Is nuclear power the future? It’s a question about tomorrow, but one that’s dominated energy discussions for much of the recent past.
In 2016, nuclear power accounted for over 10% of total electricity produced
Nuclear power holds a contradictory position in popular perceptions – on one hand, it is a significant contributor to global carbon-free electricity generation, and on the other it is a byword for environmental concerns. Yet in 2016, nuclear power accounted for over 10% of total electricity produced globally.
Recent comments by Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad once again thrust Malaysia’s relationship with nuclear power into the spotlight. It’s clear that the Malaysian government currently has no intention to develop nuclear energy capacity. Yet while Malaysia argues for abstinence, other nations around the world have traditionally assessed the benefits in another direction. So what’s influencing the balance of perceptions on nuclear power?
In 2017, nuclear power accounted for 419 GW of total installed global generation capacity, about a fifth that of coal-fired power, with an estimated 56 GW under construction. France generates roughly three-quarters of all electricity from nuclear power, with a number of other European countries producing one-third or more of their own electricity from nuclear.
France generates roughly three-quarters of all electricity from nuclear power
In Asia, Japan and South Korea are regional leaders, with normal operations seeing nuclear account for around 30% of total electricity production. China, as with many energy sources, is rapidly developing its own capacity, with around two-thirds of global nuclear capacity added in the last five years developed in the country.
So as countries like Malaysia take a step back, and nations around the world consider the repercussions of high-profile accidents like Japan’s Fukushima Power Plant, what is this continued appeal based upon?
Nuclear power provides a stable, high-capacity form of power generation that doesn’t rely on carbon-intensive fossil fuels. A 2013 study estimated that nuclear power had saved over 64 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas to date. The complex benefits are undeniably powerful, but extremely difficult to demonstrate.
While the carbon-free benefits of nuclear power are matched by emerging renewable technologies, it far eclipses them in the capacity potential of a single plant. The ~10% of global electricity produced by nuclear power is done so at just 450 nuclear power reactors. Only large-scale hydro power like China’s Three Gorges Dam beats the installed capacity of nuclear power installations, with the significant land use considerations that hydro power on such scale must contend with.
Like these large-scale hydropower projects, nuclear power requires significant capital expenditure to construct. The UK’s planned Hinkley Point nuclear power plant, coming in at a projected cost of US$35 billion, is widely declared the ‘most expensive object on Earth’. While that title is in question, it certainly highlights the significant upfront expenditure required for nuclear power. In balancing that initial cost, supporters point out that the electricity generated by such plants is secure, reliable, carbon-free and crucially, requires relatively low on-going costs.
Nuclear power faces other challenges, primary amongst them the significant environmental and emotional impact that highly publicised accidents like those at Russia’s Chernobyl or Japan’s Fukushima cause. In the case of Fukushima, poor regulatory oversight and inadequate safety systems strained by an unprecedented natural disaster resulted in a reactor meltdown that led to tens of thousands of people fleeing their homes.
Underpinning the impact of these events is the highly radioactive uranium and plutonium which powers nuclear reactors. The most hazardous form of this waste, high-level waste, accounts for just 3% of the total volume of waste, but 95% of the radioactivity. So while these materials provide the source for substantial power generation, they also provide a substantial challenge. An accident at a large-scale solar power plant is unlikely to cause significant environmental impact, nor require major costs to rectify. In comparison, the cost of cleaning up Fukushima is expected to top US$200 billion.
Nuclear-waste also poses a well-recognised political problem. While the quantity of waste relative to electricity produced in nuclear power plants is small, the hazardous nature makes it difficult to dispose of. The majority of nuclear-waste produced in reactors around the world is today stored at the site of power generation. New solutions are under development, with the world’s first permanent nuclear-waste repository nearing completion in Finland, expected to enter operations in 2024.
Nuclear energy is perhaps the most politically charged and emotionally complex power technology that policy makers have to tackle. Images of high-profile disasters highlight the potential repercussions from poor construction and inappropriate oversight. Meanwhile, the benefits of avoiding carbon-intensive fuel sources through adoption of nuclear power remain largely invisible.
small and medium reactors not only require less intensive upfront capital, their smaller footprint makes them ideal for replacing brownfield sites
It’s clear that high up-front capital expenditure requirements pose a big question for nuclear power. A new generation of small and medium reactors are emerging in response to this challenge, providing a more affordable option under 500 MW. These small and medium reactors not only require less intensive upfront capital, their smaller footprint makes them ideal for replacing brownfield sites such as decommissioned power stations, as well as providing a modular build model that allows additional capacity to be added as and when needed.
Alongside capital, the challenge of appropriately disposing of hazardous nuclear waste still presents a significant drawback to nuclear power. But when installed and maintained to the highest standards, nuclear power can, and does, offer a secure, stable and carbon-free alternative to baseload power otherwise generated by fossil fuels.
While renewable energy continues to evolve, it’s unlikely to fully replace that need for such large-capacity installations in the short term. Nuclear power remains an option in that regard, and one favoured by many countries around the world. As nations like Malaysia continue to weigh up the benefits in opposition, there seems to remain no definitive answer to questions of balancing the equation of nuclear power.