Since the construction in 1951 of the first experimental nuclear power plant in the United States and the first nuclear power plant for commercial use in Obninsk, in the former USSR, in 1954, the controversy over the need to use nuclear energy for electrical power has been maintained over time. Reading an article that was published twenty years after the Obninsk plant came into operation, I am struck by how the authors wrote in response to skeptics who had been expressing their doubts since the 1950s, that “nuclear power has shown be reliable, risk-free and economical”.
However, seventy years after the first nuclear power plants, this assertion of the benefits of nuclear energy remains in question. Since then, three nuclear accidents with devastating consequences (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima) have highlighted the risks of a nuclear disaster, nuclear weapons have proliferated alarmingly and the cost of building nuclear power plants has turned out to be quite high.
The great challenge we face in the coming decades, beyond the increase in carbon and gas prices and the consequent rise in energy prices, is to replace fossil fuels and gradually reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent temperatures from increasing by more than 1.5ºC with respect to 1990 levels, until reaching climate neutrality in 2050. This challenge is not just a challenge for Europe. Our global climate system knows no borders and if climate neutrality is not achieved at the planetary level, the climate will be seriously destabilized and the devastating consequences of this have already been fully explained by the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Could nuclear energy be the solution to this challenge? The answer is no, and for many reasons
First of all, the scope. For the nuclear option to have a global impact on climate change, nuclear power plants would have to be built all over the planet in such a way as to cover the world’s electricity demand, which is not only unfeasible but also undesirable. For example, France’s revival of its nuclear program will have minimal impact on reducing global emissions and increasing gas or carbon prices.
Second, the costs. At a global level, producing nuclear energy was 33% more expensive in 2020 than in 2009, while, in the same period, the production cost of solar energy decreased by 90% and that of wind energy by 70%. The construction of nuclear power plants is slow and has very high costs.
Third, the technological complexity and the scarcity of resources. Producing nuclear energy is a complex process from a technological point of view. The main nuclear fuel in nuclear reactors is uranium. The commercial nuclear reactors that we currently use use fission, based on uranium, and not nuclear fusion, and although investment and experimentation with the latter continues, the reality is that we will not have nuclear power plants for commercial use based on nuclear fusion in the next three decades, which is the key period for the decarbonisation of the economy. With this in mind, and taking into account that there are already doubts about the availability of uranium to feed a nuclear park slightly larger than the current one, it can be stated categorically that a global energy model based on nuclear fission is totally unfeasible.
Therefore, nuclear energy is a type of energy that is not and cannot be within the reach of all countries, so it cannot be a transition energy towards decarbonization, much less the solution to achieve climate neutrality.
Fourth, security. An energy that raises doubts about the safety of nuclear power plants, that generates waste that remains radioactive for several thousand years and that increases the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons, cannot be neither a green nor future energy. Nuclear power is a high-risk technology. In determining their risk, we must evaluate both the normal operation of nuclear power plants and their residual nuclear risk, that is, the potential serious accidents of nuclear reactors and their cost in lives, health and uninhabitable territory. In the same way, we cannot ignore the large amounts of hazardous waste generated by nuclear power plants. In doing so, we would be committing our future generations to undue burdens and we would be ignoring the principle of not causing significant harm.
The decarbonization of the economy requires global and clean solutions and the solution is called “renewable energies”. In the Spanish energy mix, wind energy has already surpassed nuclear energy and renewables currently account for almost half of the total energy. Both at a global level and at a European level with the Taxonomy Regulation, efforts, policies and investments have to focus on the development of renewable energies, because they are the cleanest, because they are the greenest, because they do not run out, because they can be deployed at a planetary level and because they are the only ones that can guarantee our sustainable transition to climate neutrality.
Nuclear energy is an energy of the past, not of the future.