Shifting views on Nuclear Power  


Over the last few weeks, we have reviewed different pathways to transition to a low carbon economy. In this fourth and final episode, we will assess the shifting views on Nuclear Power.

Under the Paris Climate Change Agreement, all countries are required to transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon technologies, which include nuclear power (NP) and renewables (REs). It has been also established in our previous discussions that out of the 5 practical Res -hydro (HP), biomass, geothermal, wind power (WP) and solar power (SP) – only WP and SP have been the largest growing options for over two decades, but without impressive output due to their low-capacity factors, CFs.

The CFs ranged between 20-36% and 10-21% for WP and SP respectively, while that for NP was 85-90%. We so also learned that in 2020 fossil fuels contributed over 84% of all primary energy sources consumed in that year, as compared with just over 2 and 1% respectively from WP and SP. It must be underscored that the other limitations for WP and SP were their variabilities and intermittencies, as well as their huge land requirements as compared to a relatively small plot of land for NP.

Our quest to find a very cost-effective option or options to generate abundant, clean, reliable and affordable electricity – enough for all the economic sectors in the ensuing future without fossil fuels, is influenced not only by technical reasons but also by some socio-political reasons. In some cases, they pit WP and SP against NP, while in others NP is a non-starter or simply ignored, primarily due to many peoples’ irrational fear of radiation and their misconception of NP.

We shall briefly discuss The Deep Decarbonisation Pathway Projects, where NP, REs, fossil fuels, especially natural gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS) were discussed. We shall then discuss the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s shifting views on NP with the help of 3 figures.

The Deep Decarbonisation Pathway Projects

The Deep Decarbonisation Pathway Project (DDPP) was undertaken by academics in universities and research institutions in 16 leading countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, the UK and US. There were two coordinators, including Jeffrey Sachs, the Director of UN Sustainable Development Networks, and Special Advisor to the UN General Secretaries Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-Moon, and Antonio Guterres.

The main theme of the DDPP was to deaccelerate the rate of carbon emissions, by deploying low-carbon technologies.  Both the Primary and the Final Reports, written in 2014 and 2015 respectively, were sent through Ban Ki Moon to the appropriate departments of the UN.

It can be found in the DDPP reports that renewables (REs) and natural gas with CCS have several serious limitations. For instance, the land requirements for the intermittent WP and SP are so huge that they would compete closely with land requirements for agriculture and other necessary economic projects. A much better way to utilize the intermittent WP and SP to generate electricity is through the use of appropriate energy storages devices. There is still work to do on the current options to ensure energy is effectively stored.

The DDPP raised some positive points for nuclear power (NP). A bar-graph (Figure 1) shows that the carbon intensity in the energy sector in France, where about 75% of their electricity is derived from NP, is the lowest out of the 16 listed countries. A couple of countries indicated that for a given generating capacity, NP produces electricity more abundantly than the other options. And it follows also that NP produces more affordable power than WP and SP. It is worth noting that many European countries, including Germany, the UK and Italy, depend on France for their complementary power supply.

It is further stated in the DDPP reports that Germany, which has taken an anti-nuclear stance with the backing of the Green Party, will permanently switch off its last nuclear power reactors by the end of 2022, while Italy laments that due to referenda it faces a very gloomy low-carbon economy future without NP. Italy closed down its nuclear power reactors in 1987 after the Chernobyl accident referendum. That was described as a “terrible mistake” in the Italian Parliament, which voted to restart their nuclear power plants. in late 2008. According to the then economic minister, the mistake had cost Italy over 50 billion euros. Three years later, after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident referendum, the Italian government had to abandon the on-going reactivation of its power reactors.

The IPCC’s Shifting Role on Nuclear Power

The IPCC is the UN body responsible for assessing the science related to climate change. The IPCC’s third working-group on mitigation completed its Third Assessment Report (AR3) in Accra in 2001. Their remarks about NP in the first report were positive, but not quite so in their second report. As a result, I eagerly looked forward to learn their stance on NP in AR3.

The AR3 listed several mitigation options including WP, SP and NP. Whereas SP and WP were described as “intermittent sources” that could not be used as stand-alone power plants, NP was described as a mature technology which could replace coal for generating base load power.

But a caveat was included in their support of NP, namely: “Unless several concerns about NP are addressed”. It was also stated in the AR5, published in 2014 that: “NP is a mature low-GHG emission source of baseload power, but its share of global electricity generation has been declining (since 1993). NP could make an increasing contribution to low carbon energy supply, but a variety of barriers and risks exist (robust evidence, high agreement)”.

It is very relevant to our discussions to add that in 2018, and in connection with the release of the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, many scholars from several top institutions in the world wrote an open letter to the Heads of State of all the G20 countries – accusing the IPCC of being blatantly biased against NP. This move was unprecedented, and I hope that as a result the IPCC will make a discernible positive move on NP in their next assessment report – the AR6, which is due this year, 2021. That would go a long way to remove all doubts and misconceptions about NP to put us on a proven and reliable pathway to an expected low-carbon economy.

Nuclear power is a prolific source of all kinds of hazardous radiation from the fission products, especially those with shorter half-lives which emit highly intensive radiation. Many people have genuine concerns that there is only a thin line that separates uranium fuel used for military purposes from that used in civilian nuclear reactors.

In my opinion, the above-mentioned caveats seem to scare-off policymakers from NP, and does nothing to lessen general public’s apprehension about NP; the most cost-effective mitigation option that produces safe, clean, reliable and affordable electricity more abundantly than any other option. It is evident that science is not leading the discussions, which is to all our detriment.

Safety of Nuclear Power in the Right Perspective

Let’s reiterate that NP is clean and safe, and it has the best safety record as compared to coal and charcoal, which kill thousands of people prematurely annually from pollutions in the industrialised and developing countries respectively. There are also annual fatalities associated with all other energy sources, including SP and WP.

There is risk in anything we do, and perhaps we can appreciate better the safety of NP when we compare from this website, its low risk with about 50 others. The risks are measured in Loss of Life Expectancy or (LLE) in days. For our discussions, the first entries and 5 selected ones for discussions, and they are:

  • Living in Poverty – 3,500
  • Being Male (vs female) – 2,800
  • Cigarettes (male) -2,300
  • Air Pollution – 80
  • Married to a smoker – 50
  • Radon in homes – 35
  • Dam failures – 1
  • Living near nuclear plant – 0.04

Note that the entries with asterisks indicate averages over total U.S. population.

Let’s look closely at the well-illustrated pie-graph in Fig1, which is on ‘Sources of Radiation Exposure to the USA Population’, taking note that the USA has the largest fleet of nuclear plants in the world. The fact that radiation from NP is not explicitly given in Fig1 underscores that NP does not pollute, while radiation from natural sources account for 81%, with 54% of it coming from radon we encounter mostly at home. The other 3 natural sources are the human body (11%), terrestrial (8%) and cosmic rays (8%).

Out of 19% from man-made sources, 11% and 4% come from X-rays and nuclear medicine in hospitals. Consumer products may include computers, TVs, cell-phones and others. Sources of radiation for the section marked as <1% in Fig1, include radiation from: (1) from atomic bomb tests some 60-70 years ago, (2) coal power plants and (3) NP.

This is sufficient and necessary proof that NP releases negligible radiation into the environment, and this is endorsed by Figs 2 and 3. Note from Fig 2 that the impact of 1mrem encountered annually from NP is negligible, as compared to 228mrem from radon we encounter at home, while Fig 3 shows that NP has very low carbon foot-prints speak loudly by themselves.

Figure 3.

To really appreciate the potential of NP, it is important that we thoroughly address the challenges and allay the fears raised by engaging scientists, scholars and technical experts to provide accurate information to enable us to make informed decisions that truly support our nation’s development agenda.

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