Nuclear power: is it our best alternative?

By Connor Pattison | 11th January 2020

With the emergence of Extinction Rebellion and the United Nations sustainable development goals, the ‘mass’ social awakening to the realities of climate change has sparked discussion surrounding an adequate replacement for fossil fuels. Even the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, is urging companies to stop holding $120 trillion in fossil fuel assets on their balance sheets before it becomes worthless as alternatives increasingly come on stream. 

The alternative energy required is in little doubt as insatiable world demand continues to increase. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), world demand is to grow a massive 26% more in 2040 than our current energy needs today.

Despite renewable energy being the most environmentally sound option as a main power source, its weather reliant generation provides an intermittent supply and current challenges around surplus energy storage are major disadvantages, seriously questioning this method’s ability to handle fluctuating demand. 

Unlike these methods, nuclear energy can be greatly depended on – presently, France serves as proof of its capabilities with over 70% of total energy derived from nuclear plants. But if history has taught us anything, it is that this highly radioactive power source does not come without its own challenges, with potentially fatal consequences. 

Disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima emphasise that radioactive waste, produced by the current fission reactors, must be handled with the utmost care to prevent any future recurrences. According to the World Nuclear Association, for low-level radioactive waste, accounting for roughly 90% of all types: “a satisfactory disposal means has been developed and is being implemented around the world.” 

However, to just manage these levels, countries such as Finland and Sweden are planning to construct underground repositories for effective waste management. And, with a Thomas Reuters article stating that Finland’s project is receiving: “a step forward…when its builder Posiva announced a 500-million-euro ($569.55 million) investment in facilities needed for nuclear waste burial”, the funding required is significant. 

The potential economic implications of increasing our reliance on nuclear power is also a concern in some circles. Structural reform of the energy market would prompt redundancies in coal mines and oil rigs, triggering a sharp rise in unemployment. Although it is clear that at some point a reform of the energy market has to happen as we abandon fossil fuels.

Speculatively then, the prospects for nuclear are not encouraging: it’s expensive, the waste by-products are highly toxic and difficult to deal with and there’s always the possibility of a major accident.

However, recent advancements in nuclear technology spread optimism amongst scientists as a future with fusion power becomes more conceivable. This differs from the current fission technology in that it doesn’t rely on splitting atoms to generate energy but instead replicates the method that powers the sun. The basic idea is to take a type of hydrogen gas, heat it to more than 100 million degrees until it forms a thin, fragile cloud called a plasma, and then control it with powerful magnets until the atoms fuse and release energy. 

Building ‘the sun in a box’ as some scientists have dubbed it would, according to the Financial Times, “offer carbon-free energy from plentiful materials – more safely and with less radioactive waste than today’s atom-splitting fission reactors.” 

Without the need for nuclear waste management, fusion power seems to be worth financial backing. 

In October 2019, the Guardian stated that: “The British government has given £220m to a UK-based project…which aims to build a working fusion reactor that will feed 100MW (megawatts) into the national grid by 2040.”

Nevertheless, whether all nations would collaborate to not only provide the necessary capital, but also achieve its global implementation is certainly up for debate.

In an age of rising global temperatures, the growing precarity of planet Earth increases the need for drastic changes in how we derive power. Perhaps almost 100 years since the start of the nuclear age in 1945, are its promises of that brave new world about to be realised?

High financial demands to refine fusion power are a reality, but its projected benefits may ultimately provide the alternative we have been looking for.