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How sustainable is nuclear Energy?

In light of all the doom and gloom surrounding the narrative of climate change, we are in fact in the process of a monumental shift towards sustainable energy. Each passing month brings far reaching announcements of record-breaking renewable energy production – from Irish wind power reaching new highs, to islands running entirely on renewable sources. As our society divests and diverts from a fossil-fuelled economy, we must consider all methods of power production to meet our growing electrical needs. One such method is nuclear energy, which has proven to be extremely divisive in public opinion. This week, we’re taking a look at the environmental impact of nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy doesn’t have to be complicated. To put it simply, there is a huge amount of energy in an atom’s dense nucleus/core. Once released from this atom during a process known as nuclear fission, this energy can be used to create electricity. It’s a pretty simple process in theory, but one that draws enormous attention due to unfortunate events in recent history and also the lack of effective communication and educational links between industry and society. Building nuclear reactors requires a high level of technology, and only the countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty can get the uranium or plutonium that is required. For these reasons, most nuclear power plants are located in the developed world. Nuclear power plants produce renewable, clean energy. They do not pollute the air or release greenhouse gases. They can be built in urban or rural areas, and do not radically alter the environment around them. The steam powering the turbines and generators is ultimately recycled. It is cooled down in a separate structure called a cooling tower. The steam turns back into water and can be used again to produce more electricity. Excess steam is simply recycled into the atmosphere, where it does little harm as clean water vapor.

Although nuclear energy is seen by many to be a clean source of energy during operation, there are two notable environmental hotspots in its lifecycle: the processing stages upstream and downstream from the nuclear plant. The by-product of nuclear energy is radioactive material, which can be extremely toxic, causing burns and increasing the risk for cancers, blood diseases, and bone decay. Radioactive waste is what is left over from the operation of a reactor (mostly
protective clothing and tools) which can stay radioactive for thousands of years. Additionally, used fuel and nuclear rods must be stored in specialised containers. These have become very controversial due to fears of water contamination near populated areas, and as was the case with Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi and Idaho falls to name a few, there is always the worry that the storage facilities could leak, crack or erode, leading to significant health and environmental problems in the area.

The impact of the Chernobyl disaster in particular was immediate and provides a cautionary tale for what can go wrong with nuclear energy. For kilometres around the facility, the pine forest dried up and died. The red colour of the dead pines earned this area the nickname the Red Forest. Fish from the nearby Pripyat River were so radioactive that people could no longer eat them. Cattle and horses in the area also died.

However, if the world is serious about reducing carbon dioxide emissions, as well other significant greenhouse gases, then nuclear energy has the potential to play a major role in the transformation of the 21st century energy-supply system. Many studies have pointed to nuclear fission as a way of mitigating the drawbacks of some renewables, such as the intermittency of solar and wind, and the large quantities of biomass required to produce any significant amount of energy.

So, where does nuclear energy stand in environmental comparison to renewables and non-renewables? For every mWh of electricity produced, nuclear power emits between 3 to 35kg CO2 eq. For some context, natural gas produces around 700 kg CO2 eq, coal produces around 900 kg CO2 eq, wind produces between 3 to 41 kg CO2 eq and solar produces between 13- 190 kg CO2 eq. We can see from this that, even accounting for the environmental hotspots upstream and downstream of operating a nuclear plant, it is still more environmentally friendly than non-renewables and comparable with renewables.

So, is nuclear energy the best option? We would argue that the best option for future energy supplies relies on an integrated approach, one in which multiple energy systems play a role in generating sufficient power to meet demand. Although nuclear energy can be advantageous in the transition of our world’s energy, it is important to recognise that it is not the only option and a sustainable society should be adaptable and malleable.

This topic sounds a little familiar? In 2020, we conducted a research project called ‘VyraHome’ that set out to quantify the savings afforded to people working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was pretty clear that many people were open to the idea of working remotely, and that the average person was making significant savings by doing so (time, money, environment). However, as more people took part in the project, we began to notice that not everyone was keen on this cultural shift. One of the major talking points for us became the simple question: is working from home always more environmentally friendly than being in the office? This week, we’re taking a look at both sides of the coin.