December 21, 2015
China, India, Russia, and South Korea are all building nuclear plants both at home and in other countries. Therefore, nuclear energy will continue to play a role in mitigating the effects of climate change for the next 80 years. Why are these countries turning to nuclear energy? Mainly due to the versatility and stability of nuclear generation. Nuclear power has the highest capacity factor of any low carbon dioxide-emitting power source. French reactors have demonstrated ability to load follow at high penetration. The use of nuclear energy to decarbonize a country’s economy has been demonstrated in both France and Sweden. But is this a good role for nuclear energy to play?
Accidents involving nuclear reactors do have the potential to cause harm. The World Health Organization reports that 4,000 people will die due to the effects of radiation from exposure from Chernobyl. This includes approximately 50 immediate deaths in first responders who received the largest exposures at Chernobyl. Fukushima may result in 700 deaths, with most of these having occurred from the evacuation rather than from radiation. The two largest nuclear accidents in the last 30 years have a combined death toll of approximately 5,000.
These deaths are unacceptable to the nuclear industry. Nuclear operators and manufacturers have incredible safety practices and share information through both the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO). Safety margins are increasing with time, and the newest reactor designs require no intervention from humans to ensure safety (passive safety). To get a clear picture of the risk of using nuclear energy, we must compare these accidents to energy deaths that we face annually.
The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) predicts that 65 percent of the world’s electricity generation will be provided by fossil fuel generators in 2015. Approximately 280,000 deaths due to combustion of fossil fuels will be recorded in 2015 (calculated using mortality factors in a paper by climate scientists Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen). The World Health Organization estimates that another 150,000 die annually from the current effects of climate change. In combination, 430,000 people die annually due to the effects of fossil fuels. It is amazing to me that the developed world is willing to allow fossil fuel-related deaths on this magnitude, to avoid the risk of rare nuclear accidents with low severity and risk that continues to decrease with time.
Combatting climate change is going to require taking immediate action based upon what current technology will support. I would urge immediate construction of electricity generation with the goal of reaching 40 percent nuclear, 40 percent renewables, and 20 percent fossil fuel generation by 2050. This energy mix would greatly reduce the horrific magnitude of deaths from fossil fuels and would go a long way toward mitigating climate change. It is technically achievable as this energy generation mix is well within the capacity factor limit described by Jesse Jenkins, a doctoral student and researcher at MIT. No miracle scientific breakthroughs are necessary to reach these levels, but new information must be incorporated as it becomes available.
We must apply what we learn as we build out toward this generation mix. If nuclear plants start melting down; if wind turbines start to decimate bat populations; if solar installations start blinding pilots—we must adjust the energy mix based upon our new scientific understanding. Combating climate change requires scientific evaluation of data. We may not like what the science tells us, but basing energy policy on what we hope for is as unwise as inaction. If we wait to act on climate change for perfect sources of energy, it may end up being too late. Nuclear energy is a reliable, low carbon dioxide source of electricity that can and should be used to combat climate change.
professor, Department of Physics
Illinois Institute of Technology