nations. In late May of this year, US Democratic Presidential Candidate, Bernie Sanders, wrote strongly against nuclear power, a sentiment he has echoed during his tenure as a United States Senator. Sanders is hardly alone in this stance, much of the political left in nuclear countries agrees, including both the US and UK Green Parties and environmental activists throughout Europe.
The passion of atomic energy’s opponents has led to palpable results in Europe and the United States. The US hasn’t built a new power plant in decades and the French government recently agreed to lower the percentage of energy generated by nuclear power from approximately 75% to 50% by 2025. Germany is currently attempting to phase Nuclear power out entirely. It is tragic then, that those critics of nuclear power undermine their own goals by opposing it.
The opponents of nuclear energy level serious concerns about the technology’s financial viability as an energy source and the potential impact it may have on the environment and local populations. Critics often let famous nuclear events such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukishima speak for themselves as the potential environmental consequences of expanded nuclear energy. More pragmatic arguments point out that a nuclear plant requires an enormous amount of capital to build (somewhere between $6 and $9 billion USD) and plants are almost always subsidized by the government to stay afloat. More nuclear plants also increase the danger of nuclear terrorism and increases the number of people suffering from the effects of working in a Uranium mine.
In the face of this criticism it is shocking that modern nuclear power not only undermines the severity of many of these problems, but is often the logical solution.
On the face of it all three of the major events that defined the public’s fears of nuclear energy, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukishima, provide a compelling argument against Nuclear power. The least severe of these that resulted in no direct deaths, Three Mile Island, is still involved a 14 year cleanup costing roughly $1 billion. The worst, Chernobyl, is still devastating the lives of those who live in the area and their environment.
Yet these tragic events should not be taken as a sign that nuclear energy should end, since most of these reactor types have been phased out in favor of newer models and Chernobyl safety standards have increased dramatically with the encouragement of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
As far as the environment and the human health of those surrounding power plants are concerned activists should be lauding nuclear power as one of the safest alternatives to fossil fuels. In 2012, Forbes ranked energy sources by total deaths per trillion kilowatt-hours (for reference the average American utility customer used about 11,000 kWh in 2013) and found that just coal, which generates 50% of the world’s electricity, is responsible for an average of 170,000 deaths. Nuclear power was the lowest at 90 deaths providing 17% of global power. In 2013 NASA quantified this disparity in deaths when it released a brief showing that the use of nuclear power prevented 1.8 million net deaths between 1971 and 2009. This also applies to the environment as the vast majority of fossil-fuel related deaths are a result of the complications of pollution that fossil fuel and biofuel power plants generate, which has just as much of a deleterious effect on the planet as it does on its people.
Where the pragmatic and idealistic elements intersect when opposing nuclear power is the price tag. Compared to some fossil fuel and renewable energy sources such as geothermal, wind and conventional coal, nuclear power is much more expensive due to the high cost of capital.
According to the United States Energy Information Agency (EIA)’s 2015 Annual Energy Outlook “high capital costs and long lead times for new units mitigate growth in nuclear…generation.” These high initial costs explain why the EIA’s “Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2015” report puts the average levelized costs (2013 $/MWh) for plants entering service in 2020 higher than most other energy sources, including many renewables.
However, the same report from the EIA shows that the average levelized cost is projected to be significantly lower by 2040, dropping below conventional coal, solar, and hydroelectric in price. Existing nuclear plants have also become steadily more efficient as technology has improved. According to the IAEA, even though the rate of power plants constructed has slowed, “nuclear power generation has been increasing continually as a result of improved performance.”
Opponents of nuclear power for financial reasons also fail to put the cost of a nuclear plant in context. Those who suffer the effects of fossil fuels are less efficient, don’t live as long, and place a larger financial burden on healthcare systems. Furthermore the effects of climate change increase the likelihood of extreme weather events, which are devastating and expensive. Finally, fossil fuels are limited, and a proactive approach towards fossil fuel independence protects from conflicts arising from resource scarcity. These problems, derived from widespread fossil fuel use, stunt economic growth and further exacerbate the problem many nuclear powers face with budgets increasingly consumed by healthcare and entitlement costs. Subsidies for nuclear power are just as much an investment by the government in the health of its citizens and the economy as they are in cheapening the cost of electricity production.
Finally we come to the main question: What makes nuclear power worthwhile over cheaper renewable energy which doesn’t produce any waste and poses no danger of a meltdown? It is undeniable that a grid that can be run from hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, and wind power is preferable, but the shortcomings of these energy sources and technological limitations make a grid that is completely renewable nearly impossible to accomplish.
Besides the obvious geographical limits of these renewable resources, battery technology has not advanced to the point that renewables require to fully replace fossil fuels and nuclear power. A coal or nuclear plant provides constant power and can scale as needed to supply electricity. While the energy produced by say, a very windy day, could power a city for days afterwards, the technology does not exist to viably store and distribute this electricity for long periods of time after the wind stops blowing.
Nuclear is far from the perfect energy source, however without the technology required to fully harness renewables, nuclear provides the safest and cleanest alternative to fossil fuels, and those on the political left should be its biggest supporters not the base of its largest opponents.