There are some arguments for embracing nuclear power as a solution to our energy needs. There are also some glaring risks. Let’s waive those for the moment, on the grounds that the climate emergency demands a rapid energy transition away from fossil fuels.
Let’s even imagine that we’re willing to sacrifice human lives for a quick climate fix. Let’s also imagine that we have unlimited budgets, and all the experts needed to design, build, operate and regulate these installations.
But even after all these heroic feats of imagination there remain some insuperable obstacles, the most obvious of which is time.
Take the Sizewell B nuclear power station in the UK as an example. It was first announced in 1969 but went through a few different designs, some of which took about five years to finalise. It was eventually built (that took seven years) and connected to the grid in 1995 – a full 26 years after it was initially approved.
In the US, nuclear waste has been piling up since the 1940s because of the lack of suitable storage sites that are acceptable to local communities
The pro-nuclear French have plans for new reactors that should be submitted around 2023 with a target date of 2035-37 for the reactors to go online. That’s a 15-year timeline, during which we need to be reducing annual carbon pollution by at least 7.6 per cent, according to the UN.
We simply don’t have time to waste. Putting all our eggs in the nuclear basket is a strategy that will not rule out climate catastrophe. And, speaking of waste, the issue of nuclear waste is not a mere inconvenience. It is an ongoing source of contamination with no solutions in sight.
In the US, nuclear waste has been piling up on some installation sites since the 1940s because of the lack of suitable storage sites that are acceptable to local communities. That’s 80 years.
Infrastructure projects involving complex technologies on the scale of nuclear power stations take time. There are public inquiries, regulatory approvals, detailed contractual and procurement arrangements, never mind public opposition to think about. It took us 13 years to join the two Luas lines in Dublin city. Do we think we could build a nuclear power station faster than a tramline?
Then there’s the related problem of scaling up the contribution of nuclear power from its current level quickly enough to combat climate change. A review article in the academic journal Energy Policy by Nikolaus Muellner and colleagues reports that the contribution of nuclear power to mitigate climate change is, and will be, very limited.
At present the impact of nuclear power – in terms of emissions prevented or avoided – is the equivalent of just 2-3 per cent of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Importantly, the team looked at plans for new nuclear builds and lifetime extensions and found that this value would decrease even further until 2040.
They note that technical obstacles and limited supplies of uranium-235 inhibits substantial expansion scenarios with the current nuclear technology. New nuclear technologies will not be available in time.
Muellner’s research finds that fast breeder reactors, while they may overcome the problem of limited uranium-235 resources, will not be available for commercial deployment before 2040-2050.
Climate change, pollution and energy insecurity are among the greatest problems of our time. Addressing them requires major changes in our energy infrastructure. But there is no simple substitute for fossil energy.
Interestingly, other studies by Benjamin Sovacool at the University of Sussex that correlated CO2 emissions and electricity generation across 123 countries over 25 years found that large-scale national nuclear programs do not even deliver significantly lower carbon emissions. In other words, scaling up nuclear power does not necessarily lower climate pollution or energy demand.
In contrast to nuclear and fossil energies, renewable energy can be generated at much smaller, household and community scales
Nor are the so-called negative emission technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere capable of being scaled up in any reasonable timeframe. There really is no magical fix to our predicament.
Distributed generation, demand-side management and above all, a shift towards 100 per cent renewable energy have been demonstrated time and time again as the most cost-effective solutions to both the climate crisis and energy security. In contrast to nuclear and fossil energies, renewable energy can be generated at much smaller, household and community scales, in ways that provide multiple co-benefits besides power.
As of 2022, there are 442 nuclear power reactors operating worldwide, generating 393 gigawatts of electricity or 11 per cent of total global electricity generation. But even emerging nuclear technologies such as advanced fuel and small modular reactors cannot penetrate the energy system fast enough to make the difference that is needed by 2030. To power the world, we would need about 14,500 nuclear plants within a couple of decades.
While the recently announced nuclear fusion breakthroughs are exciting, and warrant continued research funding, they likely make sense only in a context of intercontinental electricity grids that are designed to cope with large quantities of renewable generation in the first instance.
Nuclear power might make sense on purely technological grounds if we agree to discount the environmental impacts, but to bet on it whilst Ireland’s renewable energy potential is cost competitive and untapped would be an unforgivable political misjudgment and a waste of precious time.