The parable of nuclear power

Nuclear energy has always been in limelight. In movies, it portrays as something which makes Hulk or Godzilla. It is constantly in the news because something has gone wrong. But nuclear energy is safe, reasonably reliable, and efficient. Abandoning it will make it impossible to fight climate change. So, why nuclear energy makes up only 10% of global electricity generation1.

Eight years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Eisenhower proposed the peaceful use of nuclear energy for electricity generation. In 1956 world’s first commercial nuclear reactor was built in Britain2. This was a symbol of modernity and some people saw it as a symbol of peace. By the 1960s, 78 reactors have been built across 14 countries3

Like other reactors, nuclear reactors generate heat to produce steam to turn the turbine blades. But nuclear reactor does it more efficiently.

In the 1960s, the environmentalists supported nuclear energy as they perceived it as a better alternative to destroying biodiversity for hydroelectricity. Soon, people began to change their minds. They worried that the everyday operation of the nuclear power plant will poison the world which is not even vaguely true. However, this became a part of a campaign. People fretted that a nuclear accident would be like an atomic bomb going off, which is again anything but the truth. In the 1970s lot of pessimism was going on and people were having a trust crisis in authority. 

There was a backlash against nuclear energy, and this only worsen with the Three Mile Island incident (1979), the Chernobyl disaster (1986), and the Fukushima nuclear disaster (2011). Each accident stoked fear about nuclear power. After Fukushima nuclear has lowest public support even lower than the coal4

But nuclear energy is one of the safest forms of energy production. Although the official death toll linked to Fukushima stands at 600, all these fatalities (but one) were attributed to the stress of evacuation5. Fukushima had a full-scale meltdown, but it didn’t kill anyone but produced a huge clean-up cost.  A well-regulated nuclear power plant even in breaking down conditions is not a dangerous object. People worry about radiation but in general nuclear power stations do not release radiation. 

Compared to all the energy sources the death rate due to nuclear energy is extremely low. As a matter of fact, in 2013 climatologists James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha calculated that the use of nuclear power between 1971 and 2009 prevented the death of 1.84 million people as it does not produce greenhouse gases (during operation)6

The panic that nuclear plants emit dangerous levels of radiation is overblown. The only nuclear power plant which emitted dangerous levels of radiation and caused significant harm to public health was Chernobyl. The reactor had a poor design and was operated in a terrible way. 

The nuclear fuel used in power stations undergoes enrichment which is also used for nuclear weapons. This means countries can use power stations as a cover-up for developing weapons. This is worrying when countries in an unstable part of the world start getting interested in nuclear technology. 

One of the major hindrances to building a nuclear power plant – it is really expensive. Nuclear infrastructure is incredibly complex and needs to build precisely. Any delay only drives up the cost. 

If the cost of building a nuclear power plant comes down, it would be possible for nuclear renaissance to happen. Things would have been different for nuclear only if the environmentalist had realized the impact of climate change on the world. 

1. BP
2. Britannica
3. Statista
4. Ipsos
5. Ourworldindata
6. Kharecha, P.A., and J.E. Hansen, 2013: Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas
This work is based on the film by the Economist.

Published by Amit K Shah

Nuclear Engineer. Junior Research Fellow at National Institute of Advanced Studies.

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