Germany’s recent decision to pull out of nuclear energy has sparked an international debate about the future of energy resources. Should we be embracing nuclear as a viable alternative? Or are memories of Chernobyl still far too fresh in the collective consciousness?Yesterday, HSBC announced that the world’s oil supplies can only last for another 50 years. The message is clear – even if you don’t believe in global warming, and don’t give your carbon footprint a second thought – we must find an alternative to fossil fuels. Nuclear power seems like the easiest option, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the most sensible. Nuclear has improved massively since the disaster of Chernobyl, but there are still risks involved – Japan’s recent problems with the Fukushima plant are one of the reasons Germany has now decided to back out of nuclear power.
Nuclear fission produces less waste than fossil fuels, but that waste is highly dangerous. Furthermore – nuclear power isn’t a renewable energy source either. Once used, the uranium cannot be reused. Having said that, Nuclear power stations are not prone to “meltdowns”, nor are they atomic bombs waiting to go off. With reactors in the UK, the computers will shut the reactor down automatically if things get out of hand. At Chernobyl, in Ukraine, they did not have such a sophisticated system – in fact they over-rode the automatic systems they did have.
Another reassuring development in nuclear power is that the International Atomic Energy Agency is considering having its teams of specialists conduct snap inspections of atomic power plants to ensure the safety of nuclear power generation worldwide. Currently, individual countries are responsible for safety measures at nuclear power plants and no international framework for verifying safety measures implemented at such plants has been formulated – the IAEA believes such unannounced visits would be more effective in conducting inspections. These inspections would help ensure that employees were doing their jobs properly, and machinery was working correctly, thus making any kind of crisis unlikely.
So, with all these plans to improve nuclear, why are countries still so hesitant about it? Switzerland and Italy have also followed Germany’s lead and are distancing themselves from nuclear power, and Deutsche Bank analysts predict that Germany’s decision alone will add an extra 370 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere by 2020. Sociologist Ulrich Beck sees Germany’s decision as a choice that will have far more long term benefits, and insists that the country will be investing in renewable energy. He points out that solar energy is a fairer way to provide people with electricity, as the sun is not a resource that can be monopolised. “Users of energy produced by a nuclear power plant have their electricity cut off if they fail to pay their bills. This cannot happen to people using electricity generated by the solar panels installed on the roofs of their houses,” writes Beck. “Ultimately, the rejection of nuclear is not a result of German angst but of economic thinking. In the long run, nuclear power will become more expensive, while renewable energy will become cheaper. But the key point is that those who continue to leave all options open will not invest.”
Others disagree, arguing that it is reckless to deny a place for nuclear as part of a balanced selection of energy sources. Wherever you stand on the nuclear debate, it is important to consider both sustainability and security. What do you think?