Is Nuclear Power the Way Out?
The world is waking up to anxious requests of scientists calling for a change. The effects of the climate crisis are becoming increasingly evident, even in locations that were once considered safe from extreme events. You might have heard about the recent wildfires in Italy and Greece or the devastating floods in Libya. These events are making people finally sit up and pay attention.
At this point, there is almost no need to explain the impact of human activities on the climate. What we're really focusing on here is how fast these individual changes are taking place and to what extent human activity is speeding up the process. Through our extensive network of power stations, construction activities, agricultural practices, waste management systems, transportation methods, deforestation efforts, and land use decisions, we are leaving a significant mark on our planet.
As a part of the solution to this problem, it is often discussed that we need to switch from using effective but dirty fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy sources, namely solar and wind power. Although it is indeed highly necessary, we need to present things as they truly are. And the truth is: it's not as simple as just flipping a switch.
To explain the complexity of such a transition, let’s use an analogy: At this stage our energy system with all its dependencies is like a giant puzzle that's been put together over many years with fossil fuels being a rather important piece of that puzzle. Switching to renewables means taking out those fossil fuel puzzle pieces and replacing them with cleaner, sufficient and sustainable alternatives.
Let’s use an example: One of the most overlooked but crucial industries that is dependent on fossil fuel is agriculture. 1 kg of wholegrain bread is equivalent to 600 ml of diesel oil. Surprisingly, bread is among the last energy-intensive foodstuffs. The calculation accounted for the logistics, infrastructure, harvesting and processing of grain and its delivery.
At this point we can’t transfer to renewable energy to maintain the current agricultural production and we are not likely to be able to do so in the near future.
Let’s talk numbers.
Let’s use Denmark as an example. In 2020, this northern seaside country was able to produce around 56% electricity using wind power. Considering that in 2010 the total electricity production from wind power was around 20% and in 2000 around 11%, their goal to reach 100% production by 2030 seems achievable.
Yet, not all countries have similar conditions, especially inland countries with no access to the sea where the wind is abundant. Thus, unless we learn how to store large amounts of energy without loss, or unless we cooperate and create a profound international network of flowing energy, an overnight transition seems unlikely at best, implausible at worst. Rather the new system will need time for a makeover to handle all of the sources of energy and to make them as efficient as possible.
It's not just about technology. Governments have to make rules and laws that support renewable energy. Alongside Denmark, we've seen Germany leading the way with strong policies that encourage clean energy as Berlin drafted a bill designating the minimum percentage of land which all of the 16 federal states must devote to wind farms.
Germany’s production of energy from renewable sources is to reach 80% by 2030. Yet, in 2022 the production rose to 48.3% (from 42.7% in 2021) whereas 25.9% came from offshore and onshore wind, photovoltaic generators accounted for 11.4%, biomass for 8.2% and the rest 2.8% was hydropower and other renewables. All in all, Germany was able to generate around 233.9 terawatt hours (TWh) from renewable sources including wind, solar, hydro, biomass, waste and geothermal energy. This was around 8.5% more than in 2021 (215.5 TWh) but to reach their goal they need to produce around 600 TWh by 2030.
Of all the renewable sources we know, inland countries will rely mostly on solar energy. Germany generated 128 TWh of electricity from wind of which 103 TWh came from onshore wind turbines and considering that only around 0,8% of land is used for wind turbines on shores we can estimate what the situation for inland countries would look like. At the same time we could witness that in 2022 the onshore wind generation was about 12:4% higher than the previous year whereas offshore wind generation rose only by 2.9%. Meanwhile Germany’s photovoltaic power generation was about 23% (61 TWh) in 2022.
Nuclear power generation as a way out?
It is more than clear that the transition to the already mentioned renewable sources we know today won’t suffice. That’s when the often demonized nuclear energy comes into account. Nuclear power plants can significantly aid the transition away from fossil fuels for several reasons. They offer a low-carbon energy source, producing minimal greenhouse gas emissions, therefore having little impact on the surrounding environment. The generators are powered with steam that is recyclable at the end of the process by being cooled down and turned back to water. If not recycled, it is then released into the atmosphere as a harmless substance. Like all energy-producing industries, nuclear power plants produce some waste products, but unlike other energy generating industries, the nuclear sector takes full responsibility for all of its waste.
Moreover, nuclear provision of reliable baseload power complements intermittent renewables, ensuring a stable energy supply and solving one of the strongest inconveniences of renewables - stability. Nuclear power enhances energy security and contributes to the mentioned diverse energy mix sustainably generating electricity for decades. Yet, challenges like safety concerns and radioactive waste management must be carefully addressed to fully harness its potential in our quest for a cleaner and more sustainable energy future.
Safety of nuclear power plants
Nuclear power plants rank among the safest sectors within the energy generation industry, and gaining a deeper understanding of their principles can help alleviate concerns.The mechanism of nuclear energy production lies in nuclear fission where the energy stuffed in the nucleus (core) is released by splitting the atoms of Uranium leading to a chain reaction. For such a reaction a fuel in the form of pellets of the Uranium (U-235) is needed. After the reaction the uranium is removed and securely stored in a pool for up to 10 years. These pools are located underground and withstand earthquakes. The water then continues to cool the fuel and works as a shield against radiation.
Moreover, every nuclear power plant has various detection and shutdown systems. In normal operations, the chain reaction is controlled by adjuster rods and the water level. These power plants have two independent automatic shutdown systems that work even if the power is off. If temperature, pressure or the power level went off, the sensitive detectors of the first shutdown system immediately stop the chain reaction by dropping the adjuster rods. The second system injects a special liquid inside the reactor and stops the chain reaction as well.
In addition, since the Fukushima accident, nuclear power plants have been acquiring special emergency mitigation equipment designed to bring reactors to a safe shutdown during a severe accident.
What about waste, huh?
Another safety issue connected to the energy producing industries is waste. But in fact, compared to other energy sources, nuclear fuel is very dense and very little of it is required to produce enormous amounts of electricity, thus very little waste is produced. On average “the waste from a reactor supplying a person’s electricity needs for a year would be about the size of a brick. Only 5 grams of this is high-level waste - about the same weight as a sheet of paper.” (World Nuclear Association)
Here's something to think about: The transition to renewable sources and nuclear power generation might be the best option we have. Yet, it's not just about innovating technology. People who work in the fossil fuel industry might need to learn new skills for the renewable energy jobs. And because many more new professions will emerge, there's a whole transition happening in the job market, education system, legislature and many more.
In the end, we shouldn't forget that we're all in this together. We have to figure out how to switch to cleaner energy sources while still keeping everything running smoothly. It's a bit like a puzzle, a weather game, a tech challenge, and a teamwork project all rolled into one. And the whole world needs to be part of it to make a real difference and help the innocent fauna and flora. It is truly something worth fighting for!