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Is Nuclear Energy Really the Solution for a Greener Future?

Misconceptions about nuclear power

In a world grappling with the urgent need to combat climate change, the debate surrounding nuclear power remains a disputable and often misunderstood topic. Nuclear power has been praised as an alternative to fuels and a potential solution to global warming as it does not emit greenhouse gasses unlike the commonly used energies. However, like any energy source, nuclear power has its drawbacks that significantly impact safety and the environment.

One of the concerns around nuclear power is the handling of radioactive waste. This waste needs to be segregated or diluted in order to render it safe and prevent radionuclides from leaking into the atmosphere. Repositories are one of the current arrangements – a subterranean, excavated facility created, built, and run for the long-term, safe and secure disposal of high-level waste. In Canada, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) plans to “contain and isolate all the country’s used nuclear fuel – including that created by new and emerging technologies – in a deep geological repository, using multiple-barrier systems.” This will translate into the building of 500 meters (1,640 feet) deep area, called geological repository, which will rely on a multiple-bar- rier system where each barrier is part of the system but provides a higher level of security since each next barrier will come into play if some where to deteriorate. Regretfully, there are hazards associated with them. There is a chance that these repositories will experience breaches and spills that could contaminate the environment and pose long-term health problems since the decay rate for radio- active material is very slow, remaining extremely dangerous for thousands of years, accumulating very rapidly. As Gerald S. Frankel stated: “It’s a societal problem that has been handed down to us from our parent’s generation, And we are – more or less – handing it to our children.” Some age-old containers have begun leaking their toxic contents and, with more than a quarter million metric tons of radioactive waste, it is now time to truly investigate a long term solution to store these harmful chemicals before it is too late and before this becomes a bigger problem than it already is.

Another danger of nuclear power is the risk of major accidents and mishaps. The specter of accidents and meltdowns haunt the legacy of nuclear energy with two notable disasters serving as stark reminders of the possible catastrophic results of using nuclear energy. The shadows of the nuclear meltdowns, such as the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011, haunt the nuclear power industry. These events not only endangered the lives of the workers at the affected power plants but also released large amounts of radiation into the environment, leading to long-lasting damage to the environment and severe health issues for nearby populations. The prospect of future accidents leading to similar magnitudes of disasters continues to cast a dark shadow over the nuclear industry, demanding unwavering diligence and stringent safety when handling such powers if there continues to be a pursuit of nuclear energy to achieve a “greener” world. The high costs of nuclear power plants that are fully safe are difficult to justify. Nuclear power is more expensive than renewables, around $112-189 per megawatt hour (MWh) compared to $26-56 MWh for onshore wind and $36-44 MWh for solar power, while being exponentially more unsafe. Additionally, the slow development of power plants delays the progress to fight climate change as in the meantime we rely on polluting fossil fuels to generate the needed energy for daily activities. All of these factors, in addition to its dangerous nature, form an unjustifiable case to use this energy form to address the issue of greenhouse gasses.

With nuclear energy being so destructive, it has to be considered that some people or terrorist organizations might want to use it as a catalyst for mass destruction. As Zambia’s speaker stated at the UN thematic debate on nuclear weapons: “Nuclear weapons have no place in the modern world and there is no justification for their proliferation, testing and stock- piling. Their destructive power has fuelled international tensions and created an uncertain, unsafe world. Relying on deterrence for security only perpetuates a cycle of fear, where mutually assured destruction looms over the world community.” Terrorist attacks might target nuclear power facilities and the materials they employ, resulting in potential theft of radioactive materials and seriously jeopardizing national security.

Nuclear power facilities have sturdy engineering facilities built to survive catastrophic natural calamities like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. But because they aren’t built to resist strikes from missiles and airstrikes, they are the golden target for war crimes. Only a little over a year ago, Russia attacked Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure with a series of airstrikes. Of the forty-three cruise missiles used in the strike, thirty-six were shot down by Ukrainian air defense troops and the remaining missiles struck western and central Ukrainian energy infrastructures. This shows how the use of hybrid warfare tactics, more specifically on energy infra- structures, is a growing concern in the modern world. While the Russian attack on Ukraine was largely contained, it serves as a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities in our energy systems, particularly highlighting the need for diversified energy sources and a strong focus on its security. Nuclear energy, while capable of providing a significant power output, is also susceptible to similar attacks and poses a far greater set of risks. Such large-scale attacks would have resulted in catastrophic consequences if the attacked infrastructures were nuclear, resulting in flying debris and radiation. In the face of such threats, it is crucial to prioritize the development and implementation of alternative and renewable energy sources that are less vulnerable to geopolitical conflicts and sabotage, ensuring a more stable and resilient energy future as we can- not afford for these accidents to happen.

In the next few years, as we search for more sustainable energy sources, we must carefully weigh the trade-offs related to nuclear power. Developing a comprehensive strategy to tackle climate change without sacrificing environmental responsibility, safety, or security requires finding a balance between the benefits and drawbacks that come with it. Amidst all the information and confusion, it is also important to acknowledge that even if nuclear energy isn’t an ideal solution for a perfectly green future, the current widely used methods like fossil fuels, coal, and oil still represent a threat and silently kill millions of people every year worldwide.