Governments in Europe appear to agree with the need for a move away from total reliance upon fossil fuels for energy, and have backed this sentiment by agreeing to carbon reduction targets requiring renewable energy reliance levels of 20% by 2020. On the other side of the pond, president Obama recently (2011) called for 85% of all America’s energy to be derived from ‘clean sources’.
But where does this leave nuclear energy? Interestingly, Obama’s ‘clean sources’ include nuclear, but for all its high level supporters, there are just as many detractors. So is either energy source better than the other – or are they just simply too different for comparison?
A quick glance over to Germany reveals an interesting situation. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Germany took the decision to immediately shut down eight of its nuclear power plants, and announced that the rest would close by 2022. This move would be understandable if like Japan, the country typically experienced earthquakes, but it doesn’t.
Germany’s decision certainly won’t help it to meet its carbon reduction targets, and a recent post on the Carbon Counter blog suggests that the country’s CO2 emissions have increased by 3.3% or 30 million tonnes since the power plants closed. It’s now likely to face a real struggle to replace the gap left by nuclear if it also wants to cut its reliance upon fossil fuels in the future.
Of course, the cons of nuclear energy have been discussed for years and it’s true to say that the industry still has a bit of an image problem. But perhaps this is not surprising, with the likes of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters still casting a shadow, even many years later in Chernobyl’s case. Indeed, Germany’s withdrawal from nuclear energy production only seeks to underline this fact further.
Of course, the risk of nuclear disaster is not the only reason it can be so unpopular. The waste created by the nuclear process is a massive issue for many environmentalists, neighbours of nuclear power plants, and often ‘the man in the street’. Radioactive waste is extremely dangerous, and takes thousands of years to become safe, and this fact alone is a reason for many to oppose reliance upon nuclear energy.
There is also the commonly expressed fear that radioactive products could be used to create nuclear weapons, along with the equally rational fears around the proper management of nuclear power plants in countries with unstable governments.
Neighbours of nuclear plants often fear for their health, with some scientific studies showing increased incidences of certain types of cancer in nuclear neighbourhoods, pitted against others showing no such results. (Carry out a simple Google search for ‘do nuclear power stations cause cancer’ for reports of studies both supporting and disproving the theory).
In addition to potential damage to human health, there are also environmental concerns. Nuclear power plants use huge amounts of water, typically taken from the sea. Wildlife such as fish and sea turtles can become trapped in water inlets – despite widespread use of protective filters. Microscopic organisms and algae are destroyed once they enter the cooling system.
For energy investors, one of the potential issues with nuclear is cost. Whilst nuclear produces more energy than equivalent wind, solar or bio-energy plants, the cost of building nuclear power stations, not to mention the storage and maintenance costs for waste products, may outweigh any efficiency gains.
Time is also typically a challenge; it currently takes around 20 years from discussions regarding nuclear programmes to the actual commissioning of a power station (and that’s before the build even commences).
On the flip side, however, nuclear does have some benefits. It is the largest source of emission free energy, and overall provided 12.3% of the world’s electricity in 2011. It doesn’t pollute the air, unlike fossil fuel power stations, and unlike ‘true’ renewable energy sources, it is completely sustainable. It doesn’t need rain, high tide or sun to continue to produce energy. Also, renewable power stations have a much longer ‘shelf life’ than renewable plants.
Further, although nuclear disasters can cause loss of life and inflict tremendous damage to the environment, they actually occur very infrequently, meaning that nuclear is one of the safest forms of energy production in the world. By way of comparison; burning lignite causes approximately 32 deaths and 300 cases of serious illness from pollution per terrawatt hour (TWh). The equivalent figures for nuclear are zero in each case.
Renewable energy is defined by Natural England as deriving from ‘energy flows that occur naturally and continuously in the environment… and (which) is essentially inexhaustible’. Sources of renewable energy include wind, solar, tidal and biomass. The benefits of renewable energy sources, when compared to fossil fuels are clear. However, when compared to nuclear energy – the case is less clear cut.
Renewable energy is not cheap (yet). From a consumer perspective, the government’s forecast for average household energy bills shows an average of £1,285 by 2020, which includes £280 added to pay for green policies. This figure is still 7% less than the £1,279 estimated without the policies – which include subsidies for the creation of renewable energy.
In addition, there are some environmental concerns around building renewable energy plants. Wind farms, for example, are typically located either offshore or in remote areas, meaning high transport costs with a serious CO2 load to accompany these. Further, environmental groups have raised concerns about damage to natural wildlife in and around wind farms and tidal barrages.
Further, and perhaps most importantly, renewable energy sources are not constant. The sun doesn’t always shine, and it’s not always windy.
The benefits of renewable energy are often pretty similar to those of nuclear and that’s perhaps why they are sometimes lumped together. Like nuclear, renewable energies don’t (on their own) pollute the environment – although there may be an environmental cost involved in creating wind farms, solar arrays and tidal barrages, for example. Further, renewable energy sources won’t run out and neither will nuclear.
The biggest problem for nuclear is the issue of waste and safety. The biggest problem for renewable energy sources is reliability. If either industry can overcome these challenges then the world’s energy problems will, quite literally, be solved.
Such a perfect outcome is, of course, extremely unlikely and this means that at some stage, unless a viable alternative to both can be found, a combination of nuclear and renewable power is likely to be needed to keep the world’s lights shining.
For more information and advice on renewables and energy law, please contact Stuart Stones on 0161 464 9540, or by email: email@example.com.Tags: Clean Energy, Nuclear, Nuclear Energy, Renewable Energy, Renewables