In Defence of Nuclear Power


Overshadowed by the polarising politics of fossil fuels and the relative palatability of renewables, nuclear power is essentially the angsty, misunderstood middle child of the energy sector. To say that it doesn’t have the best reputation would be a colossal understatement—in fact, just the word ‘nuclear’ inevitably evokes anxiety in the current climate. With politicians dangling their fingers over big red buttons, the threat of a second Cold War is arguably more real than it has ever been. Once you toss that in with movies like Oppenheimer and the sordid history of Chernobyl, it makes sense that anything even vaguely ‘nuclear’ raises some red flags. 

With that in mind, allow me to say something that may initially seem outlandish:

Nuclear power is the one and only way forward. 

Stay with me here.

From an environmental standpoint, nuclear energy is as carbon neutral as it gets. Nuclear power produces energy via splitting uranium atoms, thus releasing heat that spins a turbine (and produces electricity!). This process emits no greenhouse gases. Even once the emissions released by the plants’ operation and processing of waste are taken into account, its carbon footprint is still 273 times smaller than fossil fuels, a third of solar power’s and equivalent to that of wind energy

Not only this, but nuclear power plants are also the most efficient energy source, with an average capacity factor of 92.3%, meaning it can operate at full capacity 336 days of the year. In contrast, coal’s factor is 48.4% (or less than 177 days a year), whereas hydroelectric (36.3%), wind (35.9%) and solar (24.4%) are considerably lower. Why is this important? While renewables are clean and safe, they are not quite efficient enough to meet our energy requirements unless we build them on an extremely large-scale, something which will likely only be achieved in the long term. On the other hand, far fewer nuclear plants are needed to meet these requirements, so can be built in a shorter period of time. 

One thing that inevitably seems to concern people about nuclear power is its safety. But what if I told you that nuclear power is actually incredibly safe? Scientific modelling in 2020 found that brown coal’s death rate (the average amount of deaths caused by accidents and air pollution per kilowatt hour) sat around 32.7, whereas nuclear power’s was comparable to that of wind (0.04) and solar (0.02), at a surprisingly low 0.03. 


Collating the death rates of all energy sources, Our World in Data explains that if the average town in Europe (comprising 150,000 people) was powered entirely by each energy source, the death rates would be the following: 

Coal: 25 people would die prematurely every year; 
Oil: 18 people would die prematurely every year; 
Gas: 3 people would die prematurely every year; 
Hydropower: In an average year, 1 person would die; 
Wind: In an average year, nobody would die. A death rate of 0.04 deaths per terawatt-hour means every 25 years, a single person would die; 
Nuclear: In an average year, nobody would die – only every 33 years would someone die. 
Solar: In an average year, nobody would die – only every 50 years would someone die.” 


Of course, you may ask—what about Chernobyl then? Or Fukushima? There is no denying that these were tragedies and the consequences, immeasurable. Chernobyl emerged from a severely flawed Soviet design made in the 1970s, in which the isolation of the Cold War meant that numerous safety procedures were blatantly ignored to cut costs. The consequence of this was 59 deaths due to immediate trauma, and between an estimated 5000 to 9000 taking into account deaths by radiation poisoning and cancer in the following years. Likewise, Fukushima’s nuclear power plants had inadequate safety measures implemented, were leaking radioactivity and were not unprepared for natural disasters. Hence, when hit by a one of the most powerful tsunamis in Japanese history, it was not the actual nuclear incident which caused the 2314 deaths, but the failed evacuation of people in the Fukushima prefecture. These incidents have since allowed scientists to significantly improve the safety of these plants, resulting in nuclear power becoming one of the safest energy sources. And yet, the stigma surrounding it remains, due to a general misunderstanding of how nuclear works. To put this into perspective, the 1975 Banqiao Dam Failure in China killed 171,000 people. Since then, we have improved hydroelectric technology and have been able to keep using it — why is it different with nuclear energy?


The last argument that is often made in response to nuclear power is this: why not switch from fossil fuels to more palatable sources like wind and solar instead? Of course, this would be ideal. This would eliminate the two true drawbacks to nuclear energy: nuclear waste, which can run the risk of radioactive leakage and uranium mining, which can significantly damage ecosystems, among other things. But the risk of climate change poses an even greater threat. Even if nuclear power is currently banned in Australia, convincing politicians to transition fully to renewables before it is too late seems just as unlikely. And if we succeed in doing so, renewables may not be able to immediately provide us with the energy we need in the same way nuclear power can. For example, China has one of the greatest installations of renewables, and yet, only 31% of the country’s energy comes from sustainable sources. Unless significantly more land and funding is dedicated to expanding renewable energy substantially, it is not yet efficient enough to support whole countries. In contrast, nuclear accounts for 70% of France’s electricity—and, unsurprisingly, France also has one of the lowest CO2 emissions per capita out of any European country. For comparison, Australia (in which nuclear power is banned) has the highest CO2 emissions per capita in the world, at 15 tonnes per person (3x that of France). 


In an ideal world, we’d completely switch to renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydroelectric—but in a world where we are running out of time to reduce our carbon emissions, this is not yet realistic. One day it will be, but not yet. Until then, we must give nuclear energy a second chance. 

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