Nuclear Energy: False Hope or the Future?

Perhaps it’s not a good starting point – as fear is subjective and even words such as ‘equality’ are scary to some – but I think it’s fair to say that the word ‘nuclear’ has a few negative undertones attached to it. I mean, it’s probably fair enough since – at least for me – the first things that come to mind when I hear the word are Chernobyl, Fukishama, Hiroshima and Nagaski. All of these are distinct tragedies which resulted in the loss of human life and in certain cases there were some pretty gruesome long term effects.

On the other hand, they aren’t every day events. With the exception of the last two – which happened within three days of one another – they occurred decades apart. While I don’t even think it’s up for debate whether there is a place in the world for nuclear weapons as their sole purpose is destruction, can nuclear energy be successfully utilised and more importantly, is it safe to use?

Nuclear power station. Source: Pixabay.

Fission and fusion

There are 2 distinct ways of producing nuclear energy. The first is fission, which is the splitting of atoms to make smaller atoms, which in the process releases energy. The second is fusion, which is the combination of smaller atoms to make larger atoms, which in the process releases energy. The former releases less energy, but is the only process which we as humans currently have the technology to utilise; an example of the latter would be in the sun. 

Assuming we could harness nuclear fusion, the process would become a lot safer as it would involve small atoms such as hydrogen or helium, as opposed to large and unstable atoms like uranium – think of the comparisons between George and Lennie and their potential to harm – which can cause chain reactions that are hard to contain. The bottom line is that incidents such as Chernobyl would not occur in a fusion reactor.

Nowadays

The problem is we don’t live in that perfect world which has access to this much safer and efficient use of nuclear energy. That’s not to say that what we have is completely a bad thing. As probably expected, nuclear energy emits fewer greenhouse gasses than fossil fuels. When comparing greener energy alternatives (nuclear energy is not actually renewable), nuclear has relatively similar or slightly lower emissions to solar, but higher when compared to wind or hydroelectric technologies. One of the biggest advantages of nuclear energy, is that it is not dependent on the weather and so can be utilised around the clock.

Aside from the capacity to meltdown and cause an explosion, fission nuclear reactors also produce radioactive waste, which must be properly disposed of in order to prevent contamination. This waste can also take thousands of years to lose its dangerous radioactive properties, meaning that to use nuclear power is to shift the responsibility for disposal onto future generations. As explored in this article, it could be the case that storage facilities are forgotten about, or the warnings are no longer understood, leading to potential exposure in the distant future. 

Will these warning signs be understood in the distant future? Source: IAEA Imagebank.

The alternative

When comparing it to the alternative of a world ravaged by climate change, it can still be a tough decision to make. However, right now the changing climate is a problem, and it’s something which nuclear could be used to help avoid. Personally, I am more in support of other renewables, as they also head towards a decentralised energy system, which is when energy is produced at the local level. This has the potential to reduce energy costs, creates jobs in local areas, gives people a better understanding of where their energy comes from and takes the power to monopolise the market from large corporations. In fact, a recent study even suggests that an energy system which is 100% renewable is possible, which if true means that the development of nuclear technology is not necessary.

Saying that, it is most certainly better to move towards nuclear if that is the only option in moving away from fossil fuels: there needs to be a future generation to protect in the first place. However, using as little fission nuclear energy as possible is definitely the best option, especially given that the more we use, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. 

Future

If we were to find a solution to using fusion to generate energy, then perhaps the discussion could be taken further. However, that solution just doesn’t exist, nor will it in the immediate future; even if we discovered how to harness it, it still takes time to build the infrastructure. We can’t plan for a future which we don’t know for sure will happen, so it’s best to move towards a system of as little nuclear as possible, but with the main idea in mind of moving away from fossil fuels. Behavioural change is also an important step, and delocalised energy can help with this, as people will become more aware of where their energy comes from, instead of just flipping a light switch – or clapping their hands for our more sophisticated readers – and viola. All in all, nuclear isn’t completely bad, just so long as it’s not a prefix to the word weapon.

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.