Tom Gurman | Environment | Friday 5 August 2016 | GMT 16:00 | @Tom_cgm
In our day and age, it’s a mystery how anyone can dispute the fact that our planet is slowly dying. In the last 100 years, the average global temperature has increased by about 0.7°C. Now that might not sound like very much to you. But take into consideration the fact that temperatures today are hotter than they have been for the past 2,000 years and that CO₂ levels are at their highest in 650,000 years and all of a sudden a much gloomier picture emerges. If we don’t start making a change soon, the effects of global warming could lead to major shortages in food and water, trigger extreme weather conditions and leave Arctic summers ice free from 2040. And whilst the Paris Agreement of 2015 was a good start, creating a “bridge between today’s policies and climate-neutrality before the end of the century”, it’s simply not enough. The fact remains that as long as we’re using fossil fuels things will only continue to get worse. So what’s the solution? We have to go nuclear.
Nuclear power is the only source of energy that is both totally clean and totally reliable. And as crazy as that might sound, it’s true. Since no coal or gas is used in generating a plant’s electricity, none of the adverse greenhouse gases produced from burning them is released into the atmosphere, making it the ideal solution to mitigate the effects of global warming. Having said this, I don’t think that it would be fair to ignore the fact that the process of the construction, mining and transportation of uranium does release some greenhouse gasses; however, the same is also true for the construction of other renewable energy sources.
I also claimed that it was the only totally reliable source, and I meant it. Whilst it’s true that renewable sources such as solar and wind power also provide clean energy, they require very specific conditions in order to be effective. Can you imagine trying to run a solar farm in gloomy old England? I didn’t think so. Wind farms aren’t much better; they interfere with the habitats of the surrounding wildlife, killing countless birds and bats caught in the blades and when the wind stops blowing and the turbines stop turning, then what? Nuclear power plants are able to provide energy all year round and maintain zero emissions whilst doing it – it’s a no brainer.
Yet despite this, nuclear energy has received a lot of stick in the past, with cases like Chernobyl and Fukushima appearing to show that we shouldn’t go nuclear, that it’s ‘too dangerous’ and that the risks outweigh the benefits. But let’s look at the facts. Yes, the Chernobyl incident was horrific. However, it was largely due to a concoction of poor design and negligence towards safety, rather than the physics of it all that made Chernobyl a disaster ready to happen. And yet since the explosion, there has been no evidence to conclusively show that the explosion has led to an abnormal increase in mortality rates, birth defects, stillborns or even cancer in the area. Of those who received high doses of radiation, the increase in cancer rates as a result was too small – due to other cancer inducing factors such as pollution or smoking – to be able to link it to Chernobyl (with the exception being thyroid cancer amongst those who were very young at the time, but even this increase could have been prevented had locally sourced foods not been forced onto them).
Moreover, the exclusion area around the site has become a sanctuary for wildlife. Whilst it’s true that there have been some abnormalities, such as an increase in albinism, some birds having smaller brains or beetles with shorter horns, none of these have had any effect on their ability to live. The area is far from the mutant horror story the media would have you believe, but rather if anything, it could be doing better without the destructive interference of humanity. And what of Fukushima – a far more modern case? Since the disaster not one, I repeat, not one person has died due to radiation exposure. The disaster came about from a tsunami and was completely out of anyone’s control and was handled in a way far more professional than that of Chernobyl. It is safe to say we have learnt our lesson.
One of the many unfortunate after-effects of the Cold War is the fear surrounding nuclear energy. There are those who relate a nuclear reactor with a nuclear bomb and fear what might happen should things not go according to plan, but this is simply not the case. The nuclear bombs that were used to end WW2 had specific components and specific concentrations of uranium in order to provoke a super critical reaction in a short amount of time, specifics that simply aren’t found in any nuclear reactor. In other words, no matter how bad the accident, a nuclear reactor simply cannot explode like an atomic bomb. Many other people fear the reactors themselves, fearing that by even being near to the reactor they will increase their risk of cancer or other more serious mutations. But the truth is that by living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant for a year, you’ll receive less radiation than eating a single banana. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point…There is nothing to fear from nuclear reactors.
Finally, there is the issue of nuclear waste. Now it’s true that whilst no greenhouse gases are released, the process does leave behind some nasty waste products that if not handled carefully could be dangerous. Fortunately, they are handled carefully. The large majority of nuclear waste can be recycled for other purposes including medical tracers used to help fight cancer (anyone else see the irony in this?). The waste that can’t be recycled is safely contained in specially designed, shockproof containers and then buried in geologically stable sites that are well protected. Moreover, because much less fuel is used to produce energy there is also much less waste which experts are confident can be dealt with easily and safely.
Nuclear energy is the future, the only future. Global warming is the biggest issue of our generation and if we don’t act the effects will become irreversible. One pellet of uranium produces as much energy as a tonne of coal and with an efficiency of 92%, making it a far better source of energy than those old dinosaur bones. Coupled with the fact that uranium is readily available, meaning that countries can cut ties with the exploitative gas and coal industries, means it is economically viable too. The dangers of global warming far outweigh the so called ‘dangers’ of nuclear energy. As Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University geosciences professor, once said: “The window of opportunity for acting in a cost-effective way — or in an effective way — is closing fast.” We have to go nuclear, and we have to go now.