The discussion around nuclear energy is crucial, but the fear is that it may be regressing towards a polarised debate. Fundamentally, this arises not from malice or misinformation, but from the urgency to deliver solutions to stop climate catastrophe. However, whilst we continue to argue amongst ourselves over the topic of nuclear, we miss opportunities for green technology investment and add fuel to the fire stirred up by fossil fuel cronies and their puppet politicians.
Radioactive Wind Turbines – A simplified explanation of nuclear power
The core of atoms are made up of protons and neutrons; the ‘heavier’ an atom, the more protons and neutrons it has. An atomic nucleus is stable if there is a balance of forces within the nucleus, holding the core together – however, some heavier elements are unable to balance these forces, making them unstable. When an atom is unstable, it can undergo radioactive decay, which is where the danger of using these unstable elements (like Uranium or Plutonium) comes from.
There are two types of nuclear power: fission and fusion. Our sun, and stars in the night sky, undergo the process of nuclear fusion – where lighter elements’ atoms ‘fuse’ to become heavier elements, a process which releases a lot of energy in the form of heat and light. By contrast, nuclear fission is where atoms of heavier elements ‘fiss’ to become lighter elements, a process which similarly releases a lot of energy. It’s the latter process which nuclear power plants utilise.
In an example nuclear power plant, heavy radioactive elements (like Uranium or Plutonium) are placed inside fuel rods within the nuclear core. Neutrons are introduced, which are absorbed by the heavy elements inside the rods, making the already very heavy elements extremely unstable, causing them to split into lighter elements; this creates a domino effect, where more neutrons are released by fission, which induces more of the fuel to undergo fission. This nuclear fission process produces a lot of heat.
Regardless of whether directly, via Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), or indirectly, via Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR), we need water and a lot of it. You’re welcome to dive down the rabbit hole of how these two differ, but that’s on you, and honestly not necessary! The heat from the fission reaction is used to turn water into steam – causing turbines to rotate, producing electricity. Et voilà, you have nuclear power!
Why is it controversial?
The downside to nuclear fission is it produces a lot of radioactive nuclear waste, which will last for thousands of years, requiring a lot of security and safety protocols, as well as money for storage of those radioactive materials. Furthermore, it’s these fissile materials which can be utilised, if in the wrong hands, to be turned into nuclear weapons or dirty bombs. Whilst fission reactor meltdowns, albeit rare, still pose a risk to the environment, energy stability and national security for countries.
On the other hand, nuclear fusion would hypothetically provide a better alternative to many of these issues nuclear fission faces. From less radioactive products after fusion, far lower risk of materials being used to produce weapons and a far greater abundance of materials (which are more ethically sourced). As exciting as nuclear fusion would be, we don’t yet have the technology to make nuclear fusion plants commercially viable – hence why we’re stuck with the less-than-ideal nuclear fission plants with all their promise and problems.
Why can’t we stick to solar, wind and tidal?
Renewables offer a far safer, cheaper and a faster-to-develop solution for producing energy. Nuclear’s high up-front cost in conjunction with long construction times means that, for many, renewables would seem like the better alternative. However, the tides aren’t always consistent, the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine (a tragic fact we know all too well in Scotland) – and so, renewables can’t always reliably meet the energy demands at any given time.
Furthermore, renewables have a far lower energy density than nuclear, where nuclear can produce large quantities of energy with limited physical spaces – making them ideal for efficient land use (another problem we’re also aware of in Scotland) and more densely populated areas. So, even though nuclear isn’t perfect, we should use nuclear to bridge the gap, right?
The Global North Question
Well, that’s the question, or rather, one question. We in the global north have the privilege where we can ask: “should we have nuclear?” But for many countries in the global south who are still undergoing their industrialisations, as a result of overexploitation due to colonialism, the question is: “can we have nuclear?”
Water is a big problem. Most nuclear power plants are dependent upon access to fresh water, and even closed-loop nuclear plants which try to minimise how much water is lost in the process, still requires a few thousand litres per minute (or numerous Olympic-sized swimming pools every single day) in order to function. Alternatively, utilising sea-water may be a more abundant resource for some, but presents its own set of challenges – thermal pollution, decreased oxygen levels and impacts on native biodiversity are all risks from coastal or lake nuclear plants. Thankfully, some technology exists to mitigate this and reduce water consumption even further, such as air-cooling, but not to the extent where these problems disappear for many countries who don’t yet have nuclear power established.
Training a skilled workforce, the upfront investment cost, the construction duration, implementing effective security protocols and getting access to the necessary resources, are all issues for many in the global south which prevent them from becoming a nuclear-powered nation. Simply put, countries which are being industrialised can’t necessarily depend upon nuclear as a solution whilst they are facing drought or water-shortages, have a lack of electrical grid infrastructure or dealing with internal security issues – let alone meet energy demands as fast as building renewables can. Nuclear fission can be a viable solution for some, but it unfortunately isn’t a solution for everyone.
What is the solution then? Bright Green Environmentalism!
Recognising that nuclear isn’t necessarily an option for everyone, doesn’t inherently rule it out – but it does mean we need to consider additional solutions. For many in the global south, renewables do provide an answer to energy production where nuclear does not. Technological reparations provide a means for the global north to support the global south’s industrialisation with improved green research to combat the problems renewables face – from energy storage (like hydroelectric dams), infrastructure efficiency and improving energy production density. Facilitating many countries to skip the polluting stages of industrialisation with better planning, and greener technology, and a faster transition overall.
This is all just the tip of the iceberg – an iceberg which I’d personally rather wasn’t at risk of melting due to global warming – but outwith a global approach, we can’t hope to combat climate change. We cannot leave the global south behind by exclusively focusing on solutions which they can’t utilise too. Nuclear would also benefit from this research, especially energy storage or turbine energy conversion efficiency, and it also doesn’t mean we stop all nuclear research such as commercialised fusion plants – it’s simply a recognition that renewable technology, and energy research in general, are the immediate priority from a global perspective. We can’t afford to view this from the lens of the global north alone.
Regardless of the discussion around nuclear’s viability, the one thing we can all at least agree upon is that the problems for nuclear, and renewables alike, pale in comparison to those presented by continued fossil fuel usage – that climate catastrophe must be averted! A Bright Green Environmentalist approach, through green technological reparations and greater research investment, is the only real solution to ending our dependence on fossil fuels and delivering upon climate, global and resource justice simultaneously.
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