Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Transition

Published on 25 March 2021 at 15:27

Since the industrial revolution, the ever-growing and insatiable need for energy has plagued the planet’s ecosystem and the countries that lay claim to it for decades. It is now a very uncertain time to be alive in this regard. The fossil fuel fad is now fortunately fading as most of the world has come to a consensus on the cliff it’s headed for if the looming energy crisis is allowed to come to fruition.


There has been an enthusiastic drive for renewable energy in recent years, particularly for solar and wind energy, however it is questionable whether we have enough time to make the transition. One alternative is a revisit to nuclear power. It has received a tarnished reputation with the infamous disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima, but in the long run it may be a necessary evil to abate disaster.


Although many of us already recognise the energy crisis, many also fail to see how close it really is. It is estimated that there is only enough oil and natural gas in reserves and in known reservoirs and in to last us another forty to fifty years while there is enough coal for about another one hundred.


This poses a serious issue considering seventy-five percent of global energy output derives from fossil fuels, with a decrease of about five percent expected in the next three years. This is step in the right direction but there are many other factors at play such as economic feasibility and global warming conspiracists such as former president Trump and President Bolsonaro of Brazil, both dangerously pivoting towards total neglect of our planet’s limited capacity to sustain a hyper-industrial society. 


20% of global energy investments still aim at coal and natural gas. This amounted to around $84 billion in 2019. For comparison, the year prior China started the world’s first functioning nuclear fusion reactor, the HL-2M tokamak (Nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei are combined to form one or more different atomic nuclei and subatomic particles (neutrons or protons) and heat), at a cost of around $22.5 billion to create. A redirection of funds into these experimental renewable energy-projects could easily be achieved in the medium-term and would help bridge the gap between a fossil fuel-dominated energy market to a renewable one.


Expensive and risky projects such as these are not the only option. Classic nuclear fission reactors still hold huge potential. France stands out as a shining example of the ideal of nuclear power usage. According to World Nuclear Association, France derives about 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy. It is the world's largest net exporter of electricity due to its very low cost of generation and gains over €3 billion per year from said exportation.


However, government policy is to dictate a reduction in the share of nuclear in its electricity output to 50% by 2035. Simultaneously it has to be recognised that nuclear power plants are inherently faulted by the very nature of the atomic process. France came closest to catastrophe when in 1969, 50kg of Uranium began to melt in the reactor core: a warning sign of potential disaster. Luckily however, no accident has derailed France’s nuclear power program yet.


Nuclear power is becoming increasingly prominent globally because it is the only alternative energy producing system capable of providing electricity around the clock. It is carbon-free and since the 1950s, safety features have been much improved. Now over 11% of the world’s electricity is produced from nuclear energy. Nuclear grew by 3.3% in 2018 mainly because of new capacity in China and the restart of 4 reactors in Japan. 


Nuclear power isn’t the permanent solution to the world’s energy problems, but it is a temporary fix while we expand other, safer renewable energy sources. It also has the potential to finally cease fossil-fuel energy plants within the century, and without any nuclear catastrophes, improving the planets health as well. It is an achievable goal and with a concerted effort from politicians, engineers and environmentalists worldwide, we can make the clean energy transition a reality.

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