The role of nuclear power

Is it a threat or a promise?

Few disagree that fossil fuels need to be replaced with clean sources of energy, but the role of nuclear power in the mix remains hotly contested.

The risk of meltdown; the threat posed by long-term exposure to low-level radiation to power workers and those who live near plants; and nuclear waste disposal are the main obstacles to new nuclear power plant construction. High cost, the long construction time, government assumption of liability insurance, and risks of nuclear weapons proliferation and terrorism are other worries.
In the early 2000s, there had been widespread talk of a “nuclear renaissance,” and construction of nuclear power plants picked up briefly. But the 2011 accident at the Fukushima plant in Japan killed this off, and led many countries to block new construction or even shut down reactors.

Interestingly, some conservative groups and private industry have joined the “greens” on the left in objecting to new plants. The libertarian Cato Institute has warned against the “risky business” of nuclear power, which it links to government loan guarantees and construction cost overruns could leave the public paying much of the bill. Based on political objections to the large government investment necessary, the conservative American Enterprise Institute and free-market-boosting Economist magazine recommend nuclear power play a minor role.

A shift in thinking has begun, however, among a number of high-profile climate scientists, particularly in the United States and Britain, and some anti-nuclear activists who are convinced that there is no alternative. Renewable sources such as solar and wind are intolerably intermittent; hydroelectric and geothermal are limited by geography and have a limited scalability. Meanwhile, economic growth adds electricity demand equal to a year’s consumption in Brazil that must be met.

Nuclear advocates argue state-of-the-art reactor design actually consumes nuclear waste, and also eliminates the threat of meltdown. Moreover, they say, nuclear has the fewest number of accidental deaths per unit of energy generated of all major sources of energy generation, lower even than solar power. Zero radiation related deaths have occurred as a result of the accident at Three Mile Island, and there were no casualties officially reported to be caused by radiation exposure at Fukushima.

If you want to read more, some of the major anti-nuclear campaign groups include GreenpeaceFriends of the Earth and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, while noted environmentalists who have written extensively in favour of nuclear power include George Monbiot and Mark Lynas. The 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise gives an easy to understand and visually arresting overview of the pro-nuclear argument.