Nuclear Energy as a Solution to the Climate Change

Abstract

The issue of global climate change has become extremely topical and widely-discussed in the recent past due to its potential adverse impacts on the humanity and planet in the nearest future. Environmentalists, politicians, and the general public have been worried about the global warming hazard and decided to develop some solutions to the problem, which vary in terms of their practicality, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency. Proponents of the nuclear energy use have seen such worry about climate change as an opportunity to revive a relatively stagnating industry by claiming that nuclear energy is among the best solutions to the problem thanks to the absence of carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear plants.

 

However, such solution has turned out to be highly controversial and is subject to numerous researches with most of them being roughly divided into two groups: those that support the solution and those that are against it. The current paper provides a brief literature review survey on nuclear energy being considered as a possible solution to the problem of climate change with a view to determining whether the overwhelming majority of studies dedicated to the issue are for or against such approach. Key aspects covered on the basis of credible primary and secondary sources include surveyed techniques and approaches, trends, leading research directions, unresolved problems and difficulties, as well as future research issues.

Introduction

Recently, the world and, in particular, developed nations have become extremely concerned about the anthropocentric climate change that has been adversely impacting the planet for the past several decades and has exponentially intensified due to the rapid industrialization. Thus, climatologists and environmentalists have published numerous reports forecasting rises in global temperatures, melting of ice, rising sea levels, as well as other highly possible climate changes that will definitely impact the humanity and nature. However, the most adverse impacts of the climate change can be averted or mitigated if effective and resolute actions are taken immediately even though most of the changes are claimed to be irreversible.

Of course, such complicated topic as climate change has raised heated debates with skeptics indicating faults in conventional environmentalists’ warnings, but it is not the purpose of the current paper to establish truthfulness of statements issued within such context. Thus, the paper accepts an idea that climate change is a real phenomenon that has been taking place for at least several decades and is likely to cause global warming, which is, to a great extent, caused by accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Having determined climate change as an irreversible phenomenon, the paper strives to provide a brief comprehensive literature research survey with a view to finding out whether nuclear energy can be deemed a viable solution to the given problem.

The question on the potential ability of nuclear power to solve climate change is no less controversial and debatable than the problem itself. Hence, all literature sources and researches dedicated to the particular question may be roughly divided into two large groups: those that view nuclear energy as an efficient solution to the climate change and those that blame the former of a biased position due to the unsuitability of the offered solution. Such particular issue becomes even more complicated and controversial if to take into consideration a fact that the use of nuclear energy has caused debates and speculations since the time of its invention even without adding the problem of climate change to the discussion. Nevertheless, both parties of the discussion offer sound arguments and seemingly convincing statistical data, but still findings presented by committed supporters of the nuclear industry seem to be biased. Besides, data presented in different researches sometimes contradict each other, implying that either one of sides or both of them are prone to manipulate figures in their favor.

Sources

The current paper is based on credible primary and secondary sources on the issue that have been chosen after a long and attentive review of available materials with preservation of the existing proportion between papers for and against the use of nuclear energy to solve the climate change problem. Thus, the literature review survey has employed the following sources: “Nuclear power and climate change” and “Nuclear energy and addressing climate change” by Nuclear Energy Agency, “Nuclear power: No solution to climate change” by NIRS/WISE International, “Climate change and nuclear power 2013” by International Atomic Energy Agency, “Nuclear power undermining climate protection” and “Climate change – nuclear not the answer” by Greenpeace, “Is nuclear energy a possible solution to global warming?” by Dr. Mark Diesendorf, “Nuclear power can’t stop climate change” by Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and “Climate change and nuclear power” by World Wide Fund for Nature. Based on such sources, it seems that representatives and supporters of the nuclear power have viewed the issue of climate change as an opportunity to revive their largely stagnating industry by pretending that they can offer a viable solution to the problem. In fact, they lack such solution due to its impractical nature and potential hazards as compared to other suggested approaches like the use of renewable sources of energy.

Surveyed Techniques and Approaches

The overwhelming majority of the above listed sources use a mixture of techniques and approaches to present their ideas and convince the audience of the argument they support. Thus, almost all of them refer to various primary researches and critically assess their findings with a view to providing a comprehensive review of the issue. In order to be more informative and convincing, they use different diagrams, tables, and graphs that study the issue under consideration from a diachronic perspective encompassing the past, present, and future. Statistical methods seem to be the priority choice in all above sources as statistics is usually considered to be credible and authoritative. All of the sources are clearly structured and segmented in such a way that they greatly contribute to comprehension.

Sources that support the use of nuclear energy as a solution to the problem of climate change, for instance, Nuclear Energy Agency (2009) and International Atomic Energy Agency (2013), refer to statistical techniques and diagrams to illustrate low levels of CO2 emissions of nuclear plants. From their statements it becomes obvious that it is much lower as compared to other conventional energy generating technologies, including primarily coal and gas stations. However, they fail to mention exact amounts of greenhouse gases emitted during mining and processing of uranium, which the modern nuclear industry cannot do without (Diesendorf, 2007). Instead, proponents of the nuclear energy describe various potential technological developments of the industry that would solve acknowledged existing problems like exhausted volumes of uranium, wide-spread worries about health hazards and risks, and disposal of wastes (Nuclear Energy Agency, 2009).

In turn, sources which take a more cautious position on the issue of nuclear energy as a possible solution to the climate change problem, for instance, Greenpeace (2008), Diesendorf (2007), Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and World Wide Fund for Nature (2000), offer all-encompassing statistics and use techniques that present both sides of the argument. They point out that their opponents manipulate data in their favor as they regard the problem of climate change as an opportunity to revive interest in the stagnating industry that has been threatened to lose government subsidies dur to its economic inefficiency (World Wide Fund for Nature, 2000). Therefore, they spend millions of dollars on promotion of the idea that nuclear energy is a beneficial solution to the emerging problem (Nuclear Information and Resource Service). Thus, approaches taken by the two sides are similar in terms of using statistics and diagrams for illustration of their points, but differ in terms of objectivity and sincere intention to develop an effective and efficient solution to the problem under consideration.

Trends in the Surveyed Area

As mentioned above, the two major trends in the surveyed area include advocating for and against the use of nuclear energy as a solution to the climate change, but it is also possible to distinguish some minor trends within such domain. Hence, the 2009 report by Nuclear Energy Agency (2009) focuses primarily on the topic of CO2 emissions by nuclear plants and other energy generating sources with a focus on their current proportions in percentage, as well as addressing some of the most topical issues worrying the public like disposal of wastes. The other report released by the same organization and analyzed herein focuses on three possible development paths of the nuclear technology, including such three variants as “continued nuclear growth”, “phase-out”, and “stagnation followed by revival” with data calculated for each of them (Nuclear Energy Agency). A quite similar trend is evident in the report by International Atomic Energy Agency (2013) that bears an argumentative pro-nuclear nature and tries to convince readers of the growing role of such type of power under the circumstances of climate change. The report is consistent with the trend of attempting to mitigate concerns prevalent among the public, but its primary focus is still on new developments within the industry (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2013).

Such allegations about developments of the nuclear industry are rendered unsubstantiated and even unreal by NIRS/WISE International (2005) with abbreviations standing for World Information Service on Energy and Nuclear Information and Resource Service. Thus, their report provides calculation of how many new reactors would be required to reduce emissions of the energy sector in line with the Kyoto Protocol. As a result, number indicated is at least 72 plants in Europe in the nearest few years and more than 1,000 in the US alone in the medium-term perspective (NIRS/WISE International, 2005). Current report, just like Diesendorf (2007), draws attention to the fact that currently operating nuclear plants emit just three times less greenhouse gases than modern power plants running on natural gas, which means that pro-nuclear papers have a tendency to manipulate and omit data as they wish.

Another trend discernible in anti-nuclear papers concerns their assertion that “nuclear power is an expensive and dangerous distraction from the real solutions to climate change” (Greenpeace, 2008). Moreover, nuclear energy is viewed as an extremely expensive distraction from viable solutions (Greenpeace, 2008). Furthermore, such sources display a trend of emphasizing that uranium resources are exhaustible and new technologies are not sophisticated enough and pose more dangers than benefits (Nuclear Information and Resource Service). Such trend is tightly interrelated with the fact that nuclear energy is not a solution of the environmental problem, but rather a replacement of “burden on the environment” (World Wide Fund for Nature, 2000). Finally, the common trend of anti-nuclear papers is their agreement on the fact that the only viable short- and long-term solution to the problem of climate change consists in renewable energy and its further development and improvement due to its cost-effectiveness and efficiency (Greenpeace, 2007).

Leading Research Directions and Unresolved Problems

Development of solutions to climate change is the primary research direction in the energy sector as “The question is not whether climate change is happening or not but whether, in the face of this emergency, we ourselves can change fast enough” (Greenpeace, 2008). However, it still remains unknown whether prophesized climate changes will occur due to the increased carbon dioxide emissions and how catastrophic evoked changes may be (World Wide Fund for Nature, 2000). Besides, possible solutions to the problem of climate change are still debated and developed. At the same time, nuclear power is seen as a priority solution only among the strongest and most convicted supporters of nuclear energy, since even some representatives of the industry acknowledge that “nuclear power can’t stop climate change” (Nuclear Information and Resource Service).

That is why “in late 2000, the nations of the world decided to reject nuclear power as a solution to climate change by denying the nuclear industry clean fuel credits reserved for truly sustainable energy sources” (Nuclear Information and Resource Service). Nevertheless, it is still essential to continue developing nuclear technologies as nowadays there are approximately 400 nuclear plants in the world and the industry has intensified its safety measures after the Fukushima incident (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2013). At the same time, the current level of technology does not make it possible to speak about nuclear energy as an efficient means of addressing the climate change, hence meaning that it “cannot be part of a long-term solution to global warming” (Diesendorf, 2007).

The most topical unresolved problems within the nuclear industry include exhaustive nature of uranium, potential health hazards, lack of opportunities for waste disposal, terrorism and accident risks, inefficiency of current nuclear technologies, and huge investments required to construct new plants, as well as improve and, subsequently, decommission the existing ones (Nuclear Energy Agency, 2009; NIRS/WISE International, 2005; World Wide Fund for Nature, 2000). Among such problems, the issue of waste disposal seems to be the most alarming and complicated one. In case the proposed number of new plants will be built, a new huge waste dump resembling the size of the current Yucca Mountain dump will be needed every three years.

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Anyway, each of such dumps would require 20 years for construction (Nuclear Information and Resource Service). Irrespective of whether nuclear energy offers any solution to the problem of climate change, such solution is not efficient in terms of price/effectiveness ratio as “nuclear power could do little or nothing in the fight against global warming” (Greenpeace, 2007). It is caused by the fact that it can generate only electricity that, in turn, accounts just for one third of all emitted greenhouse gases, and heat production would still depend on suitable conventional or renewable energy sources (Greenpeace, 2007).

Future Research Issues

Based on the sources under consideration, it becomes obvious that the problem of climate change remains largely unresolved even though recently the problem has lost topicality due to some related scandals within the industry. In any case, nuclear energy and climate change are two significant issues that need further researching. With respect to climate change, it is important to find out how renewable sources of energy can be efficiently and timely integrated into the modern global energy grid. Besides, nuclear energy still remains a vital source of energy even though it accounts only for approximately 16 percent of all generated electricity. Existing nuclear plants have to be modernized and their safety measures have to be enhanced through some innovative developments. Another future research issue, which is of utmost importance, concerns disposal of wastes. Nowadays, there is no single unanimously agreed approach to the problem and wastes are stored in some underground compounds. Anyway, their safety is often doubted. Moreover, wastes remain radioactive for thousands of years, hence posing a significant threat to the health of humanity. If nuclear energy is not abandoned, the issue has to be urgently dealt with to avoid a future disaster.

Conclusion

The current paper has presented a brief literature review survey based on nine primary and secondary sources dedicated to the question of whether nuclear energy can be deemed a viable solution to the problem of climate change. Analysis of available sources has shown that the question is highly controversial and abounds in arguments both for and against the use of nuclear power for such purpose. Proponents of the nuclear energy seem to suppose that climate change could have become a point of revival for the stagnating industry that has proved to be manipulative, deceitful, and expensive. Such negative aspects are often ignored in their reports, while they focus on the necessity to invest in new developments. However, their opponents manage to prove that such investments are an unjustified waste of money on hazardous endeavors that will only contribute to the amount of environmental burdens. The industry has depended on governmental subsidies for many decades, but it is likely to change in the nearest future, since investments and subsidies are required in the sector of renewable energy.

Nonetheless, papers and reports issued by both sides of the argument are rather detailed and convincing as they abound in statistics, graphs, tables, and other illustrative and informative elements. Nuclear Energy Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency seem to be extremely biased and interested in further spread and development of the industry. Otherwise, it can have negative effect on such nuclear countries as Russia, the US, and France in case priority is shifted to the renewable energy sources. Nevertheless, the literature review survey proves that nuclear energy at the current level is not a viable and feasible solution to the problem of climate change as it lacks required efficiency, as well as requires immense investments and offers little practicality. Besides, it will not assist with decreasing emission of greenhouse gases as proponents claim due to the insufficient level of development, exhaustiveness of uranium, versatile risks, and high levels of secondary CO2 emissions.

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