As the old saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. Despite lingering public anxiety around safety, there are growing calls for the world to look again at nuclear power as part of the solution to the climate crisis.
At 14:46 local time on Friday 11th March, 2011, a massive undersea earthquake struck approximately 70 kilometres off the north-eastern coast of Honshu, the largest island in Japan. Measuring 9.0–9.1 on the Richter scale, the eruption was the biggest ever recorded in a country well acquainted with them, and the fourth most powerful in the world since modern record keeping began in 1900.
Striking at a depth of approximately 29km the quake unleashed powerful tsunami waves that in places reached heights of around 40 metres and which, in Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region, travelled up to 10km inland at speeds of up to 700km per hour. Residents of Sendai had only eight to ten minutes of warning, and several thousand were killed, many at evacuation sites, more than a hundred of which washed away. The latest report from the Japanese National Police Agency says the disaster led to almost 16,000 deaths, with a further 2,529 people missing.1 In total, 121,778 buildings collapsed, while close to another million were damaged.2
Perhaps surprisingly given those grim statistics, the events of 11th March 2011 are probably best remembered for a different reason, at least outside of Japan. Approximately 100km down the coast from Sendai, the Fukushima nuclear disaster was unfolding. Although the plant’s reactors automatically shut down on detecting the earthquake, its electricity supply failed, forcing emergency diesel generators to kick in. But almost immediately, the tsunami swept over the plant’s seawall, flooded the basements and knocked them out.
While shutting down the reactors halted the nuclear fission process, without the generators there was no way of removing heat from their core. As a result, three of them melted, triggering hydrogen explosions. The emission of radioactive material forced the evacuation of 154,000 nearby residents, while large amounts of water contaminated with radioactive isotopes spewed into the Pacific Ocean.
Amazingly, just one person is known to have died as a direct result of the incident at Fukushima – a 50-year old worker who succumbed to lung cancer in 2018 after being exposed to radiation. However, it revived memories of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. In doing so, it dealt a hammer blow to many countries’ nuclear industries. Almost a decade on, though, a growing number of experts are promoting nuclear power as the best way of averting what could be a far deadlier threat: man-made climate change.
A green revolution
Governments face a huge challenge in trying to wean their economies off fossil fuels to avert catastrophic climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in October 2018 the global economy needed to undergo a green industrial revolution “unprecedented” in scale and scope in just three decades if the rise in mean temperature is to be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.3
Decarbonising electricity production is all the more pressing since demand is forecast to double by 2050
Central to policymakers’ decision-making process is what to do with their electricity-generating networks. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions – an independent, non-partisan, non-profit organisation – the production of electricity and heat accounted for 31 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2013, more than twice as much as the next biggest sector – transportation (15 per cent).4 Moreover, it is arguably the sector that can most readily be decarbonised.
Decarbonising electricity production is all the more pressing since demand – having already doubled between 1990 and 2016 – is forecast to double again by 2050 as growing numbers of people are connected to grids, as transportation networks electrify at an accelerating pace, and as heating is also electrified.5
Canaries in the coal mines
To have a realistic chance of keeping warming within even two degrees, the IPCC reckons at least 80 per cent of the world’s electricity must come from low-carbon sources by 2050, in part because Asian and African countries have rapidly expanded numbers of fossil-fuel power stations. Worse still, in the case of China, India and other countries, many of the new plants burn coal, by far the dirtiest way to produce electricity. As a result, 66 per cent of the world’s electricity was generated by burning fossil fuels in 2015, a figure little changed from a decade earlier – despite efforts by developed nations to decarbonise their networks.6
There, the focus has largely been on wind and solar power. However, while these sources of renewable energy will play an important role in curbing greenhouse-gas emissions, they are unlikely to be the entire solution.
Their intermittent nature, as well as issues storing and transporting solar and wind energy, creates a challenge.
Sometimes the wind is strong, and at other times it doesn’t blow at all, while the sun, when it does shine, only does so during the day and rarely when electricity consumption is at its peak.
The cost of storing electricity in batteries is falling but it still remains prohibitively expensive
Additionally, while the cost of storing electricity in batteries is falling, it remains prohibitively expensive, meaning grids that depend mainly on renewables face one of two more realistic options. Unfortunately, neither of these comes cheap. One is to provide baseload, or back-up, from other sources of electricity. The trouble with this option is the cost of providing that baseload rises exponentially as solar and wind’s penetration grows, because non-intermittent sources of power are forced to spend increasing amounts of time idle. That helps explain why the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, an independent body set up to advise the government, in May 2019 said as much as 40 per cent of electricity generation in 2050 might have to be from non-intermittent sources.7
The other option is to build more generating capacity from renewables than is normally required. However, according to a recent report in The New Yorker, Steven Davis, an Earth system scientist at the University of California, Irvine, reckons even if Japan built enough wind and solar capacity to generate 150 per cent of its annual electricity demand, energy storage for 12 hours of average use, and a new electric grid, it would still have to find two per cent of its needs from elsewhere.8
Predictions such as this have prompted some commentators to suggest nuclear, which provides a constant and reliable source of power and results in lower carbon emissions than almost any other source of electricity, has an important role to play. In its report, the IPCC acknowledged that not only was nuclear power’s share of electricity generation likely to have to increase if the temperature rise was to be kept to 1.5 degrees, several scenarios would rely heavily on it.
However, much as nuclear may seem like an obvious part of the solution to the problem of climate change, there is little sign countries have much appetite for a significant roll out of power plants. That casts doubt on the nuclear industry’s ability to deliver the amount of new power needed quickly enough.
According to The World Nuclear Industry Status Report, published in September 2019, nuclear-power generation peaked in 2006, the number of reactors in operation in 2002 and those under construction in 1979. As of mid-2019, there was one less unit in operation than in 1989, with nuclear’s share of global electricity generation in 2018 at 10.2 per cent, down from a high of about 17.5 per cent in 1996.9
Figure 1: Average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions
The perception and reality gap
Ever since the world’s first commercial nuclear reactor was built at Calder Hall in Sellafield, England, in 1956, the nuclear industry has been dogged by concerns over cost – both of building and decommissioning plants – and dealing with radioactive waste. However, its main problem has been its safety record, or rather public perceptions of it, in the wake of high-profile accidents such as those at Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island.
In 1981, four academics interested in the psychology of decision making asked three groups of US lay people from different backgrounds to rank 30 hazards, including riding motorbikes, smoking and handguns. Tellingly, two years after the most significant accident in US nuclear history at Three Mile Island, two of the three groups had nuclear power at the top of their list, while the third had it in eighth position.10
Studies show nuclear power to be among the safest methods of producing electricity
However, studies such as a 2010 report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show nuclear power to be among the safest methods of producing electricity.11 Three Mile Island led to no fatalities. While 31 people were killed in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and several thousand as a result of cancer since, nuclear's record over more than six decades compares favourably with other forms of energy.
For instance, the OECD in 2016 warned air pollution could cause six to nine million premature deaths a year by 2060 and cost one per cent of global GDP.12 A 2015 study from the non-profit organization Berkeley Earth estimated that 1.6 million people die prematurely each year in China because of polluted air, much of it from coal-fired power plants.13 As for other forms of energy, the failure of the Banqiao dam in China in 1975 is estimated to have killed up to 230,000.
Statistics such as these haven’t stopped countries drastically curbing their nuclear ambitions. The World Nuclear Association says the Three Mile Island incident was a “major cause” of the decline in US nuclear plant construction through the 1980s and 1990s.14 The US Energy Information Administration forecasts nuclear generating capacity will decline from 19 per cent in 2018 to 12 per cent in 2050.15
Figure 2: Estimate of historical mortality rates for different energy sources
The Fukushima effect
Chernobyl may have triggered more public anxiety, but Fukushima dealt the world’s nuclear industry its biggest blow. Japan shut down all 54 of its reactors, which accounted for around 30 per cent of its energy mix, in its wake.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants them restarted, arguing nuclear energy will help Japan achieve its CO2 emissions targets and reduce its dependence on imported gas and oil. The government hopes nuclear power will comprise up to 22 per cent of the overall energy mix by 2030.
Fukushima’s impact was also felt in Europe. Within a fortnight of the incident, Italy put a one-year moratorium on plans to revive nuclear power
But Japan is struggling to restart reactors in the face of strong local opposition and legal challenges amid concern over the technology’s safety in a country subjected to regular earthquakes and tsunamis. According to the World Nuclear Association, just nine reactors had restarted by August 2019, having passed stringent safety checks introduced after the Fukushima meltdown.16 Although approval is being sought for another 17 reactors to be restarted, the government is unlikely to meet its target of 30 restarts by 2030. In an act of defiance, Abe’s own environment minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, called for the country’s nuclear reactors to be scrapped altogether.17
Fukushima’s impact was also felt in Europe. Within a fortnight of the incident, Italy put a one-year moratorium on plans to revive nuclear power. Three months later, over 94 per cent of Italians voted in favour of banning new plants. Belgium, Germany and Switzerland opted to phase out nuclear power completely, while even France, one of the technology’s oldest proponents, said it would close 20 of its 58 plants.
Decarbonising with nuclear?
Many are now questioning the wisdom of those decisions. Take Germany. Two months after Fukushima, amid widespread protests, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced plans to accelerate the closure of all 17 of the nation’s nuclear plants. By 2022, Germany is set to join Italy and Lithuania as the only countries to have abandoned atomic energy entirely. According to a report in Der Spiegel, by 2025 it will have spent more than €500 billion on the phase out. The result has been a near 33 per cent increase in electricity prices over the last decade.18
As part of its Energiewende legislation in 2010, Germany set itself an ambitious renewable energy target of 60 per cent by 2050 as it looks to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 80–95 per cent relative to 1990. However, unable to build renewables fast enough, the decision to close nuclear plants has for now forced it to turn to lignite – a particularly dirty form of coal due to its relatively low heat content. As a result, CO2 emissions have hardly dropped at all. The carbon footprint of people living in France and Sweden, two countries that still rely heavily on nuclear power, is half that of Germans.
Multiple studies suggest the policy is costing lives. For example, in a working paper by the US National Bureau of Economic Research in December 2019, three economists sought to find out what would have happened if those nuclear plants had kept running. Their conclusion: it would have saved the lives of 1,100 people a year who succumb to air pollution released by coal-burning power plants.19
‘Germany’s decision to close nuclear plants has for now forced it to turn to lignite – a particularly dirty form of coal
“The social cost of this shift from nuclear to coal is approximately $12 billion per year. Over 70 per cent of this cost comes from the increased mortality risk. Even the largest estimates of the reduction in the costs associated with nuclear accident risk and waste disposal due to the phase-out are far smaller than $12 billion,” the report’s authors said.
Now it appears even renewables are running into opposition. Construction of new wind parks in Germany has collapsed over the past year, in large part due to growing resistance from local activists. In the first nine months of 2019, developers put up 150 new wind turbines across the country with a total capacity of 514 megawatts – more than 80 per cent below the average build rate in the past five years and the lowest increase in capacity for two decades.20
Part of the problem is a perceived lack of land, a problem that could get worse after the German government said it would enforce a minimum distance of 1,000 metres between wind masts and the nearest built-up area. The World Nuclear Association says one of the big benefits of nuclear plants is they take up a fraction of the space required for wind and solar farms. It points out that the UK’s Hinkley Point C plant is expected to generate around 500 times more electricity per square metre than the 175-turbine London Array offshore wind farm, the world’s largest.21
In an op-ed for The New York Times in April 2019, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, Swedish engineer Staffan Qvist and political scientist Joshua Goldstein said despite it going “all-in for renewables… according to our calculations, at Germany’s rate of adding clean energy relative to gross domestic product, it would take the world more than a century to decarbonize, even if the country wasn’t also retiring nuclear plants early”.22
Pockets of interest
While Germany, South Korea and others may have scaled back their nuclear ambitions in the wake of Fukushima and earlier accidents, it would be wrong to conclude the world’s nuclear industry is on its deathbed. Japan is bringing its fleet back online, albeit slowly, while France never closed any plants. As for Russia, China and India, they have shown no signs of scaling back their ambitions. Russia currently has 17 plants under construction, China 11 and India seven.
You have to wonder whether the environmental movement’s opposition to nuclear has done more harm than good
As concerns over climate change rise rapidly up the political agenda in most developed countries, the calls to re-think their policies on nuclear are growing louder. Even some environmental activists are starting to ponder whether nuclear might not be part of the solution.
“My friends in the Green Party might not like me for saying this, but I think nuclear could be part of the transition. You have to wonder whether the environmental movement’s opposition to nuclear has done more harm than good,” says Extinction Rebellion’s Andrew Medhurst.
For nuclear enthusiasts, there are some encouraging, albeit tentative, signs of a shift. For instance, President Donald Trump in December signed off on the government’s 2020 spending bill. It included nearly $1.5 billion for nuclear energy research.23
Following the announcement, Dr Rita Baranwal, assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy, said: “President Trump, Secretary Dan Brouillette and I are dedicated to achieving a US resurgence in nuclear energy. We have the bipartisan support. We have the technology. We have the expertise. Now it’s time to get something built – and we need to do it with a sense of urgency.”
An R&D wave
While it is premature to declare the US’s nuclear ambitions have been reignited, that hasn’t stopped entrepreneurs and investors from pouring billions of dollars into new startups. Some are looking to develop nuclear fusion as a feasible source of energy. Potentially, it could generate much more power than existing technologies that rely on fission (splitting atoms), with much less waste and without the danger of explosions. While this technology still looks some way off, other types of so-called fourth-generation nuclear reactors appear closer to commercialisation. They are small, promise even more safety, and are suitable for modern power grids.
Bill Gates has reportedly ploughed $500 million into TerraPower, which is looking to develop various revolutionary technologies
The most prominent investor is Bill Gates. The former Microsoft chief, who says nuclear power is “ideal for dealing with climate change”, has reportedly ploughed $500 million into a company called TerraPower.24 It is looking to develop various revolutionary technologies, among them a reactor whose core will be almost entirely filled with spent fuel from other reactors. That would potentially go a long way to solving one of the industry’s most vexed issues: how to safely dispose of its radioactive waste. Unfortunately, the US-China trade spat put paid to Gates’s engineering plans that were set to start in China, but perhaps the recent agreement will counterbalance that.
NuScale, another startup, is developing a new modular reactor. Instead of one big reactor, it envisages plants running on lots of smaller ones. The company, which says improved safety is one of the key benefits of its technology, has received interest from 20 countries and is in talks with 29 US electric utility companies.
Champions of nuclear power argue a further key advantage is that the steam produced could be used to make hydrogen at little extra cost and without emitting CO2. According to the US Office of Nuclear Energy, a single 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor could produce more than 200,000 tonnes of hydrogen each year, meaning ten reactors could supply 20 per cent of US demand.25
That hydrogen could potentially be used by industry as a source of heat. Heavy industry is responsible for around 22 percent of global CO2 emissions. Roughly 42 per cent of that is the consequence of fossil-fuel combustion to produce heat to make products such as cement, steel and petrochemicals. In November, German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp launched the world’s first tests into the use of hydrogen in a blast furnace. The gas will be injected to partially replace pulverised coal at a large scale during steel production.
Hydrogen could also be sold as a by-product to fertiliser producers and could even be pumped through existing natural gas infrastructures to be used for transportation, cooking and heating.
Costing the earth
Whether any of these new technologies get off the ground, let alone make a meaningful contribution towards limiting global emissions, remains to be seen. Even where public concerns over safety can be overcome, worries over cost remain.
For example, as of September 2019, it was estimated the UK’s Hinkley Point C reactors would cost £22.9 billion to build. By way of comparison, the Channel Tunnel linking Britain and France cost £4.65 billion, around £15 billion in today’s money.
NuScale claims that since its reactors are prefabricated before being shipped to their final destination, there is a significant cost saving. It expects to be able to generate electricity at a cost of about six cents per kilowatt hour, enabling the reactor to compete with cheap gas-fired power plants.
However, Michael Shellenberger, American author and pro-nuclear environmental activist, has doubts new technologies are the answer if cost is the overriding concern, and he is not alone.
The only thing that works to make nuclear cheaper is to build the same reactor over and over again, using the same people
“The only thing that works to make nuclear cheaper is to build the same reactor over and over again, using the same people, the same construction managers – like the Koreans did, like the French have done mostly, and like the Russians are doing,” he says.
France’s EDF says its Sizewell C plant will be a replica of Hinkley Point C and claims this will significantly reduce construction cost and risk.26
“Its delivery will be dovetailed with Hinkley construction, starting five years after Hinkley so that management can transfer from Hinkley to Sizewell and bring all the skills, knowhow and expertise gained on Hinkley. Likewise, the Hinkley supply chain will ‘lift-and-shift’ to Sizewell with efficiency and productivity gains from delivering the same design, works packages, and scheduling,” it says.
University of Oxford professor Dieter Helm reckons Hinkley C would actually have cost half as much if the government had been borrowing the money at two per cent rather than the nine per cent cost of capital applied by EDF. Nonetheless, and even though the cost of operating nuclear plants is low once they have been built, cash-strapped governments will have to rely heavily on private finance if they are to be constructed in sufficient number quickly enough.
According to Darryl Murphy, managing director of infrastructure at Aviva Investors, this will not be straightforward as investors will firstly need to satisfy themselves of nuclear power’s environmental, social and governance credentials.
Historically nobody has been able to build these plants to time and budget
“Even if they do that, they then face the problem that historically nobody has been able to build these plants to time and budget.”
Murphy says if governments want to attract private investment during the construction period, they have to find a way of sharing the risk. That will ultimately expose consumers to the risk of costs overrunning, which will need to be justified.
Nonetheless, he does not see these problems as insurmountable. “After all you’re talking about a very long-term, indexed-linked cash flow, which a lot of investors would love, so the investment case on financials alone is strong,” he says.
As for Shellenberger, he says part of the answer is to build nuclear reactors on existing sites as it makes it far easier to get planning approval.
“This is partly why I’m so fanatical about defending the nuclear plants we have. If you look at the US, Britain, France and elsewhere in Europe, we already have enough places that nuclear could easily produce double or triple the amount of energy it presently does without developing any new sites. A lot of these plants have plenty of room for more reactors. This is what is great about nuclear, it’s so energy-dense. What might be a two-gigawatt plant right now, in the future could be five, ten or 15 gigawatts,” he says.
Reframing the nuclear option
To fully assess whether nuclear should play a role in addressing the climate crisis, one must first understand its complex, divisive and – some would argue – misunderstood past. Chernobyl, not Fukushima, was in large part responsible for this; an event that was brought back into public consciousness last year by a haunting and breathtaking HBO series on the catastrophe. The drama presented Chernobyl as a story of lies and cover ups, as much as a human tragedy.
“To be a scientist is to be naïve. We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants, it doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions.
It will lie in wait for all time. This, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl.
That I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?
These words were narrated over the final scene of the series by Jared Harris, the British actor who played Valery Legasov, the chief Soviet scientist responsible for investigating the disaster.
The cold passage of time has enabled us to realise the failings at Chernobyl amount more to human fallibility than to technological failings. Our visceral and immediate response to the technology’s power has costs that run deep. First, there are the misperceptions of risks associated with both the likelihood of accidents and the deadliness of them when they do happen (certainly when accurately compared against fossil-fuel alternatives to nuclear). Second, there is the opportunity cost in research and development that has occurred as a result of this mis-framing. Third may well be the opportunity cost of carbon-emission reduction as a result of its underuse.
None of this is to belittle the risks. Nuclear power is undoubtedly a hot-button issue at a geopolitical level. However, the escalating climate crisis makes it all the more pressing to have an informed conversation about the place of nuclear in the transition to clean energy.