Lately, it feels like half the discussions about climate change I encounter online devolve into a shouting match about nuclear power between those who support it and those who oppose it, neither of whom are taking a balanced view of the issue. Instead, as in most situations where intelligent people disagree, advocates and opponents have both latched onto real and convincing evidence on one side or the other and closed their minds to the contradictory facts. Nuclear power for example, does not solve our problems in one fell-swoop — concrete, land-use, animal agriculture, etc. are all separate problems that still need to be addressed.
- Nuclear power is still the cheapest low-emissions form of power.
People who want to see all solar and wind will tell you that nuclear is far more expensive than wind and solar, I myself made this point to a friend who is an electrical engineer working on decarbonization policy for the Ontario government. While wind is cheaper per kw/hr if you only look at the base price, creating a functioning electrical system with only wind is more expensive for a number of reasons. 1) Wind power is variable, so if you want to have a steady supply for a million houses, you might need to build wind power for two or three million houses to ensure there is power on quiet days. 2) Wind power (and especially solar power) need batteries and, after including the price of batteries, nuclear is considerably cheaper. Building gigantic batteries all over the world will also have negative environmental impacts of their own. But it’s not sooo much cheaper that we shouldn’t take a hard look at paying more for electricity to avoid nuclear’s downside.
2. Nuclear power creates radioactive waste and radioactive waste is a big gamble.
Although nuclear advocates will tell you that next generation reactors are perfectly safe, nothing is perfect. All aspects of the nuclear power supply chain create risks — uranium mining and processing, shipping fuel, collecting waste, storing waste. It is possible to design safe nuclear supply chains, but nuclear waste lasts effectively forever and the safety of nuclear power assumes a stable enough system of government to preserve safe-handling practices almost perpetually. As good as engineers may be at calculating physical risks — our political and sociological prediction skills are extremely poor. My father, who is an environmental political scientist, was part of a committee trying to design safer nuclear waste handling practices about ten years ago and one of the main sticking points was the question — how do we store nuclear waste and mark that storage so that humans ten thousand years from now, speaking languages we have not yet heard, living in cultures we cannot imagine, don’t dig it up out of curiousity. There was serious thought given to not marking it in anyway, because people love to dig up the ruins of ancient cultures. Creating nuclear power supply chains all around the world also increases the chances of rogue nuclear weapons becoming a reality. Climate change is however more dangerous, more imminent and more certain than nuclear disaster — so it is worth considering if nuclear power is the lesser of two evils.
My personal view is that nuclear power should be included in the range of tools that we consider to slow our climate crisis — but that anyone who tells you it is a silver bullet is deluding themselves. So let’s talk about nuclear power, but let’s all admit that it is a complex question with no obvious answer first. My personal view is that we should probably pay more for renewables — but I’m not an expert and I’m open to being persuaded on this issue by people who know more about the real costs and benefits involved.