Nuclear Power in Context

Since its birth, nuclear power has been a target of environmental activism. To be fair, when nuclear power goes wrong, it goes wrong in a bad way. Take a look at what’s happening in Japan right now. Friday’s tsumani damaged the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and several of its reactors have experienced partial meltdowns. Radiation from the nuclear reactions has been released into the surrounding environment, and could endanger public health in the immediate area, causing cancer and birth defects.

Nuclear disasters are horrifying, and this is by no means the worst that has happened. However, nuclear isn’t the only form of energy that experiences periodic disasters. In fact, over the past century, hydroelectric disasters have killed more people than all other forms of energy disasters combined.

(Sovacool et al, 2008, Fig. 1).

So why do we worry so much more about nuclear power disasters? Is it because the idea of the resulting radiation is more disturbing than the prospect of a dam breaking, even if it’s far less common?

However, an energy source can kill people without a large-scale disaster occurring. Let’s look at fossil fuels. Think of all the miners killed by coal accidents, all the people killed by smog inhalation or exposure to toxic chemicals (such as heavy metals) that are present in fossil fuels, deaths due to gas leaks, civilians killed by wars over oil, and so on. It’s difficult to quantify these numbers, because fossil fuels have been in use for centuries, but they clearly exceed the 4,000 or so deaths due to nuclear power accidents (as well as any other deaths due to nuclear power, such as uranium mining).

We must also look at the deaths due to climate change, which fossil fuel burning has induced. The World Health Organization estimates that over 150 000 people died as a result of climate change in 2000 alone. This annual rate will increase as the warming progresses. If we don’t step away from fossil fuels in time, they could lead to a devastating amount of death and suffering.

Fossil fuels are silent, passive, indirect killers which end up being far more destructive to human life than nuclear power. However, much of the public remains opposed to nuclear energy, and I believe this is a case of “letting perfect be the enemy of good”. I feel that we hold nuclear power to an impossible standard, that we expect it to be perfect. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s far better than the existing system, which desperately needs to be replaced.

There are also exciting developments in nuclear technology that could make it safer and more efficient. In his recent book, top climatologist James Hansen described “fast reactors“, which are a vast improvement over the previous generations of nuclear reactors. It’s also possible to use uranium-238 as fuel, which makes up 99.3% of all natural uranium, and is usually thrown away as nuclear waste because reactors aren’t equipped to use it. Another alternative is to use thorium, a safer and more common element. If we pursue these technologies, the major downsides of nuclear power – safety and waste concerns – could diminish substantially.

Renewable sources of energy, such as solar, wind, and geothermal, are safer than nuclear power, and also have a lower carbon footprint per kWh (Sovacool, 2008b, Table 8). They are clearly the ideal choice in the long run, but they can’t solve the problem completely, at least not yet. Cost is a barrier, as is the problem of storing and transporting the electricity they generate. Maybe a few decades down the line smart grids will become a reality, and we will be able to have an energy economy that is fully renewable. If we wait for that perfect situation before doing anything, though, we will overshoot and cause far more climate change than we can deal with.

I don’t know if I would describe myself as “pro-nuclear”, but I am definitely “anti-fossil-fuel”. I am aware of the risks nuclear power poses, and feel that, from a risk management perspective, it is still preferable to coal and oil by a long shot. Solving climate change will require a multi-faceted energy economy, and it would be foolish to rule out one viable option simply because it isn’t perfect.