Not long after it was first introduced as a way to generate energy, nuclear power has been a source of heated debate and controversy. In what is sure to generate even more controversy, the IEA (International Energy Agency) recently announced that nations around the world need to build more nuclear power plants in order to combat the imminent threat of climate change.
According to the IEA, an immediate global effort is needed to build nuclear power plants to limit carbon emissions by 2025, otherwise the average global temperature will rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius. As shown in the graph below, worldwide construction of power plants has declined significantly due to poor market conditions, high capital costs, and the impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on public opinion.
The construction of new reactors needed to limit carbon emissions is problematic. It takes up to ten years to build a new reactor, and new reactors generally have a lifespan of just under 40 years. The spike in the construction of reactors built in the 1970s suggests that many of them will have to be either decommissioned, or prolonged beyond expectation at great risk.
Despite the need, nuclear power is full of risks
The public is well aware of the catastrophic nuclear disaster of Chernobyl in 1986, and the more recent meltdown of several nuclear reactors in Fukushima in 2011 due to tragic events caused by the massive tsunami that followed the mega-quake. Both of these events are also significant because they are the only nuclear meltdowns that reached the maximum classification as level 7 events, according to the International Nuclear Event Scale. Even 28 years after the meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine (then officially the Ukrainian SSR), the surrounding areas near the disaster site continue to exhibit lethal radiation levels, and will remain that way for a long period of time. The event itself led to 31 immediate deaths, with cancer and mutations rates still ongoing.
In addition, four hundred times more radioactive material was released from Chernobyl than by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and approximately 100,000 km² of land was significantly affected by radioactive fallout contamination. This goes to show the catastrophic damage a meltdown of a single nuclear power plant can cause, making it easy to understand why this topic is so controversial.
For those who share concerns about climate change and the risks associated with creating a greater number of nuclear power plants, what you are left with is essentially a catch-22, according to the IEA. The retirement of power plants and the drastic decline in building them will undoubtedly hurt the population’s ability to cut carbon emissions, which is largely the solution to combating man-made global warming. The routine health risks and greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear fission power (when running properly) is virtually nonexistent in comparison to traditional energy sources, such as coal, oil, and gas, and the reason why the IEA says it is necessary to build more nuclear power plants. The obvious problem, however, is the possibility of more Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl type disasters, both of which represent the damage a complete level 7 meltdown can cause to people and the environment.
The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that while greener alternative energy sources (like solar, wind, hydro-thermal, and algae-based technologies) are clearly preferable, they remain decades away from being perfected and efficient enough to replace the need for fossil fuels and nuclear power. Perhaps a concerted global effort in funding these preferred alternatives is the ultimate solution.