Debate: To Nuclear or Not to Nuclear

That is the question we are trying to answer as we round off our Nuclear Week series in this Debate 2.0.

On Monday, Megumi Nishikura told us about the journey of her fellow filmmaker covering nuclear and uranium-related issues from Iraq to Japan.

Through her film Ashes to Honey, Hitomi Kamanaka delivers a sympathetic view of anti-nuclear activism by local communities that reflects the broader sentiment in Japan, still the only country to be the victim of a nuclear weapons attack.

But while people are understandably reluctant to live next to nuclear facilities and fear health risks from nuclear waste, the nuclear debate has always been situated within the broader context of energy security. Certain high energy-consuming countries, most notably France, still rely heavily on nuclear.

And as Our World 2.0′s Brendan Barrett illustrated in Wednesday’s article, the nuclear option could be enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in Japanese energy policy. This follows the move almost a year ago by United States President Barack Obama to give the green light to nuclear reactors by effectively subsidising investment in the industry. But the huge economic investment required comes at a time when government energy planners are already under pressure from mounting budget deficits emanating from the global financial crisis. Furthermore, many are sceptical about the nuclear option given that constructing new nuclear energy infrastructure can take decades.

Still, with worldwide anxieties about climate change and peak oil matched by only modest increases in renewable energy sources, we can expect the nuclear option to keep popping up in any conversation about energy.

In this week’s Debate 2.0, we ask our readers whether or not nuclear is the way to go? And even if nuclear energy were safe, clean and climate friendly, do the economics stack up in the long term? And even if there were no health, security, environmental and economic concerns, would you be prepared to see a nuclear reactor from your backyard?

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Debate 2.0: To Nuclear or Not to Nuclear by Mark Notaras is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Author

Mark Notaras was a writer/editor of Our World for the United Nations University (UNU) from 2009-2012. He is a former researcher in Peace and Security for the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace. He holds a Masters in International Affairs (Peace and Conflict Studies) from the Australian National University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo and in 2013 completed a Rotary Peace Fellowship at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Currently Mark works in Timor-Leste advising local NGOs on community agriculture and conflict prevention projects.

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  • Bryn Tittle

    I don’t believe new nuclear is the next step, that has to be greater energy efficiencies. This means retro fitting existing buildings, rigorous standards for new buildings and localised renewable production. It also means greater planning and regulation of the manufacture of electronic goods and energy efficiency standards for those goods being raised and regionalisation of the production and distribution of food.
    Technologies including nuclear and some of the more ambitious ideas about massive solar farms in deserts are not ready to be implemented yet. Nuclear is currently too costly, unsafe (especially considering the issue of long term storage of waste), it takes too long to build a plant and there seems to be uncertainty about the CO2e saving of the whole life cycle of a nuclear plant and the availability of fuel.
    In contrast energy efficiency measures can be taken immediately and paid for by a loan which can be paid off from the savings on energy bills.

  • http://www.visionofearth.org Ben Harack

    One thing that I think most people miss is the fact that a dying nuclear energy industry today is very likely to lead to a more dangerous world tomorrow. Currently, nuclear fuels have high economic value. If nuclear development is stifled, the price of these things will hit the floor, and people will start looking for high-prices in other industries…such as weapons. If anyone is interested in more on this line of thought, I recommend a piece written by a volunteer group that I am part of (Vision of Earth), entitled “Does nuclear power lead to weapons proliferation?” If hyperlinks work in comments, here is the link: http://www.visionofearth.org/featured-articles/does-nuclear-power-lead-to-weapons-proliferation/

    From the specific perspective of economics, this is still an incredibly complicated question. For example, nuclear energy as it exists today might not be cheaper than the other mainstream options. However, that does not mean that the potential of nuclear energy is limited to what has been built so far. Our current nuclear fuel cycles are a by-product of the nuclear weapon’s material cycle. There are much better ones, such as that of the Thorium cycle. There are some nuclear reactor designs that are so radically different from the reactors of today that they are barely recognizable as the same category of power system. One such design is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (google it to learn about it, highly recommended). These systems show incredible potential to produce many centuries of power for humanity.

    However, in order for cost-effective implementation of thorium or other nuclear advances to actually happen, regulation often must be adapted to the new designs and constraints. Those who study the nuclear industry a lot know that a significant percentage of the total cost of a nuclear reactor is the interest paid during the 5-10 year construction interval. If regulations are innovated to improve both the building speed and the versatility of the technologies available, we might see a very competitive nuclear industry come into existence.

    Nuclear power can be quite safe, quite climate friendly, secure, and minimally wasteful (there are ways to make much better use of the fuel and waste that we do have, such as the fast breeder reactors). If these properties can be made a reality, it certainly makes sense to give it a shot. If there is a high-quality, safe, long-term, and low-cost energy resource available to us, I see no reason not to pursue it.

  • http://satoyamaspirit.org Alan Zulch

    I’m appreciating Ben’s presentation of nuclear innovations that could involve fewer negatives.

    However, I remain dubious about more nuclear, in part because I’ve got serious doubts about the long-term viability of current economic/political systems required to maintain the infrastructure over time.

    And also because I’m skeptical of high-technology, highly-centralized technical fixes to our obsolete paradigm of separation from nature and each other.

    Would more nuclear energy not result in our simply delaying the inevitability of having to widely implement more sustainable, and local, energy sources?

  • Gondor

    From what I know of nuclear energy, which is very little, its probably very necessary as a medium term solution to carry us to a sustainable energy transition. Energy efficiency, as Bryn suggests, does not seem to be able to alone to meet our energy demands because demand rises faster than energy saving technologies can account for. Nuclear has to hold us until renewables are far enough advanced, and socio-technical regimes are built for their mass deployment. I think countries will have to study the trade off between nuclear risk and CC risk, and the nuclear option looks good to me.

  • globalciti

    I have a feeling that investing in nuclear energy no matter how desperately we may need the energy now maybe one of those things we come to regret in the future. From the moment the uranium is extracted from the ground to the wastes that have to be buried deep down underground again it seems like there are harmful consequences every step of the way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Julio-Eiffelt-Rossaffelt-Rumbiak/100002208765570 Julio Eiffelt Rossaffelt Rumbi

    I’m agree that we must gain our power or energy source in this planet. because by the time, energy consumption is already increases. energy are obtained from many ways such as coal, fossil fuel and gas that contains harmful materials for earth and still continues until today. energy from nuclear has generated electricity largely but is not only have large amount waste but also radiation effect that we consider happened. we need solution that energy must be coming from safety material without decreasing number energy and of course renewable.
    We know from abroad or rather that today lot of people has realized, we have switch to renewable energy source is the only option. Considering living organism, environment, ocean and so on in future. are our generations will pay for the prizes in the future? absolutelly. our generations in future are depend on us how to treatment all things today.