Expert’s Pick: Why there is no competition in the nuclear vs. renewables debate

For this week’s Expert’s Pick, Outreach & Communications Manager Laura E. Williamson has chosen Nuclear power ‘cannot rival renewable energy’, an article written by Paul Brown for the Climate News Network. The article reports on findings from the 2019 World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR), an annual publication that assesses status and trends about nuclear energy worldwide.

The WNISR report bluntly states: “Stabilising the climate is urgent, nuclear power is slow. It meets no technical or operational need that these low-carbon competitors cannot meet better, cheaper, and faster.”

The updated WNISR “concluded that money spent on building and running nuclear power stations was diverting cash away from much better ways of tackling climate change.” In fact, the article continues, “Money used to improve energy efficiency saved four times as much carbon as that spent on nuclear power; wind saved three times as much, and solar double.”

As we’ve seen from GSR, renewables are very often the least-cost option for new power capacity. In terms of building infrastructure, it’s technologically feasible to integrate renewables into the modern grid. The WNISR reports that “nuclear plants take from 5 to 17 years longer to build than utility-scale solar or on-shore wind power.”

As we look toward a sustainable energy transition, we need to opt for secure and resilient energy sources. This means that energy systems need to be decentralised, local, affordable, and carbon neutral.

Image par Markus Distelrath de Pixabay

Nuclear waste and nuclear disasters aside, evidence abounds that nuclear energy is neither secure nor resilient. Nuclear plants are centralised systems, making them vulnerable. They are expensive to build, operate and maintain, and depend on raw material inputs that are energy intensive to mine and process. The stability of a nuclear power system depends on its cooling system, which requires availability of water. With changing climatic conditions, droughts, floods and potential sea level rise, increased dependence on water is not a good idea. According to Laura E. Williamson, “the use of nuclear energy runs against everything that we know now is important for energy security and resilience.”

Nuclear is expensive, insecure and—when disaster strikes, downright dangerous. However, nuclear is still on the table as a viable energy source for many countries. While some countries are phasing out nuclear power, others – like Japan and the UK — still back it. In fact, the article states, “eleven [UN member] countries with operating plants are currently building new ones” and “four countries — Bangladesh, Belarus, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey – are building reactors for the first time.” China and Russia are expanding their nuclear power capacity, too.

Nuclear power requires the mining of raw materials such as Uranium. Photo courtesy of Greentumble.

Considering the negatives of nuclear power, why are so many countries still backing it?

Williamson expands on the misconceptions surrounding nuclear power: “Some people still tend to overlook the upstream and downstream processes that allow a nuclear plant to work. The mining and processing of the raw material required for nuclear fuel is hugely energy intensive, and not carbon neutral.”

She continues, “It doesn’t seem to resonate with people that when a government subsidises nuclear power, funds are effectively being removed from other basic services – like healthcare and education –to pay for this expensive form of energy. We’re impoverishing our communities with this bizarre belief that there’s still a silver energy bullet out there.”

Laura E. Williamson, a long-time champion of renewable energy, pictured at COP25 in Madrid. Photo by Florencia Urbani.

While myths about the virtues and potential of nuclear power persist, negative myths about the unreliability and unfeasibility of renewables continue to circulate. These myths persist despite evidence that renewables are now a more economical option than nuclear; in 2018 more renewable energy power capacity was added than for fossil fuel and nuclear.

At REN21, we’ve said over and over again that policy action is needed to support the transition to renewables and ensure a sustainable energy future. This article on nuclear energy exhibits the degree to which we still need to confront general perceptions and ideologies with up-to-date data. Perhaps if we change peoples’ minds, the policy action will follow.

Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute summed up the status of nuclear power concisely at a recent meeting at Chatham House in London: “The fact is that nuclear power is in slow motion commercial collapse around the world. […] Nuclear is a waste of time and money in the climate fight.”