Do we need Nuclear Energy?
Dr. Fateh Shaban
Academic Centre for Development and Peace Studies
Nuclear energy was initially used for military purposes in World War II. It was used to produce electricity for the first time from a reactor in Idaho in the USA in 1951. Later, in 1954, the former Soviet Union built the first dedicated nuclear power plant, with a designed capacity of 5 megawatt. Since that time, there has been a debate about the benefits and potential risks of the use of nuclear power to produce electricity.
It is widely believed that nuclear power plants are very dangerous, and humanity does not need them. There have been many calls around the world for the shutdown of nuclear reactors, especially after nuclear accidents such as the explosions at Chernobyl 1986 and Fukushima 2011 reactors. These accidents have had widespread effects on health and the environment and led several countries to stop and close their nuclear projects. Does humanity really have to close the nuclear reactors and return to relying on fossil fuels to produce electricity?
The number of nuclear reactors increased rapidly after 1951 and reached 420 reactors worldwide in 1989. As a result of the Chernobyl accident, there was strong opposition to the use of nuclear reactors; therefore, their number increased only slightly to 441 in 2010. Moreover, it seemed that many reactors had become aged and had been decommissioned. After the Fukushima reactor accident, some countries such as Japan and Germany began shutting down nuclear reactors, and their number decreased to 433 in 2013, but it rose again to 449 in 2018 due to the many countries continuing their nuclear programme, especially Russia and China.
In fact, nuclear energy plays an important role in the production of electricity in the world, as it made up about 10% of the total electricity produced all over the world in 2018. This represented a decrease from 17% in the 1990’s and more than 20% in the 1980’s. The production of nuclear electricity reached its peak in 2006 when it reached 2791 terawatt hours (TWh). Then, it became relatively stabilised before decreasing to 2460 TWh in 2012 after the Fukushima reactor accident. Since then, the production of nuclear electricity has been increasing slowly. It reached 2563 TWh in 2018.
Not only does it contribute to the production of electricity, but also the use of nuclear energy greatly contributes to reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the use of nuclear power to produce electricity since 1971 has avoided over 60 gigatons of CO2 emissions over the past 50 years, nearly equal to 2 years of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Nuclear power comes after hydroelectric power as the second source of low-carbon electricity today. In other words, without nuclear power, global CO2 emissions from electricity generation would have been almost 20% higher over the last half-century, which emphasises the important role of nuclear power in the production of clean energy.
Cumulative CO2 emissions avoided by global nuclear power, 1971-2018 (IEA)
Most fossil fuels are burned to produce electricity; for example, about 65% of the world’s consumption of coal is used in electricity production. This means that reducing CO2 emissions is related to the production of clean electricity. The current clean energy sources (renewable energy) make up about 34% of the electricity produced in the world, of which 10% is nuclear energy. While the production of electricity from most renewable energy sources, such as hydroelectric, solar and wind energy, is controlled by natural conditions, nuclear energy is not subject to the influence of these factors, and stable electricity can be produced throughout the day or year, and anywhere with appropriate conditions available to establish nuclear plants. Therefore, investing in nuclear energy looks to be one of the best and fastest ways to produce clean energy and thus reduce CO2 emissions.
Obtaining clean energy in the future without relying on nuclear energy needs more investment in the field of other renewable energy sources, especially solar and wind energy. Such an investment requires considerably more capital investment than extending the lifetimes of existing nuclear reactors. We should mention here that IEA expects that in the case where no further investments are made in advanced economies to extend the operating lifetime of existing nuclear power plants or to develop new projects, cumulative CO2 emissions would rise by 4 billion tons by 2040. Although the cost of establishing a new nuclear plant is very high, the cost of producing electricity is very cheap in the long term in contrast with other thermal power plants.
The nuclear power industry has more safety capabilities than conventional energy industries, and there is no certainty that the potential for accidents in nuclear reactors exceeds those that could affect other traditional industries or that result from natural disasters. Lessons learned from the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, as well as many other minor accidents involving nuclear reactors have provided comprehensive and up-to-date data to the nuclear power industry about what could happen in nuclear accidents and what follows. These accidents have prompted the safety factors in existing reactors to be enhanced, to take more protective measures and to develop existing protection systems.
The aforementioned leads me to conclude that nuclear power is still needed to produce electricity, and indeed we might use it more in the future. It could be the appropriate solution to avoid more use of fossil fuel, whereas using renewable energy is limited by some natural conditions such as wind velocity, the amount of solar radiation and the availability of water.
The future of nuclear power varies greatly between countries, depending on government policies. Some countries, many of them in Europe, such as Germany, Belgium and Lithuania, have started to close nuclear plants. At the same time, some Asian countries, such as China, South Korea and India, have committed to rapid expansion of nuclear power. Many other countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, have policies which involve neither closure nor expansion.