Turning the Tide on Climate Change requires a Nuclear Shift
This spring’s Netflix series Our Planet is a show like no other. While the BBC’sPlanet Earth, Blue Planet and Frozen Planet series were awe-inspiring and moving pieces of storytelling and cinematography, this latest creation inspires something else. The show is openly focused on the effects of climate change in a very unconceited way and provokes thought and fear as much as it leaves you inspired. In short, it is a show with a mission, to turn the tide of climate change within the next 20 years.
With environmental marches clogging up the news and the streets, in the last 20 years climate change has gone from a secondary topic to one of politics’ great issues, one that has certainly caught the attention of and inspired a whole new generation of young people who no longer just care about the future of the planet but about it’s (and our) very existence in the next century. While the louder voices in the environmental campaign (the Greens, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion) can often be arrogant and unconstructive, their massive growth and the wider movement behind them shows that there is now a genuine popular concern about climate change and that it’s grown from an issue for an engaged few to the concern of the masses.
The Conservative party has in its time in government made great strides to start turning the tide on climate change and to deal with environmental issues. From greenhouse gas emissions being reduced by 23% in the last 9 years to Britain leading the way in reducing carbon dioxide emissions among the G20. Yet, this isn’t enough. I was walking through London with a good friend of mine a while back, when he stopped and pointed at St Paul’s Cathedral, in all its magnificence, and said “this is what conservatism is about. Preserving something like this so our children can see it too” and he was right. Furthermore, not only must we preserve God’s own country and all it’s rolling hills, dense forests and crisp meadows for generations to come, but also the whole world around it, the one so beautifully depicted in Our Planet. However, the preservation of our planet necessitates protection that goes beyond single-use plastic bans and carbon taxes.
Where do we start? Energy production. Energy supply constitutes around a third of greenhouse gas emissions and certainly contributes to a lot of the rest (production and residential emissions). In 2018, this energy came mainly from gas (a full 42%), with fossil fuels as a whole constituting 44%. That is a lot. While renewables, mainly wind and solar, are catching up (at 20%) what catches my eye is how little we use nuclear energy. Barely scraping by at 21% of energy production, our 15 nuclear power plants (on par with Ukraine) produce just fifth of UK energy, despite having been around since the fifties, taking up a fraction of the space, resources and manpower as other solutions and producing exactly 0g of CO2 in all those years. So although the government promised up to 8 new privately-sourced power plants back in late 2010, the Scottish government and both E.ON and Npower pulled out of the project, leaving the future currently dead in the water. My question is: why?
First of all, saying “nuclear” is scary and unsexy. Searching “nuclear power pla-” google automatically suggested Fukushima, which was not what I was after. Indeed, prior to my interest in nuclear energy, all I knew of it was Chernobyl, Fukushima and a bunch of Germans carrying colourful signs who didn’t want nuclear energy. Fair enough. I’ll admit that a nuclear meltdown is a lot more dangerous than a wind turbine falling over and probably tips the scale on an oil spill but let’s tally the numbers here. In petawatts/hour, the amount of deaths caused by nuclear energy? 90. Coal however is in the hundreds of thousands, oil is in the 40,000 ballpark, hydro and wind are also in the thousands and even rooftop solar energy causes more deaths. All for way less energy output. What’s more, the only energy source less fatal than nuclear is hydro. Probably because of a few damn dam failures.
Now I will put my hands up here and admit that despite only being two accidents, Fukushima and Chernobyl are and will remain entirely uninhabitable for the more-than-foreseeable future. Yet, one was caused by a typhoon and the other was built out of shoddy steel and plastic by Kazakh engineers. More seriously, both of those systems are not only archaic and dangerous by today’s nuclear standards, so were they by their own era’s nuclear standards. Nuclear reactions were certainly “hip” back in the 60s and 70s, but it seems like the cheapest and easiest form of reactor stuck, lots were built, and then it all stopped. Even before Fukushima, Chernobyl and dozens of other nuclear power plants around the world were all built, other ideas for what would have been safer power plants were being thought up and tested.
The plants they used and that we predominantly use today, namely light water reactors, are usually pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactor. They essentially consist of nuclear fuel rods (just a big stick filled with uranium) being stuck in a vat of water that it boils until the elements inside start to deteriorate and have to be removed (a process that means only about 5% of the potential energy in a rod is used), with the boiling water literally just used as a steam generator to power a glorified generator. The process is agonisingly simplistic and not only puts the plant at risk to incidents (high pressure and high temperatures can end in disaster) but desperately misuse the great potential of nuclear energy.
The final major issue with nuclear energy is nuclear waste. This is a big one. Not only do the materials used in the production of nuclear energy create radiation that is extremely threatening to life for a very long time, but conventional power plants are creating far more nuclear waste than they need to (the average of 20 metric tonnes per plant mainly consisting of unused material). Nuclear waste is certainly not easy to get rid of either, as at the moment the best we’ve been able to think of is burying it deep underground and drowning it in concrete. However, that still works. Humans aren’t put in direct danger, the ecosystem is barely touched (apart from some bats maybe) and the fact that it offsets the catastrophic short- and long-term effects of climate change means that it may be a bet worth making.
But what if we didn’t have to make that bet? If scientists in the 70s already had ideas for safer nuclear reactors, just imagine what people are coming up with now. Startups and university-funded projects are working on next-generation molten salt reactors (that can run on existing nuclear fuel) and pebble reactors (that basically eliminate the possibility of accidents) that maximise fuel utilisation, minimise waste to a point where it becomes a simple engineering issue and drives down the costs dramatically. In early 2018, there were 75 separate advanced fission projects in North America alone trying to build reactors for the future, all making headway.
So why is nothing changing? Put simply: infrastructure and cost. The Scottish government’s official reasoning for opposing all new power stations is that “the costs of nuclear [energy] are vast and uncertain” and by modern standards, they are correct. Nuclear energy is currently more expensive to produce than solar and wind and if we keep using light water reactors then the environmental costs are uncertain. However, that’s because since nuclear fever died out and new power plants stopped being built, the demand for the necessary materials and infrastructure disappeared, so building them became gradually more difficult and expensive. In the same way that wind and solar were immensely expensive solutions 30 years ago, the lack of demand for not just next generation nuclear reactors but nuclear reactors as a whole means that the costs are driven through the roof.
What’s more, in a large country such as the United States (where much of the research and development is currently happening), startups require a much bigger kickstart than they would here. Enough funding for even two new generation nuclear reactors in the UK would fundamentally change our power supply and the future for nuclear energy. This isn’t even a blind leap either, as scientists in Germany were making extensive headway with pebble core reactors before the government abruptly stopped funding nuclear research projects post-Fukushima. That was already a decade ago, so imagine what could be done in less than a decade from now.
With the developing world fast producing more greenhouse gasses than the developed world, countries like China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil will have to make the biggest strides in next-generation nuclear energy to be able to reduce global CO2 emissions without sacrificing their growth and prosperity. However, before such large markets can trust these solutions, someone will have to show them that it works and that setting up the infrastructure is worth the cost. It may be naive to say that changing the United Kingdom in turn changes the world, but I still truly believe that where we lead, others will follow. The reason that this atlantic archipelago attracts the fourth most foreign direct investment in the world and is one of the biggest centres for research and development is that our culture breeds progress and innovation. We’re still global trendsetters in our own way and we should be the first to take a nuclear first step towards saving the planet.