July 12, 2019

Could nuclear power save your next ski trip?

Despite all the GoPros and smartphone cameras we have these days, pictures like these could become more rare over the next decades.

So why do I care about this enough to write an article? You see, the first time I skied was rather late in life - about 5 years ago, but I immediately fell in love with it. However, finding a good place to ski is hard these days - you have to choose higher resorts and going for a ski trip in spring is more and more risky. I thought it was my personal bias, but turns out that it isn't: according to recent research, the amount of snow has dropped 41% on average since the 1980s.

Living in the middle of Europe, climate change rarely negatively affects you - it's not like I would want to be more cold in winter. However, I do want to be able to go skiing for the rest of my life. So what's the solution?

CO2

That graph might be the only one, where you don't want to see a hockey stick. Despite ongoing disputes, the majority of scientists today tend to agree that the global warming is a) real and b) caused by greenhouse gases, such as CO2 - most likely the first by-product of energy production you think of.
Digging deeper, we can see that most of CO2 emissions are caused by energy and heat production, so improvements in this area should give the biggest effect. Or in other terms - more days on the piste.

If asked about the greenest ways to produce energy, most people would say solar or wind. But is that really so? And does the bad reputation of nuclear energy have a good foundation? As just about anything in life, nuclear has benefits and disadvantages, so let's take a look at them one by one.

Emissions

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Life-Cycle Assessment
The graph above shows how much CO2 is produced with different methods of electricity generation. And that is a Life-cycle assessment (LCA), which is a technique to estimate environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a service, function or product's life from-cradle-to-grave. To avoid any confusion: LCA of nuclear power here includes uranium mining, enrichment and fuel fabrication, plant construction, use, decommissioning and long-term waste management.

With this data in mind, it comes as no surprise that in Germany, one of the world leaders in renewable energy, CO2 emissions are rising ever since the country started to take its nuclear power-plants offline. The same can be seen in Japan.

Why does that happen? The issue here is that wind and solar can only produce energy 10-30% of the time, while we need electricity 100% of the time, which means that the difference in supply and demand has to be covered by burning fossil fuels.

As a result, the electricity in France is not only cheaper, but also cleaner than in neighbouring Germany thanks to the fact that 75% of it comes from nuclear.

You could argue, that energy from solar and wind can be stored in batteries, but not only is the battery manufacturing very harmful to the environment, the energy storage is also inefficient, as you lose about 30% of the energy while charging.

Human lives matter

When we think about nuclear, the mind paints a picture of Chernobyl and Fukushima - meltdown, explosion, lives lost and territories uninhabited. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to assume that nuclear is the only power that kills. If we are to save the climate and therefore skiing, we need to operate with facts, not emotions.
And if we operate with facts, we can clearly see that fossil fuels are far more dangerous when it comes to human lives. In fact, according to World Health Organisations 7 million people die annually from air pollution, to which coal, gas and oil contribute greatly. And interestingly enough, if you would stand next to a nuclear power-plant, you would be exposed to lower levels of radiation compared to the coal ones, thanks to the radiation left in the particles emitted into the air during the burning process. Most strikingly though, according to a new paper from NASA's Goddard Institute, 1.8 million lives have already been saved by replacing fossil fuel sources with nuclear.

When you think about it - with nuclear energy deaths happen only when something goes wrong. With fossil fuels, deaths happens even when things go right. To make the future brighter for atomic power, there is now new research that would help make meltdowns and explosions not just unlikely, but completely impossible: a startup called Transatomic is developing a design for the nuclear power-plant where the reactor is not pressurised and even the uranium rods might soon be replaced with so-called fuel pebbles - small ceramic balls with uranium sealed inside, reducing the need for backup generators or water to keep the nuclear waste cool. And speaking of waste, going forward there will be a lot less of it, since we would be able to extract energy from what we would normally "throw away" today.

All lives matter

When we think of deaths from energy production, most of the time unfortunately we forget that we are not alone and that animals are also affected. You are now probably imagining birds and sea-life harmed by oil spillages or mammals that have to migrate due to coal mining.

However, what you might not know is that even the sources that we consider green, are harmful to wildlife. If we take solar, for example, 450x more land is needed in order to build a solar farm compared to a nuclear power plant of equivalent output. As a result we can already see the effects on animal life, like endangered desert tortoises in California or birds - annually 6000 of them catch fire mid-flight over just 1 farm.

Conclusion

Nuclear is definitely not the answer to all of our energy and climate problems, but given the fact that over the next 100 years the electricity consumption is expected to grow 3x-4x, we can definitely not rely on wind and solar alone. Yes, nuclear has a bad public image, but facts about its actual environmental impact paint a different picture. And if we say we want to reduce emissions, we must make decisions based on numbers - not feelings.

One could argue that nuclear research inevitably leads to creation of atomic bombs. Even if that were the case, since 1945 we have experienced the longest period of global peace - to a great extent thanks to nuclear weapons. However, of the 31 countries with nuclear power-plants, just 9 have nuclear weapons and only 1 has actually used them in combat.
So could nuclear power save your next ski trip? Yes, it could. But we would need to be producing a lot more of it, at least until we can generate enough with nuclear fusion.

To leave you with 1 thought after reading this article, consider this:
Had Germany spent the money on nuclear instead of renewables, it would now be generating over 100% of its energy for electricity and transportation from zero-emission sources.

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