While the world is talking about getting rid of fossil fuels, what about the nuclear energy issue, which has obvious risks? Is it completely off the agenda, or does it, on the contrary, increase its importance as policy makers’ trump card?
Countries around the world have made commitments to zero their greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century, especially under public pressure. This means moving away from fossil fuels and increasing the capacity of clean energy sources. The capacity of clean energy sources such as wind and solar is growing rapidly.
But still the question is: Will these be enough to meet the energy the world needs, with the growing population and production capacities?
Is nuclear the new hope?
Governments are working quietly to answer this question with ‘nuclear energy’. Today, 450 reactors around the world produce only 10% of global electricity, after losing their reputation in major accidents and the development of alternative energy sources.
However, recently, with the influence of the technology, the discussed nuclear energy seems to be shining again.
China, USA, France, The Netherlands are the top nuclear investors.
In the US, the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package enacted by President Joe Biden in November includes a $6 billion subsidy to keep existing nuclear power plants running longer. It also allocates $2.5 billion for the research and development of new nuclear technologies.
China plans to build more than 150 new reactors in the next 15 years. Within five years, it will surpass the United States as the world’s largest nuclear power producer. Over the past decade, China has invested approximately $470 million in molten salt reactors, a technology that reduces the risk of meltdown. China is now building the first molten salt reactor to use thorium as fuel instead of radioactive plutonium or uranium.
France will spend $1.13 billion on nuclear power by 2030 as part of its effort to “re-industrialize”.
The Netherlands sees nuclear power as a “complement” to solar, wind and geothermal energy in the country’s low-carbon energy mix. Accordingly, it will invest $566 million in maintaining an existing nuclear power plant, extending its life, and building two new reactors.
The most important story of a country that has hesitations about nuclear energy is Germany, the industrial powerhouse of Europe. Before 2011, nuclear power accounted for around 25% of Germany’s electricity production. The country had not built a new reactor since the late 1980s, affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident that occurred in the Soviet Union in 1986, but planned to have most of its reactors operational by the 2030s.
But in 2011 came the Fukushima nuclear accident, triggered by the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan. Unlike Chernobyl, which caused significant loss of life and long-term health problems, Fukushima did not result in loss of life and “adverse health effects among Fukushima residents” due to radiation exposure.
However, after Fukushima, Germany immediately shut down almost half of its nuclear capacity and accelerated its phasing out of the remaining nuclear. The country’s last three active reactors are scheduled to be shut down this year.
European Union: ‘Nuclear is a green energy source!’
The European Union recently proposed classifying nuclear as a “green” energy source for financing purposes “to facilitate the transition to a predominantly renewable-based future”. Interesting and very controversial isn’t it?
Nuclear power is worrisome in terms of the risks it poses. The world has witnessed its dreadful effects before. On the basis of countries, there is no “sure” about the certainty of production, surveillance and security measures.
Still, many nuclear start-ups today are working towards the creation of a new nuclear industry. Most of them focus on developing the next generation of small modular reactors (SMR). New materials such as thorium, which is more abundant and produces less waste, are being tested. With the help of technology, the issue of using existing nuclear wastes as a fuel source is being investigated.
There is no clarity or competitive development on an economic scale yet. China is testing thorium reactors. TerraPower, a startup founded by Bill Gates, has been working on natrium reactors for over a decade. A technology that has not yet been found today may benefit the scaling of all these developments in the coming period.
The answer is tough and complex. Energy is a critical ‘commodity’ for the whole world. It is in the heart of economic wars and not one-dimensional. Even though the current risks will become manageable with the developing technology, the issue needs to be discussed transparently and in every aspect on the political, economic and social context.
Reconciliation and agreement is essential at all levels on the issue that while escaping from fossil fuels, nuclear power will not cause much greater human and environmental problems.
It is not right for states to ignore societies while making such important decisions for the world and its future. For social reconciliation, it is important to establish transparent and clear communication channels, to reveal and explain the issue in all its aspects, and to meticulously establish decision mechanisms accordingly.
“Is Nuclear Power Part of the Climate Solution” by Gernot Wagner, The Wall Street Journal
“The Second Coming of Nuclear Power” by David H. Freedman, Newsweek