Feb 28th, 2019, 09:38 AM

A Case for Nuclear

By Jackson Vann
Nuclear Reactor
Image Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr
Nuclear can save us, but we have to do it right.

A week ago, children walked out of school across the UK in protest against government policy on climate change. Similar protests have taken place across the world in Nordic countries, Brussels, and Australia against the inaction of governments on climate change, while other teen groups have filed lawsuits in the U.S. But as the debate rages on and plans are proposed to reduce emissions, many leave out the key to transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy: nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is the answer, we just have to implement it.

How does nuclear energy work?

Nuclear energy uses nuclear reactions to heat liquid, usually water, to generate steam and turn massive turbines. These types of reactors are Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR). However, there are other methods of generating energy with nuclear fission that follow the same idea with slight differences, for example, Boiling Water Reactors (BWR). The sole difference between PWR and BWR is that the water actually boils in BWR systems. Other methods are with Gas Cooled Reactors (GCR), that allowed countries to develop nuclear energy without relying on other countries for enriched uranium by using natural uranium as fuel; Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR), which rely on natural uranium and heavy water (a type of water that contains high amounts of deuterium) as a medium for heat to travel; Light Water Graphite Reactor (LWGR), using a graphite moderator (a moderator slows down neutrons from fission to thermal energies) and water coolant, the only model in the world that does this; and Fast Neutron Reactors (FNR), believed to be the future of nuclear reactors by using fuel more effectively, in some cases around 60% more efficiently.

Nuclear Reactors are then broken down into different Generations with Gen I, Gen II, and Gen III existing, while Gen IV is in research and development phases and Gen V is theoretical. Most Gen I reactors have been retired and Gen II make up the majority of active reactors, while most new constructions are Gen III. Each generation has a time period in which it was built, with Gen I reactors often being the most basic and oldest types, while Gen III is relatively new. 

Graph explaining the most common types of Nuclear Reactors and their energy output. Image Credit: Data from World Nuclear Association

An Argument for Nuclear 

Nuclear energy, once considered the future of energy production, is a clean, efficient, and powerful source of energy. However, attitudes have changed following events like the Chernobyl disaster, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and the Three Mile Island accident, along with common misconceptions surrounding nuclear energy. In the U.S., attitudes surrounding nuclear energy have recovered following the most recent disaster, Fukushima, with 67% of the public in favor of nuclear energy. Yet many of those in favor of it only want to use what is already built and are strongly against building new power plants. This is a common theme across many countries, with South Korea being the only country where more than 50% of the population supports building new nuclear power plants, at 52%.

Attitudes like these need to change, as nuclear energy is the only viable low greenhouse gas energy supply that can bridge the gap between fossil fuels and renewable energy. The current battery storage is not large enough to accommodate the needed amount of electricity, let alone the actual capacity of daily renewable energy production. Some estimates place the complete transfer from fossil fuels to renewables—in both battery reserves and renewable infrastructure—in the year 2030, while others place it at 2250. With this big of a range and with this much uncertainty about the commitments of countries, nuclear should and must be considered as a bridge between the two energies. 

Nuclear energy produces a low amount of greenhouse gases and, though it is not considered renewable energy by some, a large amount of uranium exists in the world, with some estimates of the total world supply of uranium in seawater being able to last over 60,000 years of energy at the current rate of uranium usage. And as next-generation nuclear power plants are developed, the efficiency of uranium usage will increase substantially. Nuclear energy is also the safest form of energy with death rates per Terra watt-hour (TWh) estimated at 0.07 deaths. The next safest energy is natural gas at an estimated 2.82 deaths and the energy source with the most estimated deaths per TWh is brown coal at 32.72 deaths per TWh. 

The next generation of nuclear reactors will only become better and better. Currently, the majority of reactors in the world are Gen II reactors, while the majority of new constructions are Gen III. Gen IV reactors are still in development but some designs could be constructed as early as 2020 and the latest at 2030. Gen IV reactors should become the focus of all new nuclear construction projects, as they vastly improve on the technology. Some of the advantages of these new reactors are the avoidance of nuclear proliferation of fuel,  increased economic competitiveness, increased safety, cheaper construction and operation costs, improved sustainability, and the creation of less long term nuclear waste

Global energy consumption is estimated to increase by 28% by 2040, with the majority of this demand to be supplied by petroleum, natural gas, and coal. With natural gas, petroleum, and renewables seeing large growth in the energy sectors over the coming decades, carbon will continue to be the backbone of the energy sector. However, this increase in coal and other fossil fuels could be avoided by investing in nuclear energy, creating a reliable long term energy source, and allowing time for the development and creation of renewable technology and infrastructure.  

Downsides of nuclear energy 

Though nuclear energy is the answer to energy and climate security, it is important to identify the negatives and the possible solutions to them. The downsides of nuclear include the process of mining the uranium, which is quite bad for the environment, along with the health of workers, especially in developing countries with lower working standards. There are multiple problems when it comes to open-pit mining, which is a common method of extraction. Another method of uranium mining that is becoming popular is called heap leaching, which is essentially fracking for uranium or the "fracturing of rock by a pressurized liquid". However, coal mining and oil extractions are both just as awful for the environment in comparison and produce large amounts of CO2 following their usage. Nuclear energy is not perfect, but it is better than current methods.

Open pit mining for uranium. Image Credit: SkyTruth/Flickr

Nuclear terrorism, proliferation, and accidents should be accounted for, even if they are rare. In terms of nuclear terrorism, Gen II and III reactors are both targets as they can melt down, and nuclear material can be stolen to be manufactured into "dirty bombs". However, this risk can be mitigated with Gen IV reactors, as they do not produce reachable nuclear material that can be converted into dirty bombs. Policies also need to be put in place to prevent either attacks or acquisition of nuclear material. 

With the increasing number of countries that are building nuclear reactors, the chances of nuclear proliferation continue to grow. So far 35 countries make this list. Enriched uranium is only a stepping stone away from nuclear weapons. This problem can also be solved with Gen IV reactors, as they require a lower level of enrichment. This will allow countries that would be seeking nuclear weapons through the guise of peaceful nuclear energy to be easily monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Stronger international cooperation is also needed to dissuade states from using nuclear energy as a step towards nuclear armament.

Accidents can hardly be predicted, but preparations must take place to keep them from happening. Japan is a good example of disaster preparation. Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Japan shut down a majority of reactors while new policies and safeguards were being developed and put into place. Following these new policies, Japan has already restarted five reactors and plans to restart the majority of the 42 plants in the country. Gen IV reactors truly solve many of the problems that nuclear energy faces today, including meltdowns, and therefore this why research should be prioritized to get them to the construction phase as quickly as possible.

Nuclear waste is also a problem faced by nuclear energy. There are three levels of waste: low, intermediate, and high-level waste, with the majority of the waste being low level. Low-level waste is easy to dispose of in a way that is safe. Low-level waste makes up 90% of all nuclear waste. Intermediate-level and high-level waste face the most controversy in their disposal. Intermediate-level waste is often unusable and needs a long term storage area for it to decay. This can take anywhere from 1,000-10,000 years. High-level waste can sometimes be reused in future reactions as it is made up of almost solely spent fuel rods. But there are still large amounts of high-level waste material that needs to be stored away for the material to decay. The solution to this problem is deep geological waste repositories where nuclear waste can be stored indefinitely. As Gen IV reactors begin to replace other older reactors, the waste problem will improve as they use less fuel and create even less waste. And while nuclear waste seems like a large problem, nuclear energy actually produces a very small amount of waste relative to total energy production. 

Problems that nuclear power faces seem world ending, however, each one has solutions that just need to be implemented correctly. Some solutions will take time to implement. However, either way, nuclear energy is better for the planet compared to any fossil fuel. 

What needs to be done 

For starters, countries that have nuclear reactors need to end phase-out policies, like Germany, who plans to phase-out nuclear energy by 2022. However, older nuclear reactors, depending on their conditions, should be shut down or phased-out over time. New nuclear power plants that are using proven reactors need to be fast-tracked, while more money should be invested in Gen IV development. Many of the world's wealthier countries will be able to achieve these goals and begin to reach higher levels of nuclear energy generation within 10-15 years.

However, developing nations will lag behind and will continue to rely on fossil fuels, with many not having the resources to develop their own reactors or borrow a design from another state.  A program should be put in place where countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Egypt, who all plan on building multiple large coal-fired power stations, can apply for foreign aid to help build a reactor and then "rent" nuclear material from another country. A perfect reactor for this would be the "wave" reactor, which uses the same fuel for 40 years and burns most of it, leaving little nuclear waste. Similar programs already exist between countries like Japan and India. This will allow for developing countries to decrease their annual CO2 emissions; something that wealthier countries should be obligated to help with as they consume many cheaply made products and services from these countries, and therefore are just exporting their CO2 emissions abroad.

Nuclear energy can truly make the world a better place through decreased emissions, stable supply, and cheaper energy. Although we will always be somewhat cautious about nuclear energy, better designs, practices, and policies decrease the chance of nuclear accidents. In a world that grows warmer each year, we must take action, and with renewable energy currently not being reliable enough to switch to, nuclear truly is the only answer. Next time you hear "nuclear? non merci" or "nuclear? no thanks", remember what nuclear could do to better the planet.