The book 'Energy and Civilisation: A History' by Vaclav Smil ends on a pessimistic note, expressing the unlikelihood of immediate and rapid transition to non-carbon energy sources. In many of his articles and interviews, Smil expresses the same pessimism. While he fully acknowledges the advances being made in today’s energy landscape, he always refrains from falling into the lazy narrative of “solving climate change”, which is an overhyped and oversimplified narrative (Durning, 2015). In its own way, his is a refreshing perspective.
The central thesis of ‘Energy and Civilisation: A History’ is that that modern civilisation has been created by the massive increasing combustion of fossil fuels, but that this practice is clearly limited by their physical abundance, as well as by the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels. High-energy societies can ensure their survival only by an eventual transition to non-fossil sources.
While renewable non-carbon energy sources like solar and wind power are usually presented as exciting opportunities to transition away from fossil fuel sources, their inherent intermittency and low-capacity factors pose nontrivial problems in integrating them into existing grids.
So that leaves nuclear energy as one of the only reliable, non-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels. So what’s standing in the way of the world’s nations adopting nuclear as their dominant source of energy? Well, let’s take a look at this extract from ‘Energy and Civilisation’:
“Technical weaknesses of dominant designs, high construction costs of nuclear plants and chronic delays in their completion, the unresolved problem of long-term disposal of radioactive wastes, and widespread concerns about operation safety (including, even after 60 years of commercial experiences, some grossly exaggerated claims of possible health impacts) have prevented further rapid growth of the nuclear industry. Safety concerns and public perception of intolerable risks were strengthened by the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and even more so by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and by the 2011 explosion of three Fukushima dai-ichi reactors in the wake of a major earthquake and tsunami. As a result, some countries have refused to allow any construction of nuclear stations (Austria and Italy), others have plans for their complete closure in the near future (Germany and Sweden), and most nations with operating plants either stopped adding new capacities decades ago (Canada and the UK) or have built only a few new stations, far below the number needed just to replace their aging plants. The US and Japan are the two most prominent countries in this last category: by the mid-2015 there were 437 reactors operating worldwide, and of the 67 reactors under construction, 25 were in China, 9 in Russia, 6 in India. The West has essentially given up on this clean, carbon-free way of electricity generation.”
Let’s go through the perceived weaknesses of nuclear energy one by one, and how we can mitigate them. We need to strengthen the arguments in favour of nuclear energy if we have any hope at all of it being adopted on a massive scale.
1. Technical weaknesses of dominant designs
Human error and a natural disaster played major roles in the Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents, respectively. But in both cases, the failures occurred due to poor reactor design, when the plants could no longer keep the reactors cool enough. At Chernobyl this was because of deliberate action and human error, and at Fukushima because the backup generators to drive the cooling pumps had been destroyed because of the tsunami (Fitzpatrick, 2017).
Future nuclear reactor technologies, called Gen IV designs, offer better inherent safety. Here are their features:
Fully passive cooling systems so the reactor is never dependent on external power for safety.
The core and cooling systems are not pressurised and using liquids other than water for cooling prevents the risk of creating hydrogen. This reduces the risk of explosion.
More efficient use of nuclear fuel by reprocessing SNF into new fuel. Burning this fuel in special reactors provides is more efficient and generates waste that decays safely within just a hundred years. It would also move us towards a closed fuel-cycle that would greatly extend the lifetime of the Earth’s uranium reserves (Fitzpatrick, 2017).
2. High construction costs of nuclear plants
The capital costs of building nuclear power plants represent about 60% of their total generation costs. We must find ways of reducing the capital costs of nuclear power plants to enhance the economic viability of the nuclear option. An excellent OECD report identifies increased plant size, improved construction methods, reduced construction schedule, design improvement, and improved procurement and organisation as key ways to reduce the capital costs of building nuclear plants (OECD and Nuclear Energy Agency, 2000).
3. Unresolved problem of long-term disposal of radioactive wastes
Currently, waste is mainly stored at individual reactor sites and there are over 430 locations around the world where radioactive material continues to accumulate. Experts have suggested that centralized, well-managed underground repositories would be a vast improvement on the current system (Montgomery, 2010). In addition, there is an international consensus on the advisability of storing nuclear waste in deep geological repositories.
Fox (2014) argues that there is no crisis for nuclear waste, but there is a need for action. Spent nuclear fuel (SNF) should be kept in cooling pools for a few years to allow heat and radioactivity to greatly decrease. Once it is easy and safe to handle, it should be moved from cooling pools into dry cask storage (a short-term solution in which SNF is placed into an inert gas in steel containers encased in concrete and stored on-site at the reactor), where it should remain for a century or so. There could be several dry cask storage facilities in the country, or they could be maintained at each reactor. Then, the SNF should be moved to a long-term storage facility in a geologically stable and dry region.
In France, SNF is turned into glass (vitrified) and this makes disposal much simpler and radioactivity decays to background levels after a few hundred years.
It is important to note that there are many metals that are extremely toxic and have infinite half-lives (mercury, lead, arsenic), yet we use them routinely and safely in various industrial processes.
4. Grossly exaggerated concerns about operation safety
Nuclear power has one of the lowest levels of fatalities per unit of energy generated compared to fossil fuels and hydroelectricity, which have caused more fatalities per unit of energy due to air pollution and accidents. From the 1970s to the 2000s, nuclear power prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and the emission of about 64 billion tonnes of CO2e that would have otherwise been emitted by burning fossil fuels (Markandya and Wilkinson, 2007).
The public must be educated on these facts. Research has shown that public knowledge has a large effect on the public acceptance of nuclear energy, as well as a positive effect on the perceived benefits of this source of non-carbon energy (Wang et al, 2019). If the UK is serious about reducing its carbon emissions using nuclear energy (which it should be!), then it should launch an education and publicity campaign which does the following:
Address how monetary and environmental costs can be offset to public
Share information about the stringent regulatory systems, safety standards, plant supervision, and emergency plans to the public to increase openness and transparency
Promote public engagement by inviting the public to visit nuclear power plants, facilitate dialogue with the public and hold consultation meetings and public hearings
Motivate public to participate in decision-making and express their opinions, and let them realize that their voice has been heard and their hopes and concerns have been addressed
Durning, T. (2015), “Is Vaclav Smil a Pessimist or Voice of Uncomfortable Truths?”, HuffPost. Accessed from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/is-vaclav-smil-a-pessimist_b_7464168?guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly9kdWNrZHVja2dvLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAGWMe3kHp6D0lo0ybNOG4yhGG2uxNtcRSU_IuGSgKEBACQJjT7INpQVQeIkHelf022hOglQuXx5aIkRHGWZSGgInorT7vBplCYrSiioCmDjAyrrjByP5smyOFX46Yjc6J5who5US5iywuUQhgTpOSdmIwMxyEHjAhJJD8Bfcq_Au&_guc_consent_skip=1610899023
Fitzpatrick, M. (2017). “Nuclear power is set to get a lot safer (and cheaper) – here’s why”, The Conversation. Accessed from: https://theconversation.com/nuclear-power-is-set-to-get-a-lot-safer-and-cheaper-heres-why-62207
Fox, M. H. (2014). Why We Need Nuclear Power: The Environmental Case. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, pp. 185-300. Accessed from: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/open/reader.action?docID=1591370
Markandya, A.; Wilkinson, P. (2007). "Electricity generation and health". Lancet. 370 (9591): 979–990. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61253-7. PMID 17876910. S2CID 25504602.
Montgomery, Scott L. (2010). The Powers That Be. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, p. 137.
OECD and Nuclear Energy Agency (2000). Reduction of Capital Costs of Nuclear Power Plants. Accessed from: https://doi-org.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/10.1787/9789264180574-en
Smil, V. (2017), Energy and Civilisation: A History. Revised edition of: Energy in world history, by Vaclav Smil. 1994. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Wang, S.; Wang, J.; Lin, S.; Li, J. (2019), “Public perceptions and acceptance of nuclear energy in China: The role of public knowledge, perceived benefit, perceived risk and public engagement”, Energy Policy. Vol 126 (March 2019), pp. 352-360. Accessed from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2018.11.040