Confused as to whether nuclear power is good or bad for the planet? You’re not alone...
These days, environmentalism is as much about politics as it is about protecting the planet. In the 2020 Democratic candidate race, Cory Booker and Andrew Yang are almost evangelical about the potential of clean nuclear power, while Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both want to phase it out.
So, which is it? Is nuclear good or bad for the planet?
But seriously, according to the UN IPCC, nuclear is as low-carbon as offshore wind and four times less carbon-polluting than solar. Nuclear isn’t weather dependent, so we can use it to fill the gaps when it’s not windy or sunny (like during the night).
Why not use natural gas to partner renewables instead of nuclear?
Although burning natural gas releases only half as much CO2 as coal, it’s still 40 times more polluting than nuclear.
Add in the greenhouse effect of methane leaks and that it is often produced as a by-product of oil (thus locking in future oil extraction), and natural gas seems like less of a good idea than Shell, BP, Chevron, Total and Equinor are making out…wait a minute…
Modern society needs energy for health, education and prosperity. But we don’t want our energy demand to damage other things we value.
The world population is growing towards 10 billion people — that means more farmland for food, more woodland for timber and more mining for minerals.
To do that without wrecking our planet, we’ll have to understand not just our carbon footprint, but also our land footprint.
Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.
- Mark Twain
Every time we try to squeeze more food, energy and minerals from the land, we make it harder for the animals and plants that live there.
We cut down forests. We dam rivers. We dig for coal and other minerals. And in recent years, we cover grasslands and deserts with solar panels. Incredibly, sometimes we even cut down trees to install solar panels.
Every square metre of land we industrialise is one less square metre for nature. Thousands of animal and plant species around the world are going extinct because we destroy their homes — and mostly not from climate change, but from simply taking the land and flooding it, or building or farming on it.
In short, land is precious. Let’s not waste it.
Nuclear is the most land-efficient of all the energy sources. This is because its fuel, uranium, is so powerful. Nuclear needs less land and less steel and concrete than any alternative.
So, nuclear means: we let forests be forests, instead of biomass farms or tar sands mines. We let rivers be rivers, instead of hydro resources.
What about the land taken up by nuclear waste?
Well, there’s really not very much of it. And it isn’t a green goo like in The Simpsons. It’s mostly just long bits of metal that are first cooled down in a swimming pool, and then put inside a concrete box.
You can even hug them if you like 🤗
Eventually, we will probably put that metal underground somewhere, like Finland is already doing. We can also recycle the vast majority of it in the advanced reactors coming in the 2020s.
Aside from not producing CO2, nuclear power also doesn’t release any other air pollutants or greenhouse gases. In Europe alone, coal pollution is thought to kill thousands of people a year.
The United Nations says air pollution kills seven million people every year. Can we really afford to ignore that?
We all know how much of a problem plastic and other wastes pose for our planet. There are calls to limit single-use plastics, switch to card and paper packaging, and to recycle more.
But there are some problems with that:
We can solve points 1 and 2 by using more glass and metal packaging, both of which are infinitely recyclable.
But like a game of whack-a-mole, solving 1 and 2 makes 3 even more challenging; glass and metals require even more energy to recycle than paper and plastics!
Right now, it’s often cheaper to mine new materials than it is recycle them, and it’s in large part down to the cost of energy.
Nuclear power can provide the affordable, high-grade heat and always-on electricity we need to recycle everything, without carbon emissions.
That could mean a virtuous, circular economy of more clean energy, more recycling, less waste to landfill and less mining.
Uranium is dissolved in small concentrations in seawater — it seeps into the sea naturally from rocks in the seabed.
The cool thing is that if we start harvesting uranium from the sea, more uranium will come out of the rocks, dissolving in the sea to make up for the loss. That is to say, the uranium in the sea would renew itself.
There’s so much uranium in rocks that it would take at least thousands of years to use it up — enough time to perfect nuclear fusion, which can run on more commonly-available elements.