Nuclear power, sourced from the nucleus of atoms, pose the most controversial alternative energy sources in the world today.
Compared to coal, nuclear energy has some serious advantages, primarily its lack of methane or carbon dioxide production: the two main greenhouse gases, and non-dependence on fossil fuels. This shouldn’t be ignored, but nor should the negative effects nuclear energy has on the environment. Nuclear energy runs on uranium, the mining of which is anything but a clean process. One of the biggest problems for nuclear energy is the disposal of highly radioactive waste, and the pollution caused by transporting nuclear fuel.
Rarely do the public question an issue so unanimously. Undoubtedly, the first thought associated with the word ‘nuclear’ is the horrific results of nuclear weapons or breakdowns, such as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Complex disaster in 2012. Any support nuclear energy gains from being a better alternative to coal is lost once events like Fukushima make the news. One survey published in 2014 by Deanne Bird, Katherine Haynes, Rob van der Honert, John MacAneny, and Wouter Poortinga showed that in 2010, 42% accepted nuclear power if it tackled climate change, but after Fukushima, a 2012 follow-up survey showed that 40% were not willing to accept nuclear power, even knowing that it is cleaner than coal. It is no surprise then, that only 12% of Australians would accept a nuclear power plant being built near their residence. The public mood towards nuclear energy is scared and distrustful, and for good reason.
Nuclear power plants are major targets for militant attacks. Whether they aim to cause a nuclear explosion or commandeer nuclear plants to make weapons, there are serious safety concerns around nuclear power. A recent Red Cross survey showed that 84% of Australians would feel safer without nuclear weapons in the picture. Radioactive threats do not only stem from attacks, however. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear explosion in history, demonstrated that human errors and design flaws are just as dangerous. Whatever the cause, radioactive pollution causes cancer, infertility, blindness, and birth defects; and environmental effects like soil sterilisation.
Safety issues aside, there are a range of reasons why nuclear energy is not a viable alternative energy solution. The cost of construction is incredibly high and prone to budget blowouts of around 50-70%. Construction costs average $5750-$7550: four times more expensive than gas, and more expensive than wind, solar, and geothermal energy. Although operation costs are low, they are still more expensive than renewable wind and geothermal technology, and at best the same cost as the most expensive form of solar energy.
Globally, nuclear energy produces 2000 metric tonnes of waste annually, and is incredibly difficult to hold safely for long periods of time. Over time, waste does decay to safe levels of radiation, but this takes hundreds of years. As one Australian Green’s policy, advocated by Senator Scott Ludlum, comments, “future generations must not be burdened with toxic nuclear waste for which there is no safe disposal”.
Because Australia owns 30% of the world’s uranium reserves, nuclear energy would boost the economy, but when wind and solar avoid environmental and humanitarian problems associated with nuclear energy and pose cheaper, faster constructed, and truly renewable sources of energy, nuclear power plants are not the solution to the energy crisis.
By Kate Oatley