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Nuclear Future

Why are countries like Germany and Switzerland phasing out nuclear power?

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2) for nuclear power compare favourably with renewable energies: Nuclear 15 kt/TWh, Photovoltaic 13 kt/TWh, Wind 9 kt/TWh, Hydropower 2 kt/TWh. This is well below fossil fuels: coal 1,000 kt/TWh, oil 778 kt/TWh.

Sounds like a good way to beat global warming... So why are countries like Germany and Switzerland phasing out nuclear power?

There are three main reasons...

The Three Problems with Nuclear Energy

1. Nuclear Waste

We do not really have a guaranteed long-term system to store the used uranium for the tens of thousands of years necessary before it is sufficiently less dangerous (it will never be completely safe).

Fishermen protesting against the construction of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, March 2002
Fishermen protesting against the construction of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, March 2002

2. Nuclear Accidents

Plant safety has not had a clean record. There have been many accidents involving reactor operations and waste management. The radioactive materials from reactors can cause ionising radiation, which is dangerous for health and the environment. Radioactive fall-out plays very much into a primeval fear. There are also the problems of nuclear terrorism and proliferation of nuclear materials and technology, making the world a less safe place.

3. Economics

On the plus side, nuclear power generation requires the least space of all the energy sources: 0.5 km2/TWh, compared to, say, wind power, 72 km2/TWh.

Energy Returned on Energy Invested, ERoEI: Nuclear = 5-15 (optimised plants up to 24), Photovoltaic (P/V) 3-7, Wind 16-25, Hydro = 10-270 (very dependent on location). Some reports claim the ERoEI for a new generation of nuclear power plant could be in the hundreds, but for now this remains theoretical.

Uranium supply and economic efficiency: far from being 'almost free', as was first touted in the 1950s, the costs of the nuclear industry still outweigh most other forms of electricity production. The high costs of decommissioning aged plants were typically grossly underestimated in original estimates, if they were accounted for at all. As Germany is experiencing, there is no way to have the nuclear industry balance its books without the public purse picking up a large part of the tab.

Insight EU provides the following breakdown of energy subsidies in Europe in 2011: Nuclear = 35 billion Euro, Renewable energy = 30 billion Euro, Fossil fuels = 26 billion Euro, Efficiency measures = 15 billion euro. A large part of the subsidies for nuclear power is in the form of liability insurance, which guarantees the state pays for the costs following severe reactor incidents.

The German federal and Länder governments spent between 1956 and 2006 of the order of 50 billion euro on nuclear energy research and technology. This does not include decommissioning costs for installations, which amounted to 2.5 billion Euro, and 6.6 billion Euro for uranium mining redevelopment. Nuclear power stations in Germany in 2009 had an average operational availability of 74.2%.

Nuclear power is expensive and its waste product, depleted uranium fuel, must be stored for tens of thousands of years till it is 'safe'. Accidents can cause leaks of radiative material which leave large areas of land uninhabitable due to contamination, as well as spreading through the groundwater and sea, entering the human foodchain through fish.

Ticino, Switzerland, received a lot of radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, from a contaminated raincloud. Japan, Russia, Ukraine, and the USA have all suffered serious nuclear accidents, releasing deadly radiation which will contaminate land, water, and food for thousands of years.

It is being phased out in Germany and Switzerland, but France still makes 75% of its electricity from nuclear power. Italy does not use nuclear power at all. Nuclear reactors produce 13% of the world's electricity.

Article by Andrew Bone, January 19, 2016

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