Atoms for Peace

(Image: Climate Central)

By J Aitkin – Contributor 

Nuclear power. What does it conjure in your mind? Most likely, events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, the radioactive fallout of such disasters, and the supposed danger of the process. These fears have instilled themselves into the public consciousness for decades, and were fully manifested when my local news website covered the revival of Dungeness Power Station; a site that has suffered under an unfortunate history of design mishaps which, at its worst, created a Level 2 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Events Scale (INES). Meaning that there was an implied “degradation of defence” but “no impact on people and the environment and no impact on the radiological barriers and controls at the facility” according to the Nuclear Engineering International Magazine.

Regardless, this perception has driven local anxiety to the point that upon the facility’s reopening ‘KentLive’ felt it appropriate to publish an article with the headline:

“How much of Kent and Sussex will disappear if there’s a nuclear disaster at Dungeness Power Station”

 This story, as one would imagine, sets forth an apocalyptic scenario in which, for no apparent reason, the plant undergoes a Chernobyl-like disaster in which Kent is rendered completely uninhabitable. Naturally, Meredith from Tunbridge Wells doesn’t fancy the idea of growing an extra limb or two like she sees on the tele, and decides that a nuclear power station on her doorstep isn’t the best. This piqued my interest and drew my attention to another, much greater example of fear over the matter of nuclear energy.

The year is 2011, the Fukushima disaster had just occurred, and only months had passed since Angela Merkel made the controversial decision to slow the pace of nuclear decommissioning across Germany. The fallout is obvious, tens of thousands come out in protest, igniting the latent fears of the German populus toward nuclear power and subsequently lighting the fire under Mrs. Merkel. With days to go, the government announced a three-month suspension on nuclear activity and the quickened closing of Germany’s nuclear power plants. It might have saved Angela, but at what cost? Why has it come to this?

It has been displayed that the public and media perception of nuclear energy is only getting worse over time, so what then are the facts about matters such as safety and environment? Do they validate these fears? The answer is no. In fact, when measured in deaths per TWh, it is amongst the safest means of energy production by a huge margin; even when taken hypothetically, as if the world ran solely on nuclear power, it remains the safest. The answer rests on a simple logic. Waste in the nuclear model is contained and stored where that of fossil fuels is famously flung into the atmosphere, an act which according to the World Health Organisation kills 3 million per year. But surprisingly, nuclear energy is statistically less fatal than wind energy, where accidents are more common from maintenance accidents and blade malfunction. The perception versus reality can be compared to anxieties surrounding travel by plane; it may appear dangerous, and pop culture may play on the trope of plane crashes as much as they do nuclear disasters, but in reality they are incredibly safe.

This, of course, can only have good implications for the environment, dramatically slowing the pace of climate change with a lower carbon footprint. The main waste product being the spent fuel rods which, despite popular perception, do not contain too much actual waste, with 98% of the material being recycled through reprocessing. Of course there are still concerns that remain. Why invest in this when we are developing technologies that enable completely waste-free operation e.g. solar or wind? What about the possibility of nuclear weapons development? These are both valid concerns.

The reality is that the process of implementing renewable energy on such a large scale will take a significant amount of time, in a world in which we are constantly reminded that time is running out. Running concurrent to this we see global decommissioning of nuclear power stations. When the damaging effects of carbon-based fuel are so well known to the public it seems as if pure madness guides the decision to have these archaic sources continue to be the main means of generating power in a time of such crisis. We are at the beginning of a lengthy cross-over process to renewable energy with the requirement of alternate power sources to cover the current shortcomings; and with an ecological outlook, even if it may seem paradoxical, nuclear power appears to be the best option for this.

 And so we reach the last and arguably most compelling counter-argument. The harsh reality that as a nation’s nuclear capability increases as a means of power generation, so too does its ability to create nuclear weapons. For many traditional fuel sources this is an unfortunate issue, however, this could very well be avoided with the use of Thorium. Its potential sees it as significantly more potent than other types of nuclear fuel, producing several times less waste, with a conceptualised reactor design that significantly reduces the chance of meltdown, all while being tricky to weaponise. In fact, the only reason why it is not the standard means of generating nuclear power is that during the early years of the cold war there was a higher incentive to pursue weaponizable fuels.

The only thing preventing us from pursuing this path is the lack of immediate and certain gain that comes from investment. This isn’t helped by the negative pre-existing public perception; but as the climate crisis grows ever more pressing, carbon fuels dwindle, and renewable energy struggles to make up the discrepancy, then perhaps we will see a wider use of nuclear energy. The safest and most powerful of fuels.

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