Three reasons to invest in nuclear power.
Silicon and organic life can’t survive above temperatures greater than 50-degrees Celsius. An observer unfamiliar with Earth would find it strange to think that over-heating is our most prevalent problem given that two-thirds of our planet is covered in liquid water and yet unchallenged rising global temperatures will lead to human extinction.
I don’t see climate change in the same light as many — I see it more as an operational and economic problem than an ethical one. Plenty of people could’ve bought a Toyota Prius from 2003 onwards, yet it took a price-tag of nearly $200,000 (AUD) to kickstart mass enthusiasm for non-combustible engine-based vehicles. There was no reason we had to wait until 2018 for single-use plastic bags to be effectively outlawed.
Resolving climate change doesn’t rest on public sentiment being mobilised to catalyse governments into action. It will come from seeking convenience.
Businesses tend to describe their products as resolving customers’ pain points. But this fails to capture the underling motivation behind customer actions — which is to seek convenience. Such thinking opens up new opportunities from simple linear improvements to total redesigns that upend the status quo.
Need a faster horse? Use the T-Ford to travel. Need more screen-size for your mobile phone? Virtualise the keyboard. Need a place to stay overnight? Stay at this home.
How we sense climate change’s inconvenience on our lives will shape our response.
Traditional alternatives to coal-burning power sources fail to provide the energy needed to either sustain modern-living or cope with its growth. Coal releases a modest amount of energy compared to other sources like crude oil and gasoline, but its cheapness and accessability means 38% of the world’s electricity generation is powered by coal. Further, 71% of global steel production uses coal along with cement industries. It’s worth noting that in some geographical areas, coal-mining is not just the only source for electricity generators, but also one of the only few jobs available. Coal mining has become deeply engrained into the welfare of so many people whether they realise it or not. Branding coal-miners as ‘evil’ is a sure-fast way to lose their vote — ask Hillary Clinton.
Nuclear reactors work by engaging radioactive materials to emulate the thermodynamics that traditionally power steam engines. Consequently, by using the heat released from nuclear fission to turn turbines, electricity can be generated. While there are radioactive by-products, no carbon dioxide is released.
These reactors are traditionally powered by uranium-2355 which has an energy density of 3,900,000 MJ/kg against coal’s 24 MJ/kg. This describes the amount of energy released from burning one-kilogram of the specified material.
Evidently, wind and solar options can only match-up to coal in volume. Rudimentary estimates suggest the capital costs to generate a kilowatt of power from onshore/offshore wind sources could reach $1600 — $6500/kW (USD) while comparatively, fix solar and tracking solar sources could cost between $1800 — $2000/kW. Nuclear could cost approximately $6000/Kw although reports have emerged of prices below $2000/kW in China.
Nuclear power generates overwhelmingly large amounts of clean energy.
The world population is estimated to reach close to 10 billion people by 2050. Simply put, to balance the energy equation between supply and demand, we’ll need to either reduce one or increase the other and it seems that our choice has already been made: we’re going to need more.
Returns on nuclear investments perform best when economies of scale kick in, allowing the high upfront capital costs to be compensated for by the immense amount of electrical throughput. Over the past few years, prolific investors like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have financed nuclear-reactor startups marking a revival of nuclear research. Many reactors today were based on technology designed in the 70s and 80s and so studies purporting the unprofitability of reactors need to keep this inherent engineering-inefficiency in mind.
Subsequently, for nuclear power to become viable then this means revisiting legislation to encourage market competition. As many fear China coming to dominate AI research or gene-editing through a lack of ethical oversight, the same may occur for nuclear power development. This in turn means permitting nuclear power to be commercialised rather than state-managed as to ensure economies of scale can properly materialise.
As further incentive for Australians — we sit on one-third of the world’s uranium supply. We’re the world’s third-ranking producer behind Kazakhstan and Canada — and we only have three uranium mines.
800,000 people die each year from coal. There have been only three major accidents to have occurred in over 17,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 33 years. In the United States, coal kills around 13,000 people annually and 23,300 in Europe, and 670,000 die prematurely in China as a result of coal-related air pollution.
The total number of deaths related to nuclear power accidents when non-conservatively estimated, is around 200,000. That is mostly the cancer-related deaths following Chernobyl rather than the 30 or so that died in the explosion.
True, there have been catastrophic accidents involving nuclear power. Most notably Chernobyl and Fukushima — but then should we be surprised that human mismanagement and inadequate engineering standards existed in a failing communist-state and that a tsunami crumbled a coast-line based reactor? There’s over 450 nuclear reactors operating today and they’ve cumulated in over 17,000 years reactor-years.
Concerns about re-using nuclear waste for weapons are incorrect. Nuclear power plants don’t use the same type of uranium used for nuclear weapons, and modern research has worked to not only diminish the amount of radioactive by-product but also ensure it can’t be re-used for violent means.
Concerns about nuclear waste are disproportionate. 97% of waste produced by the nuclear power industry is classified as low-intermediate level waste. While nuclear power stations provide 11% of the world’s electricity, they produce approximately 34,000 cubic-metres of high-level waste.
To reiterate, producing 11% of the world’s electricity requires storage space equivalent to 1/5th of the internal volume of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Nuclear power is the answer to climate change.