In an era of ratcheting urgency over the state of our global climate, the case for nuclear energy is unfortunately not as straightforward as it should be.
Among several modern conventional western reactor designs which were intended to be easier and cheaper, two have resulted in delayed construction and escalating cost burdens. These were the only two anyone tried to build, and, for one vendor, contributed to bankruptcy. Not a good look, when you have anti-nuclear campaigners and some proponents of renewable-energy-sources-only insisting it’s all a lost cause.
But what about existing, operating reactors? Twenty per cent of US electricity, twenty-five in the EU, over a tenth globally, which has bought us nearly two whole years worth emissions saved? If climate change is the priority, we must keep them running, is the earnest appeal.
Anti-nuclear groups reject this too.
The storage and disposal of radioactive nuclear waste from spent nuclear fuel is a long-term problem posing grave risks to public health and the environment for which there is no solution. One alternative to this conundrum — the most important alternative — is to stop producing any more radioactive waste.
This, despite the number of workable and effective technical solutions being painstakingly progressed. Despite secure interim measures that regulators are happy with using for decades. The public and environment has never been harmed in decades of management, and the risks are eliminated by robust design. It’s even already funded.
Common sense should suggest that whatever end solutions are implemented for decisively dealing with the existing waste — which must happen anyway — will be equally suitable for any further waste.
“Don’t make any more waste” is clever anti-nuclear code for “shut all the nuclear reactors right now” — but, insidiously, without actually supporting waste stream solutions.
350.org is rather unique in its name, which unambiguously prioritises the limiting of greenhouse gas emissions and therefore climate change. Very recently its founder and leader, Bill McKibben, presented a vision of hope set in 2050, acknowledging much of the uphill struggle we face to get there, and writing,
Environmentalists learned they needed to make some compromises, and so most of America’s aging nuclear reactors were left online past their decommissioning dates: that lower-carbon power supplemented the surging renewable industry in the early years, even as researchers continued work to see if fusion power, thorium reactors or some other advanced design could work.
Spent fuel didn’t rate a mention, next to the extra decades of climate-friendly power supply represented by running the remaining US reactor fleet. As it shouldn’t.
So it’s clearly time for other environmental leaders to recognise priorities, compromise, and drop the objection.
Without doubt the industry needs to implement solutions. Getting some of those advanced design reactors built may be what’s needed but ultimately it’s not pro-nuclear advocates or sympathetic environmentalists who need to accelerate the really hard work — it’s nuclear plant vendors who must step up with licensable, affordable designs which can be built promptly and make sense for utilities. Put in the careful effort, as much as it takes, to decisively address people’s concerns and give them something real to support, even something they’ll want in their backyard.
Nuclear industry: there’s never been less doubt that your technology will be vital for a hopeful future. You’re justifiably claiming the climate benefits, so you need to follow through and generate the clean kilowatt hours. Now’s no time to slack off.
Oscar Archer holds a PhD in chemistry and has been analysing energy issues for over 14 years, focusing on nuclear technology for five, with a background in manufacturing and QA. By day he works in energy efficiency research & development. He helps out at Adelaide-based Bright New World as Senior Advisor (we want your support!)and writes for The Fourth Generation. Find him @OskaArcher on Twitter.