Nuclear power: A climate response that gets short shrift

Synopsis: There is need to move away from fossil fuels, but the current green energy paradigm needs some serious examination.


The world has been dealing with a power and energy crisis and the factors that caused this emergency are complex and differ somewhat from country to country.

What does the analysis of green energy paradigm reveal?

Instability: The solar and wind energy are dependent upon the external conditions (shining of the sun or blowing of the wind) and are intermittent in nature. Hence, in the very best conditions, solar and wind farms can never generate power round the clock, they require fossil-fuel back-up.

For instance, today, 24% of Britain’s power comes from wind. But the country saw an unexpected “windless summer” this year, which is one of the reasons for the power crisis in the UK.

Among EU nations, Germany has been shutting down its coal-fired and nuclear power stations. But recently, it faced a coal and natural gas crunch.

Why developing nuclear power is a better option?

Less cost of power: Germany’s household-sector electricity price is the highest in the EU: $0.37 per kilowatt-hour (KwH). In France, it’s $0.19. In 2019, Germany emitted 350 grams of carbon dioxide for every KwH generated. France emitted 56 grams, six times less. Power in France is much cheaper and cleaner.

Nuclear power: In 2020, nuclear power made up 78% of the energy France generated, and renewables 19%. Fossil fuels accounted for only 3%.

Zero-emission: According to US government data, a typical 1,000-megawatt wind farm requires 360 times more land than a similar-capacity nuclear facility, while a solar plant requires 75 times more area. Apart from the ecological damage that wind and solar projects can cause, it is estimated that 500,000 birds are being killed every year by collision with wind turbines in the US. This number can only rise.

Less waste: Today, the risks due to radiation exposure are fully known and there are reliable and safe ways to dispose off the nuclear waste. All the waste produced by the US nuclear industry over 60 years can fit into a seven-metre-high stack of containers in a soccer field. Coal plants spew out that volume of waste every hour.

Clean energy trap: California, the most ‘progressive’ state in the US, is a fascinating case study. California has been shutting down nuclear plants and aims to be nuclear-free by 2025. However, one of the consequences has been rising emissions due to more dependence on natural gas and more fossil fuel for back-up. Also, while the price of electricity has stayed flat for the rest of the US over the last 10 years, in California it has risen more than 60%.

Where India stands in terms of nuclear power?

Nuclear deal: The boldest decision that Dr Manmohan Singh took in his 10 years as prime minister was to sign the Indo-US nuclear deal. But, due to the usual protests and short-term political thinking, not much seems to have happened since then. Today, only 3% of the power India generates is nuclear.

In 2021, the government announced that India would triple its nuclear power capacity in the next 10 years.

Thorium availability: India imports much of the uranium it uses, which is both expensive and geopolitically tricky. But it has immense reserves of thorium. Hence, there is a need to invest ambitiously in projects that convert thorium to fissile uranium and produce power.

What is the way forward?

First, develop very-large-scale cost-effective technology to store the power produced by renewable resources.

Second, make the right choices between various low-carbon technologies, all of which have some social and environmental impact.

Source: This post is based on the article “Nuclear power: A climate response that gets short shrift” published in Livemint on 18th October 2021.

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