Nuclear power could be key to energy security


Nuclear fission has its disadvantages, but can we afford to turn our back on the polarising but promising power source?

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Image by Stefan Kühn via Wikimedia Commons

By Freya Milwain

In 1959, Germany enacted the Atomic Energy Act (“Atomgesetz”), codifying the phasing out of nuclear fission energy. More than 60 years later, despite energy and climate crises, all nuclear power plants in Germany are set to be decommissioned by April 2023. The reasons for Atomgesetz were all related to safety – to prevent the chance of accidental radiation release, which can cause a multitude of health conditions such as radiation sickness and several forms of cancer.

This risk has been regrettably demonstrated by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 2011 accident at Fukushima. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), Chernobyl caused the immediate deaths of 30 people and the evacuation of 350,000, and Fukushima required the evacuation of more than 100,000. Chernobyl later led to a total of 134 cases of radiation sickness and about 4000 cases of thyroid cancer according to the UN.

The Chernobyl meltdown was caused by faulty infrastructure under a Soviet regime with a record of a cavalier (at best) approach to safety, but even modern fission reactors carry a certain degree of risk. Nuclear power requires a constant supply of energy in order to cool the reactors and prevent them from overheating; in Fukushima the accident was caused by tsunami-damage to critical generators. In March 2022, when Russian forces took control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, damage to power lines sparked international concern. While still low, this elevated risk of catastrophe compared to other generation methods prompted the original decommissioning ambition in Germany. Fukushima caused former German chancellor Angela Merkel to bring forward the date for full decommissioning to 2022.

However, the abandonment of nuclear power is a risky move in light of the current crises. Fission releases no carbon dioxide, and so is a clear alternative to the use of fossil fuels. While it is not entirely green – it results in hazardous nuclear waste and is not technically renewable, though the fuel is abundant – it is more reliable than wind and solar power which rely on climatic factors. If the planet is to reach net zero carbon emissions, nuclear power may be vital. Germany itself has goals to reach net zero by 2045, as set out by its Climate Change Act in 2021, primarily by expanding its renewable energy infrastructure such as offshore wind. When Atomgesetz was enacted in 1959, climate change had not yet been proven, so fossil fuels were considered a sustainable alternative. While the act has been amended since, energy demands have increased in concert with the urgency to decarbonise, creating a significant shortfall.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also caused major uncertainty over energy sources. As sanctions on Russian oil and gas drive energy prices up across Europe, with outages a strong possibility, the concept of removing a reliable source of electricity seems unwise. Germany relies especially heavily on Russian gas – more than half of total supply in 2021. This has already caused an extension of the decommissioning deadline from the end of the year to April 2023, though the government still claims commitment to the plan.

Unfortunately, even nuclear power isn’t totally clear of Russian influence. The mineral giant is an important source of Uranium, and is increasing extraction. According to the WNA, Russia’s Techsnabexport will increase its share of global Uranium enrichment to 40% by 2030. Political instability therefore casts doubt on fission as a reliable route to decarbonisation.

Another issue with nuclear power is that every stage requires large investment: the reactors have to be built and maintained, and waste has to be disposed of safely – even decommissioning comes with heavy costs. Despite France’s heavy reliance on nuclear, half of their plants have remained shuttered after the pandemic. While these costs are comparable to coal- and gas-burning plants, onshore wind and solar are far cheaper due to lower construction and maintenance costs, supporting their sustainability argument.

Stepping back from nuclear power has become a bigger issue across Europe, with the Fukushima accident forcing countries such as Switzerland and Belgium to make the publicly-favourable decision to decommission. With the current global issues putting that public under increasing strain however, more countries will have a decision to make: whether to prioritise optics, or energy security and decarbonisation.