We need nuclear power to manage climate change

Proven technology emits little or no greenhouse gas

We must control global warming because, left unchecked, climate change could ruin human civilisation. We know the solution – we must effectively eliminate human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere, principally carbon dioxide (CO2) but also methane and other gases.

Forty per cent of GHG emissions worldwide come from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity. We can now harness the renewable energies of wind and sun to generate electricity without concomitant release of GHGs but such measures fall significantly short of meeting our total energy needs and emissions targets.

These shortfalls could be made up by stepping up nuclear power that emits little or no GHG in operation but there is little enthusiasm for recruiting this option. Indeed, several European Union countries plan to phase out nuclear energy by 2030.

The 2016 Paris climate agreement set GHG emission reduction targets designed to limit global warming to less than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, and preferably less than 1.5 degrees. However, the world is failing to meet these GHG reduction targets. Ireland has performed particularly poorly, recording the third-highest CO2 emissions per capita in the EU in 2018. However, the Government has just published a Climate Action Bill committing the country to achieve carbon-neutral status by 2050.

Carbon capture

But, as Daniel Poneman pointed out in Scientific American, even if all Paris agreement emission targets were met the world would still fall short of keeping temperature rise below two degrees – the agreement assumes development of large-scale technologies for sucking GHGs from the atmosphere, as reported in the Guardian. Renewable energy, carbon-capture technology, energy efficiencies and reforestation are important interventions but not enough. Most UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios designed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees call for between twofold and fivefold increases of current nuclear power capacity.

But isn't nuclear power dangerous? Well, the record of nuclear power safety compared with traditional means of generating electricity is very reassuring. In EU countries, from 1970 to 2005, there were four serious coal industry accidents and 942 fatalities, 64 severe oil industry accidents and 1,236 fatalities and 20 serious LPG industry accidents and 559 fatalities. Over this same period the EU nuclear industry had zero severe accidents and zero fatalities (BENE website).

True, the nuclear plant core at Chernobyl exploded and burned in 1986 when operators violated safety protocols. This plant wasn't built to western safety standards, having no containment building, and much radioactivity was released to the atmosphere with serious consequences. Thirty-one workers died from acute radiation exposure/blast injuries at the time of the accident. Fifteen people died later from thyroid cancer and the World Health Organisation estimates 4,000 fatal cancers may develop among 600,000 local people most exposed to radioactivity.

But operational safety is no longer an issue with the new generation of small modular reactors (SMRs). They are designed to fail safe in an emergency and they cannot explode. Of course they do generate nuclear waste that must be segregated from the environment for many thousands of years. This is problematic but I believe this waste can be safely and securely stored in deep geological repositories.

Factory-built reactors

SMRs are of a size that suit Ireland. They are factory-built and assembled on site. Build time is about three years. As our fossil-fuel-burning power stations are decommissioned – Moneypoint will not operate beyond 2025 – they could be replaced on the same sites by SMRs which would connect into the existing power distribution infrastructure (overhead pylons/cables, etc), ensuring smooth transition and preserving local power-station employment. SMR nuclear fuel could be purchased from an overseas nuclear country and spent fuel returned to that country for reprocessing or storage.

Nuclear plants are very efficient, working uninterruptedly for 94 per cent of the time, and the new SMRs are designed to quickly adjust power output to complement slumps in electricity generation by renewables when winds don’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.

Renewables are failing to meet GHG emission targets. Nuclear-generated electricity is a proven technology that emits little or no GHG and generates 10 per cent of global electricity.

In my opinion deliberately ruling out nuclear power as a strategy to reduce GHG emissions while simultaneously claiming that climate change presents an existential threat makes as much sense as playing golf with one arm tied behind your back. Common sense demands that we recruit more nuclear energy and retain existing nuclear reactors.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC