A Case for Nuclear Energy

The Ultimate Case for Nuclear Energy

This document aims to establish the unequivocal supremacy of Nuclear Energy as a form of both transitional and final source of energy for humanity.


Structure

It will be divided into 3 segments. The first segment will aim to provide arguments for why nuclear sources are superior, the second segment aims to refute some common (and niche) arguments against nuclear energy and the third segment will aim to cover the other advantages of nuclear energy left out by the first two and clear up some common myths and false beliefs.


1. Why Nuclear?

The urgency of countering climate change must be understood to realize the true importance of decarbonizing (and by extension, adopting nuclear energy). While its out of the scope of this document to cover climate science, it will be important to go over some of the logistics of how carbon is really affecting the environment, and why, therefore, nuclear eliminates this problem.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas. This means that it causes an effect like the glass in a greenhouse, trapping heat and warming up the inside. This effect is important: without the CO2 that naturally exists in the atmosphere, Earth might be too cold to support human life. However, the atmosphere is very sensitive to changing levels of CO2. Even though this gas makes up less than 0.1% of the atmosphere, it can have a huge effect on how much heat the planet’s surface retains.

When energy from the Sun reaches the top of our atmosphere, most of it passes through to Earth’s surface, where it is absorbed. Some of this energy is re-emitted, heading back towards space. At this stage, it interacts with molecules of CO2 in a way that prevents some of it from escaping Earth’s atmosphere. The trapped heat energy leads to increased average global surface air temperatures. One reason carbon dioxide has such a big impact on global temperatures is that hotter air can hold more water vapors. Water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas, which further enhances the greenhouse effect.

For context, we’ll look at the atmospheric carbon cycle.

Already it becomes evident that there is a massive anomaly in CO2 concentrations because of the short-spanned spike in the 2010s.

This spike has a direct relation with anomalous global temperature increment.

This increase in temperature is disastrous. A half-a-degree increase might seem insignificant, but just to put things in context, The European Geosciences Union published a study in April 2016 that examined the impact of a 1.5 degree Celsius vs. a 2.0 C temperature increase by the end of the century, given what we know so far about the temperature increment that has already occured and predicted levels of temperature plateauing at 1.5C if we take strict action. From NASA’s analysis of the study:

It found that the jump from 1.5 to 2 degrees—a third more of an increase—raises the impact by about that same fraction, very roughly, on most of the phenomena the study covered. Heat waves would last around a third longer, rain storms would be about a third more intense, the increase in sea level would be approximately that much higher and the percentage of tropical coral reefs at risk of severe degradation would be roughly that much greater
But in some cases, that extra increase in temperature makes things much more dire. At 1.5 C, the study found that tropical coral reefs stand a chance of adapting and reversing a portion of their die-off in the last half of the century. But at 2 C, the chance of recovery vanishes. Tropical corals are virtually wiped out by the year 2100.
With a 1.5 C rise in temperature, the Mediterranean area is forecast to have about 9 percent less fresh water available. At 2 C, that water deficit nearly doubles. So does the decrease in wheat and maize harvest in the tropics.
On a global scale, production of wheat and soy is forecast to increase with a 1.5 C temperature rise, partly because warming is favorable for farming in higher latitudes and partly because the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is largely responsible for the temperature increase, is thought to have a fertilization effect. But at 2 C, that advantage plummets by 700 percent for soy and disappears entirely for wheat.

This calls for an urgent and immediate reallocation of primary energy production from fossil fuels to something with significantly less carbon emissions.

Nuclear energy achieves this because it produces no greenhouse gas emissions during operation and over the course of its life-cycle, nuclear produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per unit of electricity as wind, and one-third of the emissions per unit of electricity when compared with solar. The use of nuclear energy today avoids emissions roughly equivalent to removing one-third of all cars from the world’s roads.

Looking at the bar graph above, it would be only right to think why not opt for solar or wind or even hydropower for that matter. To answer this, we must understand capacity factors.

The capacity factor is defined as the average consumption, output, or throughput over a period of time of a particular technology or piece of infrastructure, divided by its consumption, output, or throughput if it had operated at full (rated) capacity over that time period.

The higher the capacity factor of a source of energy, the better will be its energy production from a singular plant. Nuclear energy consistently has the highest capacity factors when compared to fossil fuels and other renewables, which includes solar, wind and hydroelectricity. The capacity factor in 2021 were about 1.5 to 2.0 times more as natural gas and coal units, and 2.5 to 3.5 times more reliable than wind and solar plants.

Another important consideration is that a typical nuclear reactor produces 1 gigawatt (GW) of electricity. That doesn’t mean you can simply replace it with a 1 gigawatt coal or renewable plant. Based on our knowledge of capacity factors, you would need at least two coal and three to four renewable plants (each of 1GW capacity) to replicate the same amount of energy on the grid.

Another incredible advantage of using nuclear energy as a transitional source of energy is its ability to serve as a baseload source (backup) for other renewables, as they can be paired with nuclear energy and serve much more effectively during the lack of fuel (typically during cloudy, non-windy days).


2. Arguments against Nuclear Energy and their refutations

  • “Nuclear power plants are prone to accidents”

There have been two major reactor accidents in the history of civil nuclear power – Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi. Chernobyl involved an intense fire without provision for containment, and Fukushima Daiichi severely tested the containment, allowing some release of radioactivity.

The design of the Chernobyl reactor was very unique, and limited to the Eastern Bloc. The explosion that killed to people and further lead to the largest uncontrolled radioactive release was the result of a flawed reactor design, which, again, was limited to the Eastern Bloc. Reactors have since improved vastly and along with that another tangible benefit of the Chernobyl disaster was the massive improvement in reactor safety.

Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents resulted in radiation doses to the public greater than those resulting from the exposure to natural sources. The Fukushima accident resulted in some radiation exposure of workers at the plant, but not such as to threaten their health, unlike Chernobyl.

cumulative-reactor-years-of-operation-2019 (1)

It will also be emphasized that under no circumstance can a nuclear power plant explode like a nuclear bomb.

While nuclear power plants are designed to be safe in their operation and safe in the event of any malfunction or accident, no industrial activity can be represented as entirely risk-free. Incidents and accidents may happen, and as in other industries, what is learned will lead to a progressive improvement in safety. Those improvements are both in new designs, and in upgrading of existing plants. The long-term operation (LTO) of established plants is achieved by significant investment in such upgrading.

The safety of operating staff is a prime concern in nuclear plants. Radiation exposure is minimised by the use of remote handling equipment for many operations in the core of the reactor. Other controls include physical shielding and limiting the time workers spend in areas with significant radiation levels. These are supported by continuous monitoring of individual doses and of the work environment to ensure very low radiation exposure compared with other industries.

The use of nuclear energy for electricity generation can be considered extremely safe. Every year several hundred people die in coal mines to provide this widely used fuel for electricity. There are also significant health and environmental effects arising from fossil fuel use. Contrary to popular belief, nuclear power saves lives by displacing fossil fuel from the electricity mix.

This document from the World Nuclear Association goes over the specifics of the new developments and safety procedures and is a highly recommended read.

  • “Disposing nuclear waster is dangerous and is susceptible to theft”

To dispose of radioactive waste means isolating or diluting it such that the rate or concentration of any radionuclides returned to the biosphere is harmless. To achieve this, practically all radioactive waste is contained and managed, with some clearly needing deep and permanent burial. From nuclear power generation, unlike all other forms of thermal electricity generation, all waste is regulated – none is allowed to cause pollution.

Before considering disposal, we must look at the properties of radioactive waste. Every radionuclide has a half-life – the time taken for half of its atoms to decay, and thus for it to lose half of its radioactivity. Radionuclides with long half-lives tend to be alpha and beta emitters – making their handling easier – while those with short half-lives tend to emit the more penetrating gamma rays. Eventually all radioactive waste decays into non-radioactive elements. The more radioactive an isotope is, the faster it decays. Radioactive waste is typically classified as either low-level (LLW), intermediate-level (ILW), or high-level (HLW), dependent, primarily, on its level of radioactivity.

LLW is generated from hospitals and industry, as well as the nuclear fuel cycle. It comprises paper, rags, tools, clothing, filters, etc., which contain small amounts of mostly short-lived radioactivity. To reduce its volume, LLW is often compacted or incinerated before disposal. LLW comprises some 90% of the volume but only 1% of the radioactivity of all radioactive waste.

ILW typically comprises resins, chemical sludges, and metal fuel cladding, as well as contaminated materials from reactor decommissioning. Smaller items and any non-solids may be solidified in concrete or bitumen for disposal. It makes up some 7% of the volume and has 4% of the radioactivity of all radioactive waste.

HLW has both long-lived and short-lived components, depending on the length of time it will take for the radioactivity of particular radionuclides to decrease to levels that are considered non-hazardous for people and the surrounding environment. If generally short-lived fission products can be separated from long-lived actinides, this distinction becomes important in management and disposal of HLW. HLW is the focus of significant attention regarding nuclear power, and is managed accordingly.

Now, the radioactivity of the wastes decays with time, providing a strong incentive to store high-level waste for about 50 years before disposal.

The Swedish proposed KBS-3 disposal concept uses a copper container with a steel insert to contain the spent fuel. After placement in the repository about 500 meters deep in the bedrock, the container would be surrounded by a bentonite clay buffer to provide a very high level of containment of the radioactivity in the spent fuel over a very long time period. In June 2009, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company announced its decision to locate the repository at Ă–sthammar.

Finland’s repository programm is also based on the KBS-3 concept. Spent nuclear fuel packed in copper canisters will be embedded in the Olkiluoto bedrock at a depth of around 400 meters. The country’s nuclear waste management company, Posiva Oy, expects the repository to begin disposal operations in 2023. Its construction was licensed in November 2015.

The deposits of native (pure) copper in the world have proven that the copper used in the final disposal container can remain unchanged inside the bedrock for extremely long periods, if the geochemical conditions are appropriate (low levels of groundwater flow). The findings of ancient copper tools, many thousands of years old, also demonstrate the long-term corrosion resistance of copper, making it a credible container material for long-term radioactive waste storage.

These facilities are currently in operation under nuclear waste management companies and our closely guarded.

  • “How will nuclear waste be transported?”

The tried and tested way of safest nuclear waste transport is multi-purpose canisters (MPCs)

Each can hold up to 89 fuel assemblies with inert gas, are commonly used for transporting, storing and eventual disposal of used fuel. MPCs are contained inside robust overpacks – metal for transport, or mainly concrete for storage. Each MPC, constructed using 13 mm welded stainless steel with a secure lid and internal fuel basket to hold and keep the fuel assemblies separate, is designed for up to 45 kW heat load. MPCs have standard external dimensions and the number of fuel assemblies actually loaded into one depends on their characteristics. Some are double-walled (DWC), with helium in between the layers. Once an MPC is loaded the contents should never need to be handled again.

(from IAEA Safety Standards Series No. SSR-6 (Rev.1).)

  • “Nuclear energy is expensive”

It is undeniable that nuclear power plants are expensive to build. However, they are relatively cheap to run. In many places, nuclear energy is competitive with fossil fuels as a means of electricity generation. Waste disposal and decommissioning costs are usually fully included in the operating costs. If the social, health and environmental costs of fossil fuels are also taken into account, the competitiveness of nuclear power is improved.

On a levelized basis, nuclear power is an economic source of electricity generation, combining the advantages of security, reliability and very low greenhouse gas emissions. Existing plants function well with a high degree of predictability. We must get the idea of monetary value be the only contributing factor to our economic concerns. The lifetime costs of a coal plant and its contribution to spikes in CO2
levels is a far greater concern than the capital required and allocated for (only) the construction of a nuclear power plant.

The operating cost of these plants is lower than almost all fossil fuel competitors, with a very low risk of operating cost inflation. Plants are now expected to operate for 60 years and even longer in the future.
A further economic aspect is the system cost of making the supply from any source meet actual demand from the grid. The system cost is minimal with dispatchable sources such as nuclear, but becomes a factor for intermittent renewables whose output depends on occasional wind or solar inputs. If the share of such renewables increases above a nominal proportion of the total then system costs escalate significantly and readily exceed the actual generation cost from those sources. This is modelled in a 2019 OECD Nuclear Energy Agency study and very evident in Germany, and is an important consideration beyond the LCOE (levelized cost of electricity) in comparing sources.

This list is non-exhaustive, and new arguments against nuclear energy will keep popping up, but it is essential to note that the tradeoffs for adopting nuclear energy are far less important than plateauing the temperature spike and finding a long time transitional energy source.


3. Arguments for Nuclear Energy

  • Nuclear power releases less radiation into the environment than any other major energy source.

This statement will seem criminal to some, since its unheard of non-nuclear sources of energy to release any radiation, much less more than nuclear. However the criminal here is coal, a mineral of the earth’s crust that contains a substantial volume of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium. Burning coal gasifies its organic materials, concentrating its mineral components into the remaining waste, called fly ash. So much coal is burned in the world and so much fly ash produced that coal is actually the major source of radioactive releases into the environment.

This piece from the Scientific American investigates this in far greater detail and is a recommended read.

  • The worst possible accident at a nuclear plant is less destructive than other major industrial accidents*

We discussed the dynamics of the Chernobyl explosion before, but the actual impact has to be considered as well. Twenty-nine disaster relief workers died of acute radiation exposure in the immediate aftermath of the accident. In the subsequent three decades, UNSCEAR — the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, composed of senior scientists from 27 member states — has observed and reported at regular intervals on the health effects of the Chernobyl accident. It has identified no long-term health consequences to populations exposed to Chernobyl fallout except for thyroid cancers in residents of Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident, who drank milk contaminated with 131iodine, and who were not evacuated. By 2008, UNSCEAR had attributed some 6,500 excess cases of thyroid cancer in the Chernobyl region to the accident, with 15 deaths. The occurrence of these cancers increased dramatically from 1991 to 1995, which researchers attributed mostly to radiation exposure. No increase occurred in adults.

In comparison, in Bhopal, India where at least 3,800 people died immediately and many thousands more were sickened when 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant; and Henan Province, in China, where at least 26,000 people drowned following the failure of a major hydroelectric dam in a typhoon. “Measured as early deaths per electricity units produced by the Chernobyl facility (9 years of operation, total electricity production of 36 GWe-years, 31 early deaths) yields 0.86 death/GWe-year,” concludes Zbigniew Jaworowski, a physician and former UNSCEAR chairman active during the Chernobyl accident. “This rate is lower than the average fatalities from accidents involving a majority of other energy sources. For example, the Chernobyl rate is nine times lower than the death rate from liquefied gas and 47 times lower than from hydroelectric stations.”

The accident at Fukushima Daiichi in March 2011 followed a major earthquake and tsunami. The tsunami flooded out the power supply and cooling systems of three power reactors, causing them to melt down and explode, breaching their confinement. Although 154,000 Japanese citizens were evacuated from a 12-mile exclusion zone around the power station, radiation exposure beyond the station grounds was limited. According to the report submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency in June 2011:

“No harmful health effects were found in 195,345 residents living in the vicinity of the plant who were screened by the end of May 2011. All the 1,080 children tested for thyroid gland exposure showed results within safe limits. By December, government health checks of some 1,700 residents who were evacuated from three municipalities showed that two-thirds received an external radiation dose within the normal international limit of 1 mSv/year, 98 percent were below 5 mSv/year, and 10 people were exposed to more than 10 mSv… [There] was no major public exposure, let alone deaths from radiation.”

* when compared with what are considered two of the worst incidents involving reactor failure
  • Nuclear energy’s land footprint is minuscule

A typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility in the United States needs a little more than 1 square mile to operate. NEI says wind farms require 360 times more land area to produce the same amount of electricity and solar photovoltaic plants require 75 times more space.

To put that in perspective, you would need more than 3 million solar panels to produce the same amount of power as a typical commercial reactor or more than 430 wind turbines (capacity factor not included, ideal conditions).


Conclusion

It is undeniable that we need to proceed quickly, and that we cannot risk further mistakes with countering human-made climate change. Nuclear energy is one of the several key steps we must take to solve the spiking CO2 levels and to revert the unimaginable damage we’ve already caused to the only planet we have.

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