Nuclear energy: salvation or catastrophe?
Our world is in the midst of the biggest and most urgent energy transition in our history: we have just a few decades to completely abandon dirty energy and switch to clean energy.
When we think of clean energy, we almost always think of solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal, but there is one source of energy around which there is a heated debate regarding its suitability and sustainability: nuclear energy.
The debate mixes hard data with justified fears. The memories of Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) are still fresh in the collective memory, and nuclear plants are viewed with suspicion: no one wants to be near them. At the same time, their advocates rely on their sustainable potential and low production cost, and extol them as an essential part of any energy transition plan.
So is nuclear energy our salvation (at least in part), or just a shortcut, a bad idea disguised as a solution?
Nuclear energy as salvation
Nuclear energy, or atomic energy, can be defined as the energy contained in the nucleus of an atom. All atoms are composed of two types of particles, neutrons and protons. Broadly speaking, it can be said that nuclear energy is obtained as a result of separating these particles in a process known as nuclear fission.
Those who defend nuclear energy as part of a sustainable solution to the world's energy crisis allude, first and foremost, to the absence of emissions. Nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4), two of the main causes of climate change, at any stage of their energy production process.
Moreover, despite the high initial cost of setting up a nuclear power plant, it produces energy extremely cheaply, since it only requires uranium to operate; and its level of efficiency is superior to all other known energy sources: it works at maximum capacity, on average, 93% of the time. In contrast, for example, in 2016 hydroelectric power plants in the United States worked at maximum capacity just 38.2% of the time.
The latter is because nuclear power is not dependent on wind currents (like wind power) or on the number of hours of direct sunlight (like solar power) or on currents and water levels (like hydroelectric power), so it can operate constantly at maximum capacity, stopping only for rigorous safety checks and maintenance work.
The latter is because nuclear power is not dependent on wind currents (like wind power), nor on the number of hours of direct sunlight (like solar power), nor on currents or water levels (like hydroelectric power), so it can operate constantly at maximum capacity, stopping only for stringent safety checks and maintenance work.
Finally, just as clean energy is constantly being developed, the nuclear industry is investing astronomical amounts of money to reach new levels of efficiency and sustainability, knowing that no dirty energy will take place in the medium future.
Projects such as billionaire Bill Gates' Natrium seek exactly this: to harness atomic energy more safely, efficiently, stably and, not least, at lower cost.
Nuclear energy as a catastrophe
An energy source that emits no CO2 and produces cheap energy continuously: if it sounds too good to be true, that's because it is. One of the main arguments against nuclear power is the danger of accidents. While it is true that these are rare, their destructive potential is immeasurable, as was demonstrated in 1986, when a failure in one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant set off a chain reaction that could easily have destroyed humanity as we know it.
While regulations, controls and technology continue to advance in the direction of ever safer nuclear power plants. But the detractors of nuclear power are not based solely on this fear, however justified it may be.
In addition to the danger of a potential accident, nuclear power has three major problems. The first is that it depends on a finite material source, which is uranium. This fact is not minor, since, by depending on uranium to function, it takes away its renewable character and makes it, by itself and in the best of cases, a temporary solution.
The second is that, although it does not release toxic gases into the atmosphere, it does generate waste, and not just any waste: nuclear waste. This is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry, as the waste produced by nuclear plants will remain radioactive for years to come. What we can say in favor of waste is that there is a very high percentage of waste that can be reused and reintroduced into nuclear fusion after treatment.
The third is that, quite simply, building a nuclear power plant requires an initial investment of billions of dollars, as opposed to the much lower costs of industrial solar power plants, for example.
In short, when designing an energy transition strategy, ruling out a potentially clean source such as nuclear power may be a mistake, but so may be taking the enormous risks it entails.