Is Nuclear Energy A Replacement For Fossil Fuels?

We examine the pros and cons of nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. Is it a reliable source of power? Is it renewable? Is it safe? What about the disposal of nuclear waste? We provide the answers to these and other questions.
Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant Before Meltdown
Three Mile Island nuclear plant in February 1979, one month before meltdown. Image: LanceNickel (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Costs of Building & Decommissioning a Nuclear Plant are Massive

Whether or not nuclear energy is a replacement for fossil fuels is a question that is not likely to go away. Basically, it’s a matter of trust, rather than logic. People don’t trust the nuclear industry, while the people who run nuclear power plants can’t understand why the public can’t accept the ‘fact’ that nuclear installations are reliable and safe. Chernobyl and Fukushima, they say, are exceptional cases that are statistically irrelevant.

Will our climate crisis and the need to decarbonize, lead us to rethink the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy, or will we turn our back on it for good? Time will tell. Meantime, let’s start with a quick summary of the pros and cons.

Nuclear energy comes from a process called nuclear fission, a controlled chain reaction that generates high amounts of energy for a long period of time. The energy is used to make steam, which drives the turbines that generate electricity.

The pros and cons of nuclear energy as a power source, are well known. On the one hand, it generates very few greenhouse gas emissions, and has a very high fuel-to-power output ratio – enabling it to handle large-scale power needs, such as those required in manufacturing. It produces cheap electricity and has low operating costs during the average lifecycle of 40-60 years.

On the other hand, meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Fukushima, as well as the Chernobyl disaster, show how vulnerable nuclear plants are to human error and the scale of risk they involve. In addition, the costs involved in building a nuclear plant, storing its used radioactive fuel, and decommissioning the installation at the end of its life, are massive.

Time is another problem. A nuclear plant can take anywhere from 5-15 years to plan and build, needs a full lifetime of 40+ years to make it pay, a decade to clean up its radioactive plant systems and structures, followed by the safe storage of its radioactive fuel for up to 10,000 years. Would you trust a power company to stay in business for 70 years or more?

Chernobyl Nuclear Plant with Containment Dome
The new, ‘safe’ containment dome in final position, covering reactor 4 at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Oct 2017. Photo: © Tim Porter (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Global Warming Has Changed The Energy Debate

Global warming has transformed how we think. At one time, we worried about running out of petroleum. Today, the focus is on keeping the stuff in the ground. Because today’s enemy is climate change and the greenhouse gases that cause it.

So our attention is focused on two things: (1) How to avoid using fossil fuels, like oil, coal and natural gas. (2) How to switch to renewable energy with very low greenhouse gas emissions.

The trouble is – no matter what Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth or Extinction Rebellion say – we don’t produce enough renewable energy for our present population, never mind the extra 3.5 billion newcomers expected by 2100.

Renewables and the Energy Gap

The most sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, include: hydropower (hydroelectricity), solar power, organic biomass, offshore/onshore wind power, and underground geothermal energy. Next generation renewables include tidal power and wave energy. Another valuable energy source still in development is hydrogen power, which can also be stored. Green hydrogen in particular is attracting attention.

Only about 11 percent of global primary energy and 26-7 percent of our electricity needs are met by renewables. 1 2

What’s more, even though the production of renewable energy is increasing rapidly (it rose by 14 percent in 2018) global energy consumption is also up, rising by 2.3 percent in 2018.

According to “Renewables 2018 Global Status Report”, the annual report produced by REN21, the three key sectors that renewables need to break into, are heating, cooling and transportation, which account for 80 percent of global energy demand. But in these sectors, renewables are forecast to enjoy only modest growth over the next five years. At present, for instance, heating and cooling account for 48 percent of final energy use, but only around 10 percent of this is powered by renewables and around 16 percent by traditional biomass. Transportation accounts for about 32 percent of energy use, but only about 3 percent of this comes from renewable sources. 3

One of the major problems facing renewable energy is how to make it more accessible. Most renewable energy can’t be converted into power as easily as fossil fuels, which can simply be burned in boilers, stoves, or gas cookers. Another problem is continuity of supply. When the wind stops or the sun goes down, the power goes off.

No one denies the benefits of renewable energy, and most if not all the obstacles in its way will be overcome in time, but there are no easy short cuts. Even the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, does not project zero use of fossil fuels by 2100.

So are we doomed to keep using fossil fuels and suffer the consequences of runaway climate change? Or is nuclear energy a replacement for fossil fuels and therefore a necessary component in our climate change mitigation strategy?

Can nuclear power help save us from climate change?

In theory, there’s no doubt that nuclear energy is a possible replacement for fossil fuels, because it provides the heat intensity and reliability needed, with a very low rate of emissions. In practice, however, it remains an unknown quantity in terms of cost and safety. We still don’t know, for example, exactly how expensive it is to close down, dismantle and dispose of a nuclear power plant, or how safe the process would be. But we will know soon enough. In America, the EU and Russia, nuclear power stations are on average 35 years old and fast approaching their designed lifetimes of 40 years.

More People Means More Energy Consumption

The growth in world population is going to make things much more difficult. Currently 7.5 billion, it is projected to increase to 10 billion by 2055 and 11 billion by 2088. 4 See also: What’s the Root Cause of Climate Change?

This population jump is expected to cause the demand for food to rise between 59 percent and 98 percent by 2050. As a result, farmers everywhere will have to increase crop production, either by increasing the amount of arable land available, or by enhancing productivity on existing land. This will increase the demand for deforestation and thus lead to an enhanced greenhouse effect due to the extra carbon dioxide in the air. 5 Worse still, it will lead to a significant increase in energy consumption. For more on this, please read: Our Climate Plan Can’t Cope.

It is against this background that nuclear energy must be considered, if only because it offers excellent continuity of supply and has the same greenhouse gas emissions as wind power – that is, almost none.

Of course, after Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), no one can pretend that nuclear power is without risk. Furthermore, there are serious technical and political issues to be overcome, concerning the safe disposal of nuclear waste. Even so, the nuclear option cannot be ignored. At least, not until we can bridge the huge energy gap.

Who Uses Nuclear Energy?

In 2012, following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), global nuclear electricity generation dropped to its lowest level since 1999. 6 Even so, as of January 2019, 457 nuclear power plants are operational in 31 countries, with a further 54 nuclear reactors under construction. 7

Nuclear Power: Which Countries Rely Most On It
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration. June 17, 2019

The United States is the largest generator of electricity from nuclear energy (808,028 GWh), but only France, Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine, rely on nuclear energy for a majority of their electricity. The United States is the largest producer of nuclear power, while France depends upon nuclear energy for the largest percentage of its electricity (71 percent). 8

China has the world’s fastest growing nuclear power program with a total of 11 new reactors under construction. 9 Numerous other reactors are being built in India, Russia and South Korea.

At the same time, a number of countries who operate nuclear power plants are planning a program of phased closures. Germany, for instance, has announced it will close all its reactors by 2022. Other countries phasing out reactors include: Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. 10 11

Many other countries have abstained from building nuclear power plants completely. Until Fukushima, Japan generated about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. In 2015 the Japanese government decided to reformulate its nuclear policy to enable 20 percent of electricity to come from nuclear power by 2030. 12

Meanwhile, South Korea, who also has a sizeable nuclear power industry, recently announced a halt to all nuclear development after the completion of the facilities presently under construction. 13

Average Age Of Power Plants: Statistics
Source: International Energy Agency

How Does Nuclear Energy Work?

Nuclear power is released during the process of nuclear fission – the splitting of an atom. Fission breaks the bonds which hold together the components of the atom – the protons and neutrons – releasing a very large amount of energy. Uranium is the favorite element used in nuclear fission, because (among other things) it is the heaviest natural element on Earth and its atoms are easily split apart.

NOTE: Regular nuclear power, based on fission, is completely different from Nuclear Fusion – a radical quest for limitless amounts of sustainable energy.

To create nuclear fission, scientists fire lots of neutrons at uranium-235 atoms. When a neutron hits the nucleus, the uranium turns into U-236, an extremely unstable atom that almost immediately tears itself apart to create two much lighter atoms, releasing a huge amount of energy plus 3 other neutrons. The neutrons collide with 3 other uranium-235 atoms in the vicinity causing them to become U-236 as well and releasing even more energy.

In this way, a chain reaction is created, which would eventually cause a nuclear explosion if there was enough uranium-235 to split. Of course, in a nuclear reactor, there is never enough uranium-235 to permit a nuclear explosion, although if the chain reaction we describe is not carefully regulated, the energy created will eventually melt the floor of the reactor – an event known as a nuclear meltdown. This is what happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Animated diagram showing the working of a nuclear pressurized water reactor.
Image showing the working of a nuclear pressurised water reactor. Image: © U.S.NRC

Does Nuclear Energy Cause Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Yes and No. One the one hand, it’s true to say that – unlike coal- or oil-fired power plants – nuclear reactors do not produce any greenhouse gases during their operation. Indeed, nuclear power plants do not pollute the air or harm the environment around them. 14

On the other hand, fossil fuels are commonly used to mine and refine the uranium ore used in nuclear plants. In addition, the construction of nuclear power plants typically involves large quantities of metal and concrete, whose manufacture requires large amounts of fossil fuels.

Therefore, until these fossil fuels are replaced by renewables, one cannot say that nuclear power is emissions-free.

Is Nuclear Energy Renewable Or Non-Renewable?

Although uranium is a common element on our planet, nuclear power plants can only use a very rare type – uranium-235 – which is present in only 0.7 percent of uranium.

According to the report “Uranium 2016: Resources, Production and Demand”, published jointly by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency, as of 2015, known uranium resources recoverable at US$130 per kilo amounted to 5.7 million tons. At the rate of consumption in 2014, this is sufficient for about 135 years of nuclear energy. The known reserves recoverable at US$260 per kilo amount to 7.6 million tons – sufficient for about 180 years. 15

The finite nature of uranium makes it a non-renewable resource. The Energy Information Administration concurs. According to the EIA uranium-235 is “non-renewable.” 16 However the EIA is silent on recycled MOX fuel, a blend of plutonium, natural uranium, reprocessed or depleted uranium. 17

Can Fast Breeder Nuclear Reactors Make Uranium Renewable?

Not yet. 1983 paper by Professor Bernard Leonard Cohen claimed that we have enough uranium to last as long as our solar system. The theory was based on two things: first, the new fast-breeder nuclear reactor is capable of producing more uranium-235 than it uses, thus prolonging supplies of uranium almost indefinitely. 18 . Second, sea water contains roughly 4 billion metric tons of uranium.

The first option seems to be impractical. In 2010 the International Panel on Fissile Materials admitted that breeder reactors have serious problems, including: safety issues, proliferation risks, lengthy repair time and high operating costs. The report concluded: “After six decades and the expenditure of the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars, the promise of breeder reactors remains largely unfulfilled and efforts to commercialize them have been steadily cut back in most countries.” 19

The second option has been demonstrated at a laboratory level. However, according to the World Energy Council, attempts to raise production to an industrial level of thousands of metric tons, has not yet been achieved and may run up against unforeseen obstacles. 20

Is Nuclear Power a Sustainable Energy Resource?
No. Nuclear power is not sustainable energy on several counts. First, it is widely regarded as non-renewable. Second, it poses serious risks to the environment from radioactive pollution during the operation of a nuclear power plant. Third, some types of radioactive nuclear waste must be safely stored for thousands of years. To date, no safe method of storing this waste has been established.

Is It True That Nuclear Energy Is Safer Than Fossil Fuels?

Yes. So far as we can tell. In terms of lives lost per unit of energy generated, nuclear power is safer than coal, oil, natural gas or hydroelectricity. Energy produced by these four sources has caused more deaths due to air pollution and accidents. 21 This is the conclusion when comparing the immediate deaths from other energy sources to both the immediate nuclear related deaths from accidents and also including the latent, or predicted, indirect cancer deaths from nuclear energy accidents. 22

When immediate and indirect fatalities from nuclear power and all fossil fuels are compared, including fatalities resulting from the mining/drilling of the necessary raw materials, from power generation and from air pollution, the use of nuclear power has prevented massive loss of life between 1971 and 2009, by decreasing the amount of energy that would otherwise have been generated by fossil fuels.

This is the conclusion of a long-term, quantitative analysis of the effects of nuclear power on human health, produced by NASA, which found that – despite three major nuclear accidents (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima) – nuclear power has prevented an average of over 1.84 million net deaths worldwide between 1971-2009. In addition, it has prevented the emission of roughly 64 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide that would otherwise have been discharged from the use of fossil fuels. 23

Social disturbance and its impact on human health is not, however, included in the above studies. A 2005 study into the Soviet disaster concluded that the mental health impact of Chernobyl was the largest public health problem caused by the accident. 24

A 2015 report in Lancet stated that serious consequences of nuclear accidents were often not attributable to radiation exposure, but instead to social and psychological effects, caused by evacuation and long-term displacement of people, notably the elderly and hospital patients. 25

Chernobyl power plant from Pripyat
Eerie photograph of Chernobyl nuclear power plant taken from the roof of an apartment block in Pripyat, Ukraine (2005). Image: Jason Minshull. (CO)

How Many Deaths Were Caused By Chernobyl?

No one knows. This is partly because of the difficulty in identifying fatalities that can be objectively attributed to the disaster, and partly because of the widespread (if unsubstantiated) belief that casualties must have been much worse than the numbers reported. At least five major reports have been produced, none of which have gained universal acceptance.

These reports include: The IAEA Chernobyl Forum report (2005/2006) (9,000 fatalities) 26; the TORCH report (2006) (30-60,000 fatalities) 27; Greenpeace’s report (2006) (93,000 cancer deaths); International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear Warfare (IPPNW) report (2006) (tens of thousands of fatalities) 28; the UNSCEAR report (2008) (62 fatalities); International Agency for Research on Cancer report (2006) (16,000 deaths). 29

Notwithstanding the possibility/probability that Chernobyl-related fatalities were 100,000 or perhaps more, this figure is dwarfed by the number of deaths caused by fossil fuels around the world.

So Why Do People Worry About Nuclear Safety?

When people say they are worried about the safety of nuclear power, they commonly mean any/all of the following:

  • They are afraid that a nuclear accident (in the production or transportation of nuclear fuel) will release a huge amount of radiation. Resulting damage might irreparably contaminate a region, making it uninhabitable for perhaps thousands of years. They worry about the possibility (however small) of a life-changing catastrophe.
  • They are afraid that terrorists will seize a nuclear facility or transport, with the same result.
  • They are afraid that nuclear power plants are too complex to operate safely and that accidents are always likely to occur because of human error. The proliferation of nuclear power plants among countries with lax quality control and safety standards simply exacerbates this fear. 
  • They are afraid to trust government or nuclear authorities, whom they suspect will continue to (a) downplay (b) suppress or (c) lie about incidents and accidents at nuclear power plants, in order to save money and reputations. This is the key objection that the nuclear industry needs to overcome in order to make nuclear energy a replacement for fossil fuels.

Judging by the anti-nuclear stance that has taken root throughout most of the developed world, these fears are likely to predominate until the effects of global warming – in particular, the effects of global warming on humans – becomes a universal concern.

How Much Nuclear Waste Is Produced?

Waste From Extraction And Milling Processes

Every year, a typical 1000-Megawatt nuclear reactor needs roughly 25 tons of uranium fuel. (By comparison, a coal-fired power plant requires more than 2.5 million metric tons of coal to produce the same amount of electricity.) But extracting and milling this fuel leaves behind enormous amounts of toxic waste. The extraction and milling process that yields 25 tons of uranium fuel also leaves behind 500,000 tons of waste rock and another 100,000 tons of mill tailings, which will remain toxic for thousands of years. These tailings contain a variety of radioactive elements such as polonium, radium and thorium, as well as arsenic and other heavy metals, and emit cancerous radon-222. 30 31

As of 2011, the global stockpile of uranium mill tailings – sand-like waste material that can seep into the local environment – amounts to more than two billion tonnes. 32 No internationally agreed plan exists for how to dispose of these highly toxic residues.

Waste From Nuclear Reactors

An even bigger problem concerns the disposal of radioactive waste left over after the production of nuclear energy in the reactor – the by-product of nuclear fission. This waste is classified as High-Level Waste (HLW), Intermediate-Level Waste or Low-Level Waste, depending on its level of radioactivity. Roughly 97 percent of the waste produced is low-level or intermediate-level (equipment and materials used inside reactors but not including spent fuel).

The rest is high-level waste (spent fuel rods, uranium pellets etc., which have been typically used for about 5 years), much of which remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. This is the really dangerous stuff. Currently, there is a global stockpile of approximately 250,000 tons of high-level spent fuel divided across 14 countries. 33

How Is The Most Dangerous Nuclear Waste Disposed Of?

Typically, the procedure for disposing of high-level nuclear waste goes like this. (1). The waste is contained (usually in cooling ponds) for about 40-50 years to reduce its temperature and radioactivity. (2) It may also be treated in other ways to reduce its bulk or make it safer. Vitrification (encasing the waste in glass) is one such option, practised at Sellafield and elsewhere. Iron exchange is another treatment method. (3) The waste must then be stored in corrosion-resistant containers for many thousands of years, in a completely secure location.

Alternatively, the high-level waste may be reprocessed to extract certain components (like plutonium) for re-use. The most common reprocessing technique used is purex, a hydrometallurgical process which is used to extract uranium and plutonium in order to produce weapon-grade plutonium. Modifications of purex include: UREX (URanium EXtraction), TRUEX (TRansUranic EXtraction), DIAMEX (DIAMide EXtraction), SANEX (Selective ActiNide EXtraction), and UNEX (UNiversal EXtraction process).

After reprocessing, the residue is then contained (and/or vitrified) and finally stored, as above. No nuclear waste is currently reprocessed in the United States, although it is routinely reprocessed in France, Russia, the UK, and elsewhere.

Is Nuclear Waste Disposal Working?

No. The truth is, the whole situation is a mess. No one seems to know where to store the spent-fuel residues. As a result, according to a recent Greenpeace report, radioactive waste is piling up around the world as countries struggle to dispose of high-level nuclear waste that will remain extremely dangerous for many thousands of years.

The Global Crisis Of Nuclear Waste

In 2018, the international environmental group Greenpeace commissioned six of the world’s top experts on nuclear waste management to produce an overview of nuclear waste across the globe. The report’s analysis of waste storage facilities in 7 major nuclearized countries (Belgium, France, Japan, Sweden, Finland, United Kingdom and United States) showed that several were near saturation, fuelling ongoing concerns about fire risk, radioactive gases, failure of containers, environmental contamination and escalating costs, never mind risks of terrorism. 34 35 36

The 100-page report found that – without exception – none of the 7 countries had a sustainable and safe solution for managing their huge stockpiles of nuclear waste. This includes high level spent fuel – the most radioactive of all waste residues – for which to date all efforts to find secure and safe permanent disposal options have failed. This is potentially much worse than the known environmental effects of fossil fuels, which are quite bad enough.

It shows that the multiple stages of the nuclear fuel cycle produce large volumes of radioactive wastes; and that no government has yet resolved how to safely manage these wastes.

According to Shaun Burnie, a nuclear expert with Greenpeace Germany and the coordinator of the report: “More than 65 years after the start of the civil use of nuclear power, not a single country can claim that it has the solution to manage the most dangerous radioactive wastes.”

Why Is There No Long-Term Storage Facility For High-Level Nuclear Waste?

Amazingly, despite many decades of experience of nuclear energy, and despite the fact that it supplies 10 percent of the world’s electricity from 457 operating nuclear reactors, the nuclear industry does not have one single place to store high-level waste like spent-fuel. The only high-level waste repository is the U.S. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, but this deals only with ex-nuclear weapons, not spent fuel from nuclear reactors.

WIPP: Underground Compound, Carlsbad, New Mexico
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, WIPP, Carlsbad, New Mexico. Photo: © U.S. Department of Energy

This situation was confirmed by a U.S. Congressional report (issued May 2019) compiled by the Congressional Research Service using various U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Nuclear Energy Institute sources. Written by environmental analyst Lance N. Larson, it states: “No country, including the United States, has a permanent geologic repository for disposal of commercial SNF (spent nuclear fuel) or other HLW (high-level waste). Currently, commercial nuclear power plants generally store SNF on site, awaiting disposal in a permanent repository.” 37

Apart from the New Mexico facility, the nuclear industry has only five long-term storage repositories and these only handle low-level and intermediate-level waste. Two of these – the Bartensleben salt mine at Morsleben, Saxony-Anhalt and the Schacht Asse II Salt Mine, Lower Saxony – are in Germany; two are in Finland (at Olkiluoto and Loviisa); and one is in Sweden (Forsmark).

Where Is Our Radioactive Waste Being Stored?

Given that the UK has a stock of nuclear waste in excess of 4.5 million metric tons 38 – which is roughly 15 percent of the amount of waste stockpiled by the U.S. civil nuclear industry – one might ask: where the heck is all this waste being stored? 

 Up until 1994, much of it was dumped at sea. This is the Anthropocene epoch, after all.

Our Nuclear Waste Used to be Dumped In The Ocean 

The British Nuclear Fuels plant at Sellafield, for example, has been depositing nuclear waste in the Irish Sea ever since the 1950s. A French reprocessing plant is reported to have dumped similar radioactive material into the English Channel, while for decades the Soviets discharged large amounts of radioactive waste into the Kara Sea, Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean. 39 40

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), similar dumping of radioactive waste has taken place at more than 50 sites in the northern part of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 41

Dumping toxic and radioactive contaminants into the ocean is highly unsafe, as the radioactive material inevitably seeps into our marine ecosystems and contaminates the environment, especially since this type of oceanic disposal attracts unlicensed operators who are less likely to spend money on recommended containers and sealing procedures.

Since 1994, however, ocean disposal has been banned by the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (1972) (known as the London Convention), the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (1992) (called the Basel Convention), and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (1973 and 1978).

Unfortunately, a great deal of environmental damage has already been done to biodiversity and marine ecosystems. For example, marine biologists have discovered a link between the growing incidence of skin ulcers among seals and walruses in Alaska, and the leakage of radioactive liquid into the ocean from the 2011 nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. 42

Where Is High-Level Nuclear Waste Now Stored?

Today, nearly all high-level waste is in temporary storage at nuclear power plants, or other government holding facilities. Why there? Because no one knows (or can agree) what to do with it. In the United States, for instance,
as of December 2018, there were 99 operating nuclear reactors located at 61 nuclear power plants. The country’s spent nuclear fuel is stored at 80 nuclear reactor sites, 21 of whom are no longer producing electricity. These “stranded” sites are costly for the federal government, which has already spent $7.4 billion on storage costs to date. 43

According to Greenpeace, about 70 percent of high-level spent-fuel in the United States remains in vulnerable cooling pools, often in densities far higher than originally planned. 44

What Is A Nuclear Cooling Pond?

Storage ponds at nuclear reactors can be 7-12 metres deep, allowing for several meters of water above the spent-fuel, which typically consists of rods laid out on 15-feet long racks. The circulating water both shields and cools the fuel. The pools are usually constructed from thick reinforced concrete with steel liners. Cooling ponds at some reactors are designed to hold all the used fuel produced over the planned lifetime of the reactor. 45

What Other Storage Options Have Been Considered?

A wide variety of storage methods have been considered, including: long term above ground storage (not implemented);

direct injection into rocks (experimented with by USSR and USA, but discontinued); rock-melting (not implemented); disposal in outer space (not implemented); deep borehole (not implemented); deep underground disposal at subduction zones (not implemented); storage in ice sheets (banned in Antarctic Treaty); transmutation by laser (still being researched); Synroc (under development). 46

Alarmingly, the most favoured and most researched long-term disposal option – deep underground storage in repositories like the U.S. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico – has been shown to have major flaws which exclude it, for now, as a credible option. 44

What Is The Cost Of Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear power plants are extremely expensive to build. The main cost outline may be expressed as follows:

  • Pre-Construction. Lengthy and costly phase, involving planning and design issues.
  • Construction. Typically entails high construction costs due to the need for very high specifications, and tight regulation.
  • Operational. This phase is the least costly phase of a reactor’s life, although much depends upon public (and therefore governmental) sentiment, as to taxes, surcharges and the like.
  • Wind-down and closure. This is the costliest and least predictable phase, since it is almost impossible to predict the cost of decommissioning 60 years in advance.

Despite the resolutely positive pronouncements of the nuclear industry and its spin-doctors – who talk mostly about the “levelized cost of electricity” (LCOE) (the price that the electricity must fetch if the project is to break even) and “cost per megawatt hour” – confidence in the financial attractiveness of nuclear power remains low – at least in the West. Environmental concerns have never been higher, and renewable fuels are soaking up most of the attention and money.

Of course, in the developing world, where governments are anxious to reduce their fossil fuel commitments without reducing their energy consumption, emission-free nuclear energy looks very alluring.

For insurance companies and other financial institutions in the West, the biggest risks of building nuclear reactors include: the danger of cost overruns in construction, the spiralling costs of decommissioning, and the omnipresent risk of catastrophic systems failure leading to a multi-million (or multi-billion) pay-out.

Indeed, it is difficult to make a true assessment of the financial viability of a nuclear reactor, since the nuclear industry has rarely demonstrated an ability to pay the true costs involved in the provision of nuclear energy. The full environmental costs of extracting and processing the necessary raw materials to obtain uranium-235 have yet to be met; the European-wide (even global-wide) costs incurred as a result of accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima have also gone unpaid. Finally, few nuclear reactors have ever been decommissioned, although governments (i.e. taxpayers) have stumped up billions to pay for waste disposal and storage.

What Is The Future Of Nuclear Energy?

As of 2018, there are over 150 nuclear reactors planned including 50 under construction.47 However, investment in new nuclear plants is declining, attaining a 5-year-low in 2017. According to a 2016 assessment, the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects nuclear power generation to increase from 2,344 terawatt hours (in 2012) to 4,500 terawatt hours in 2040. Most of the increase is expected to be in Asia, where the problem of air pollution from coal-fired power plants makes nuclear power a desirable replacement for fossil fuels. 48

The truth is, the future of nuclear power depends less on climate science and more on the priorities and policies of the host government. Some countries, such as Germany, are bent on phasing out nuclear power. In contrast, some Asian countries, such as China and India, are focused on a rapid expansion of nuclear power. 49 50

Who Are The Most Important Nuclear Energy Organizations?

The nuclear industry is regulated and monitored by a number of influential bodies, here is a short list of the most important ones.

  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
    The IAEA is an international organization that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and to restrain its use for military purposes.
  • The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA)
    The NEA is an intergovernmental agency organized under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – an intergovernmental organisation of industrialised countries, based in Paris, France – to promote the safe use of nuclear energy.
  • The United States Atomic Energy Commission
    Commonly known as the AEC, it is an agency of the United States government tasked with fostering the peaceful development of atomic technology. 
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
    The NRC is an independent U.S. agency charged with protecting public health in respect of nuclear energy.
  • The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR)
    The ONR is the independent statutory UK regulator for the nuclear industry in the United Kingdom.
  • The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP)
    The ICRP is an independent, non-governmental organization that aims to provide recommendations and guidance on radiological protection.
  • The Institute of Nuclear Materials Management (INMM)
    The INMM is an international organization that promotes the safe handling of nuclear material and nuclear materials management.
  • The French Nuclear Safety Authority (The Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire) (ASN)
    The ASN is the official French nuclear safety authority that regulates nuclear protection.

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