Nuclear Energy: The Climate Hero Nobody Wants, But The Hero We All Need

By Cameron Macpherson

(Hunterston B Nuclear Plant in Ayrshire. Photograph: Wikipedia Commons)

As fuel costs soar and the climate emergency heightens, alternatives to fossil fuels are desperately needed. Nuclear energy may still have a ‘dirty’ past, but it guarantees an enormous capacity of clean, reliable energy – which is needed to stop our addiction to oil. 

First of all a shout out to renewables. In Scotland, they have become something to be proud of (and rightfully so). At times we have powered nearly our entire electricity grid from renewable energy. This a huge accomplishment and a landmark step towards a decarbonised future for us all. 

However, despite the winds blowing in Scotland, a storm raging in Europe threatens to give us all a cold. The frightening and abhorrent Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced us all to have a look in the mirror and see ourselves for what we truly are. An oil addict. According to the BBC, around 75% of the UK’s energy comes from oil and gas. Which is shocking on a climate level, as it runs contrary to any net-zero carbon emission goals we have set. More so, the very supplier of our oil and gas just so happens to be committing horrible war atrocities in Ukraine – just to throw an extra spanner in the works. 

Now before we all pile on oil, kick dirt in its face and pull its hair – let us pause for a second and think why we rely so heavily on it. It fuelled the rapid ascension of society and civilisation. We probably wouldn’t be here today without it, or at least not this far. We have become reliant on its speed, availability, and reliability. But, sadly, the crucial side effects of oil is that for whatever life it gives us; it takes away from the planet. Moreover, as we are seeing with the Russia invasion of Ukraine – oil has become a political issue. As the business side of the oil industry has got its hooks into us. So, if we are going to replace oil then we need to start looking at what other energy source can fill its place. 

Firstly, we need a source with a massive capacity for generating reliable energy. Secondly, we need a clean energy source that does not emit any carbon. Thirdly, we need longevity, as if we are to replace oil then it has to be a long term fix, not a quick one. We need surgery, not a plaster. This is where nuclear energy comes in. 

To the majority of people, nuclear energy conjures up images of Chernobyl or Fukushima. These disasters occurred on a massive scale that left buildings and nearby areas completely destroyed and uninhabitable. Or maybe people think of The Simpsons. But, my point being, that tends to be the extent of common knowledge on nuclear energy. It certainly was in my experience. However, nuclear energy is far more than its public perception and its past.

When it comes to discussing generating massive amounts of energy, capable of replacing oil, nuclear energy guarantees that. Given that it yields the highest energy capacity of all energy sources. Meaning that nuclear plants can generate the maximum amount of energy almost all year round. Making nuclear 1.5 to 2 times more reliable than fossil fuels (gas and coal) and 2.5 to 3.5 times more reliable than wind and solar. 

So, the problem with us relying solely on renewables to generate electricity is when the wind does not blow. I know that feels impossible in Scotland, but hear me out. Germany spent a record 580 billion euros on renewables and, according to nuclear activist Dr Chris Keefer, they have struggled to power their whole electricity grid with it. 

“I travelled to Germany, which is the country that spent the most per capita on renewables. When I was there, it was not windy, it was not sunny. They were relying on coal and Russian gas. And their (carbon) emissions were terrible. Despite this historic investment of 550 billion Euros in renewables.”

‘The sad thing is that weather-dependent renewable technology, it spares use. It is a fossil fuel saver, it is not a fossil fuel replacer.’ 

‘What you have in Germany is two parallel grids. You have a clean grid (renewables) that works when it works; then you have a dirty grid (fossil fuels) that has to fire up and meet peak demand.”

Therefore, we can learn from Germany that renewables can not always supply the level of electricity needed to phase out fossil fuels. What we need is a reliable and durable energy source, which nuclear energy offers in abundance. 

We have already established that nuclear generates the most amount of power the most of the time as well. Which is the reliable combination we need to decarbonise as fast as we can. The energy it produces is also very clean and the plants themselves take up a very small amount of land and interact well with that land. Look at the Hunterston B nuclear plant in Ayrshire, it has sheep and wildlife grazing right up to the plant itself. An exotic example is Diablo Canyon in California. Situated by the sea, it hosts some of the most vibrant, thriving marine life on the Pacific coast. Including, surprisingly, no three-eyed fish like The Simpsons. 

(Photograph: Flickr)

Okay then, so if nuclear is this great, clean, reliable energy source then why is it not offered a seat at the table? Why is it ignored? 

Within the UK, it comes down to a mixture of poor engineering choices and nuclear’s unfortunate ‘dangerous’ reputation, which is something Dr Keefer explains:

‘It’s been very maligned, the existing technology. Unfortunately there was a big problem in Chernobyl with a really old reactor design, but the pressurised water design that we have all over the world have performed remarkably well and replaced 2 gigatonnes of CO2 every year. That’s 1/25th of all humanities emissions every year being displaced by nuclear. 

‘I would push back on the premise that old nuclear is bad. There was unfortunately a poor error made in the UK, where the decision was made to go with these graphite-cooled gas reactors. They are a really interesting design, but they can’t be extended beyond 40 or 50 years. So that fleet of nuclear is coming offline in the UK, purely because of engineering reasons. Whereas, the reactors chosen in France or Canada are able to be refurbished and kept online for about 80-100 years. Creating this very long-lived energy structure.’ 

As a result of these errors and misunderstanding of nuclear, we are unfortunately placing all of our eggs in the basket of renewables. Which is a risky bet, as the durability of wind turbines is not that long. Wind turbines need to be replaced every 20 years and the discarded ones need to be buried or recycled – the latter of which is still being researched. So there is some uncertainty there; when these wind turbines do come offline. 

If the pathway away from fossil fuels is to electrify everything, then we need an energy source that provides massive amounts of energy all of the time. Renewables just cannot guarantee this. This was seen during COP26. When wind levels were down, nuclear powered 70% of Glasgow’s electricity. However, as Scotland’s nuclear is phased out; it will be fossil fuels that picks up the slack from renewables. Which is completely counterproductive. 

So we need to face the facts and see that we need an energy source that will substitute fossil fuels effectively, just without the carbon emissions. Now renewables may work some of the time but we cannot bank on it to always be there. We need to learn from Canada, learn from France – both of whom have completely decarbonised their electricity grids. Which was no miracle, they did so through their application of nuclear energy. More so, due to its longevity this decarbonised electricity grid will last them into the next century. In which time, Scotland will have gone through five generations of wind turbines and possibly still be relying on fossil fuels for a quick fix. So, what is the solution? Well, just like any addiction, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

If you would like to listen to our full interview Dr Chris Keefer please follow this link

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