Nuclear Energy: The Underwhelming “Hero” of the Climate Crisis

Annelie Daly

Nuclear energy has a short, yet pernicious history. The workings of the COP-26 Summit in Glasgow will add another chapter, as the nuclear debate continues. 

The history of nuclear energy is undeniably rooted in war. When fission was discovered in 1938, scientists were supported by governments to develop nuclear weaponry. The Allied Manhattan project developed the first nuclear reactor in 1942, and just two years later the US bombed the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear energy has never managed to shake its villainous origin story, although rebranding efforts began as early as Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech in 1953. 

To the disadvantage of nuclear energy’s image, practical nuclear power was first developed in the US Navy. After the establishment of civilian nuclear power in the USSR in 1953, the mood was hopeful. The 1957 Euratom Treaty created a European Community for nuclear power in Europe. Later that year however, the Kyshtym disaster in the USSR and the Windscale fire in the UK created an anti-nuclear sentiment amongst many Europeans and the Treaty is largely regarded as a failure. 

 Later anti-nuclear activism in the ’60s and ’70s – encouraged by nuclear expansion in the face of the oil crisis – was so successful that countless reactor proposals were cancelled. Activism increased the cost of building nuclear reactors, but unfortunately, did little to offer an alternative. Notably, these protests were often student-led grassroots organisations, who were concerned about waste and accidents, even before the impending Chernobyl tragedy. 

On the 26th of April 1986, a fire broke out at the Chernobyl Power Plant, releasing airborne radioactive contamination for nine days. The eventual total death toll is unknown – but predicted to be from 9,000 to 16,000. In the Soviet context of the time, the crisis was mismanaged. Inaccurate reporting delayed evacuation and negligence on behalf of the plant workers increased the damage. Chernobyl is a symbol of every failing of nuclear energy. The environmental impact and the loss of human life will never be forgotten. The far-reaching impact of the Chernobyl disaster in Belarus emphasises the international nature of nuclear power and disaster. The anti-nuclear movements in Italy and Germany were strengthened by this and nuclear power was phased out. 

Aside from the human risk of nuclear power, the issue of nuclear waste management also remains contentious. Nuclear waste is often stored in temporary storage containers, prone to leaks, and not safely underground. Even when stored safely, nuclear waste is a long term problem created by nuclear energy that also must be reckoned with. 

However disastrous nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima were, the pale in comparison to the damage caused by fossil fuels. Counter-intuitively, nuclear power has one of the lowest fatalities per unit of energy. This does not include the future deaths that will occur due to Chernobyl and Fukushima, but neither does it include the future victims of fossil-fuel induced climate change. The “low-risk”, low-carbon promise of nuclear energy has proved more enticing in recent years, as pressure to reach net zero mounts.  

Pro-nuclear rhetoric positions the energy source as an alternative to fossil fuels. According to nuclear power’s proponents, this safe(r) and stable source will support renewables in providing a ‘base’ upon which fluctuating wind and solar power can build. Anti-nuclear rhetoric compares nuclear energy to renewables themselves in providing low carbon alternatives to fossil fuels. Renewables are cleaner, safer and cheaper. The problem of renewable intermittency can be solved with the development of battery technologies, or by a back-up source, unfortunately usually fossil fuels. The use of renewables is clearly Plan A in the fight against carbon emissions. Why then, has the tired nuclear debate re-emerged? 

For countries with established nuclear power – such as France, a denuclearisation process would prove expensive and ineffective. Their traditional stance in favour of nuclear energy is justified. The building of nuclear power reactors in low-nuclear countries such as Romania may distract from renewable energy, the original hero, the plan A of the climate fight. 

Nuclear energy was presented as a hero of the climate crisis at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow. Studies presented there by the International Energy Agency demonstrated in the four model scenarios that nuclear power must double in the next 30 years to limit temperature increase to below 2 degrees. US and Romanian officials used the summit to arrange their nuclear power alliance, while France and Eastern-Europe have banded together to include nuclear energy in the EU’s taxonomy. This would see nuclear energy categorically defined as ‘green’, ‘safe’ and ‘sustainable’. Camps emerged within the EU at COP26 – and Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, Portugal and Denmark have formed an anti-nuclear alliance. 

A crucial factor in the COP26 renaissance of nuclear energy is time. The risks of climate change are much greater than those of nuclear power, but positioning nuclear as a hero, or even as a second best solution is greatly disappointing. Time is running out. If nuclear power is the best we could do to alleviate the climate crisis, there is no victory to be celebrated.  

The framework of energy dependence transfer, from fossil fuels to renewables, nuclear or a combination of the two is an inevitable loss. Every ‘solution’ releases its own specific Pandora’s Box, and we are left with an impossible choice. This framework is limited however and does not recognise the potential for energy conservation and energy efficiency. We need to rethink our level of energy consumption, in order to be able to rely more on renewable energy sources. Finding new ways to electrically sustain humanity’s penchant for expansion, growth and greed will prove impossible. Acceptance of an eventually fixed level of consumption is necessary for life on a fixed and finite planet. There can be no hero of the climate crisis.