People are touting nuclear as the solution to the world’s energy problems. But they conveniently forget the technology’s flaws.
First of all, let me get one important thing clear: I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert on this fairly complicated subject. But it really doesn’t feel like you need to be one to see some of the issues with nuclear being portrayed as a massive silver bullet.
We have a problem that needs to be solved: The world’s energy usage is ridiculously high - and increasing. As poor countries climb out of property, their energy usage goes up. For many of these countries, the main source of energy is coal. In fact, many countries built coal plants like mad in the beginning of the 21st century.
Unfortunately, coal is bad for everyone, and so we need to find less lethal alternatives to stay alive.
Captain Renewable to the Rescue!
I like renewable energy sources a lot - I’ve already declared my love for the sun.
Unfortunately, renewable energy isn’t without flaws. One major challenge is that they are dependent on the weather. The sun, wind, and water keeps them running. During the night, solar is useless. On calm days, wind power is futile. And without running water, hydropower is worthless.
The good news is that it’s always sunny, windy, or raining somewhere on Earth. There’s already a global energy market, where electricity produced in one country is sold to another country. With a little bit of global corporation, and some very long power lines, it should be possible to solve this issue. Not enough energy being produced in Asia at the moment? Not a problem, the Saharan solar park has a lot of leftover juice. I’m aware that this is a highly naive approach since it assumes that everyone actually collaborate to solve the issue. But the energy crisis is not a local challenge, it’s a global challenge.
Nuclear power plants are not immune to the weather, either. They need to be cooled down, and the main method for this is to use water. This is why you find most - if not all - nuclear power plants close to large rivers and other water sources. But what happens if a power plant’s source of cooling water dries up, gets too hot, or overflows?
The best case scenario is that you have to temporarily shut down the power plant. During the 2018 European heat wave, nuclear power plants in France, Sweden, Finland, Germany, and Switzerland shut down reactors, and cut back on the power they produced. The worst case scenario related to water - but not the lack of it, rather way too much - is the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Nuclear power plants are powered by either uranium or plutonium. Unfortunately, both are limited natural resources. It’s estimated that there are 5,5 millions tons of uranium in ore reserves that are economically viable around the globe. Since it’s a limited resource, you will quickly end up getting the same problems you have with other limited resources, oil in particular.
Today, oil is one of the major causes of armed conflicts around the world. He who controls the oil, controls the Earth. Moving from one hard-to-find, limited, non-renewable resources to another one, will shift the power balance - and move the theaters of war. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Kazakhstan, one of the world’s major uranium producers, soon found themselves part of the Russian federation again.
One interesting fact that’s worth mentioning here is that there is an additional 4,6 billion tons of uranium hiding in sea water. Earlier this month, Chemical & Engineering News reported that a team of scientists has identified a highly selective triazine chelator, with high uranium uptake capacity. This discovery might lead to improved methods for recovering uranium from seawater.
The catastrophic nuclear accident was caused by inherent reactor design flaws, and human errors during a safety test. Today’s reactor designs are safer, but there is no guarantee that an accident similar to Chernobyl won’t happen again. Those who design, and build nuclear power plants simply can’t cover every eventuality. Not even the Japanese managed to cover all their bases, as we saw during the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Yes, I know that neither Chernobyl nor Fukushima resulted in many direct deaths - 31 and, arguably 1, respectively. How many indirect deaths the Chernobyl disaster caused is debated. The numbers range from 4,000 to 200,000 depending on who you trust - and their agenda.
And, yes, I also know that the use of coal, gas, and oil cause many, many, many more deaths per year than the Chernobyl disaster, even if you include the highest guesstimates you’ll find for indirect deaths. Still, you can’t ignore that when the nuclear shit hits the fan, it can get pretty dirty.
One solution to the world’s energy problem could be to simply decrease the world’s energy usage. Unfortunately, that’s probably the least realistic option. People are used to the leisure of their cars, and being able to fly wherever they want. The lifetime of any democratic government who tell people they have to take the bus, and have to cancel their vacation plans would be very limited1.
I might not be nuclear’s biggest fan. But renewable energy sources are lagging behind nuclear in terms of energy output. If we’re going to get the coal monkey off our backs any time soon, we have to consider nuclear as a temporary solution2.
Nuclear should be part of the plan to solve the world’s energy crisis, but it should not be the plan. Let’s not put all our eggs in one basket again. We’ve already done it once with our dependency on fossil fuels. Let’s build the nuclear reactors we need to solve our immediate energy problems. But the ultimate goal have to be to cover all of the world’s energy needs with renewable energy - or some unknown, future technology that doesn’t have the drawbacks, bi-products and potential fallout of today’s renewable and nuclear energy sources.
And when that is the case, every nuclear power plant should be dismantled, packed in crates, and shot directly into the sun.
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