Written by Vedika Pathania, a second-year journalism student
Before we begin, let us understand what nuclear energy is and how it works.
Nuclear energy is emitted during a process called nuclear fission. Nuclear fission takes place when an atom, the smallest unit of matter, is split. When it comes to nuclear energy, the element Uranium is used for the process of fission. Uranium is a metallic element that has the highest atomic weight among all naturally occurring elements. Because of Uranium’s high weight, the splitting of its atom leads to the generation of a lot of energy. This energy generates heat which is used to generate steam. This steam is used to generate electricity using large turbines (similar to how dams work).
So how is this related to the climate crisis?
The projections on global carbon dioxide emissions raised questions on the world’s attempts to address the climate crisis. According to a report published earlier this month by the Global Carbon Project (GCP), CO2 emissions are expected to increase by 4.9 percent in 2021 compared to the previous year. Due to the COVID-19 epidemic and accompanying lockdowns, emissions fell by 5.4 percent in 2020. Most experts predicted a bounce this year, but not to the level that it did. With a share of 40% — and increasing — the energy industry is the greatest producer of greenhouse gases.
One of the major contributors to climate change is the burning of fossil fuels which ends up emitting a lot of greenhouse gases, hence polluting the environment. Moreover, fossil fuels take millions of years to form and can’t be renewed. So once fossil fuels such as coal and oil run out, which would be in a couple of decades considering the growing population and energy consumption, humans won’t have a natural way to produce energy.
This is where Nuclear Energy comes in. Supporters argue that it is the only way to produce energy while also being climate-friendly. While the topic is still controversial and debates are ongoing, let us go through some facts.
Does nuclear energy produce no greenhouse gases?
No. Nuclear energy too produces greenhouse gases. Not only that, but it is also highly expensive, hence limiting access. First off, Uranium extraction, its transportation, storage, building, and construction of power plants are all complicated processes that will lead to a lot of emissions and release a lot of carbon dioxide.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted a range of 3.7 to 110 grams of Carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in a study issued in 2014, while the real amounts are believed to be significantly higher.
But if we compare it to non-renewable sources, is nuclear energy still better?
When compared to energy sources like coal, oil or natural gas, nuclear energy is definitely cleaner. However, this changes if we compare it to renewable sources. Nuclear power, according to some estimates, emits 3.5 times more CO2 than solar panels. This amount climbs to 13 times higher Carbon dioxide when compared to onshore wind energy. When compared to electricity generated by hydroelectric dams, nuclear creates 29 times higher carbon.
So, could it be the answer to climate change?
Even though all around the world, there has been a call for the expansion of nuclear energy, the high cost, effect on climate, construction time, and limited availability have also been pointed out. Nuclear energy’s high prices prevent substantial financial resources that could be utilised to create renewable energy (like solar, wind, and hydraulic energy), according to Jan Haverkamp, a nuclear specialist, and campaigner. Furthermore, climate change has had an impact on nuclear power. Several nuclear power reactors have already had to be temporarily shut down or removed off the grid due to the world’s increasingly scorching summers. Power plants rely on surrounding water supplies to cool their reactors, but with many water sources drying up, they are no longer reliable.
Hence, while nuclear energy does seem to be a fancy end to the globe’s climate crisis, it comes with its own set of cons and can’t be used as the only alternative.