By Haley Zaremba
More than a decade after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the nuclear debate is once again raging in global forums. While fear about nuclear fallout and future tragedies like those that took place at Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island remains clear and present in the minds of many policymakers, the pressing need for rapid decarbonization of the global economy has brought nuclear, a zero-emissions proved technology, back to the forefront of energy policy debates.
While many nations – most notably Germany, who vowed back in 2011 to shutter all of its nuclear power plants by this year – remain staunchly opposed to nuclear power on the basis of the outsized risk posed by nuclear meltdown, many other countries are re-embracing the technology as an unfairly demonized and relatively safe clean energy alternative. While those aforementioned nuclear disasters loom large in the public consciousness, such nuclear disasters are exceedingly uncommon, and nuclear energy has actually been demonstrated to save lives on the whole.
In 2013, NASA’s Goddard Institute released a paper that calculated that the nuclear industry had already saved 1.8 million lives that would have otherwise been lost to air pollution from fossil fuels. The paper went on to calculate that if nuclear energy were to displace fossil fuels on a large scale, it could save up to 7 million more lives in the next four decades. Of course, if you were to factor in all of the lives that would otherwise be lost to causes associated with catastrophic climate change in a business-as-usual scenario where greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels continue to trend upward at the current rate, those numbers would skyrocket.
And then there is the energy security provided by a robust nuclear energy sector. To be sure, there are considerable barriers to entry for developing nations, as building new nuclear facilities is prohibitively expensive, but for countries with deep pockets nuclear is a dependable option that is consistent, relatively unencumbered by imports, and cheap to carry on once a plant is up and running. These factors are becoming increasingly attractive as a global energy crunch is highlighting the dangers of dependence on other countries and global supply chains to keep the lights on.
With these arguments in mind, nuclear power is back on the table for many countries, including China, India, and the United States, all of which have recently publicly stated that they are in favor of building up their nuclear energy sectors in the coming years. In fact, according to analysis by Rystad Energy, “investments in nuclear are expected to total US$45 billion in 2022 and US$46 billion in 2023, up from US$44 billion in 2021 […] with 52 reactors at present under construction in 19 countries worldwide.”
While the arguments in favor of nuclear are getting more and more traction, however, on the global stage relatively little lip service has been paid to one of the most pressing arguments against nuclear energy. While it’s true that the dangers of nuclear meltdown have been way overstated, the dangers and impracticalities of spent nuclear fuel have, if anything, been under-emphasized. “Nobody has yet given a satisfactory answer to the question of what to do with thousands of metric tonnes of high-level nuclear waste, some of which can remain radioactive, and thereby lethal, for up to 300,000 years,” the Financial Times astutely points out.
At present, it’s estimated that 250,000 metric tonnes of spent nuclear fuel is sitting in storage in 14 countries, primarily sitting in cooling pools at shuttered nuclear facilities as a temporary measure until someone, anyone, can figure out what to do with them. All this waste, in addition to being hazardous, is also – quite simply – a big pain in the ass. Finding areas that are willing to store such waste is no easy task, and often comes at a hefty price. In the UK, the cleanup of the Sellafield plant is expected to take more than 100 years with a price tag of over £90 billion (~$USD 122 billion). Across the pond in the US, the cost of spent nuclear fuel storage hit US$7.5 billion back in 2019, a bill that has been passed to taxpayers.
Nuclear energy remains a promising part of the path toward decarbonization. At the end of the day, climate change poses a far greater threat than nuclear waste. However, if the world ramps up nuclear power production, nuclear waste storage is going to have to become far easier, cheaper, and more streamlined. So why is it still so absent in nuclear policy debates?