Climate Change, Energy, Natural Resources, Nuclear Reactor, Sustainability

Will the World Abandon Nuclear Power?

Simon Perrotin

Fordham ELR Staffer ’21-’22

Classified as a non-renewable energy, due to its fuel – uranium or plutonium – which come from the earth, it is paradoxically promoted by many as a source of clean-decarbonated energy.  Some countries, such as France, have a very large share of nuclear power in their energy production. While others, including Germany, plan to completely phase-out nuclear energy by the end of 2022.

So why is it that two neighboring countries with similar economies have taken opposing positions on nuclear energy policies? Countries with low reserves of oil and gas resources saw in nuclear energy the best way to ensure energy security – indeed, those countries that rely heavily on nuclear energy do not depend on any external energy supplier. However, other countries recognize the environmental issues – particularly in the storage of nuclear waste which has a lifespan of several thousand years and the potential risk of nuclear disasters or leakage of radioactive materials into the environment – that counterbalance  the potential benefits of nuclear energy production. Other issues such as the high cost of nuclear development have prevented countries from embracing the technology and developing solutions to the downsides of nuclear energy. 

Though many countries continue nuclear production, there is a consensus on the inherently dangerous aspect of producing nuclear energy in the technology’s current state. Whether it was the 1979 Three Miles Island accident (USA), the more famous but unfortunate 1986 Chernobyl (ex-USSR) or most recently the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi (Japan) accidents, all have had disastrous human, economic and environmental consequences. This hazardous industry has very quickly become a public health concern, as the risk of pollution is enormous in the event of an accident. Governments around the world have regulated this industry extensively.  However, the possible consequences of a nuclear accident would be cross border. The laws regulating nuclear energy are in need of strong supranational legislation. Many conventions, treaties and protocols governed the sector-specific nuclear energy industry. However, the current regulations may not be enough to prevent another disaster.

As a solution to overcome the main defects of nuclear fission currently in use, another alternative is emerging: nuclear fusion. This technology, which is currently still under development, appeared at first sight to be without many of the defects of nuclear fission. The absence of long-term radioactive waste, and  risk of core meltdown due to the lack of uranium and plutonium makes this energy solution very appealing. New programs such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, which should be operational in 2025 will utilize this technology. This project is one of the most ambitious energy projects in the world. Working in concert, 35 nations together will  build the world’s largest tokamak, a magnetic fusion device that has been designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy based on the same principle that powers our Sun and stars. However, the fusion technology requires a large amount of energy to start and operate the reactor.

A more sustainable solution would obviously be to move away from nuclear power in favor of 100% renewable energy in the long term. Biden’s administration wants to achieve the ambitious goal of 80% of U.S. power coming from zero-emission sources by 2030 and aims to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2035. This objective, although ambitious, must also be accompanied by a collective awareness. It is only with an evolution of consumer’s habits coupled with government goals that humanity will effectively handle the climate crisis. The White House hopes to push Congress to pass a law in this regard. For the European Union, the EU Energy Directive establishes a new binding renewable energy target for the EU zone of at least 32% by 2030. Time is running out and if we want to slow down the ecological crisis that is now clearly visible, we must abandon fossil fuels.