Nuclear power at times faces antagonism from the environmental community, with opponents arguing that it produces harmful radioactive waste, leads to the proliferation of nuclear arms, and brings forth lethal disasters. Scientists from Australia say it's time to get past myths about nuclear; they suggest in a paper published in Conservation Biology that implementing nuclear power at a larger scale is a positive compromise for fulfilling both energy supply and conservation needs.
The average person in developed countries uses energy worth 3,200 tons of coal over their lifetimes, a mass equivalent to 800 elephants. Meeting the energy demands of modern standards of living and conserving biodiversity is a struggle because energy production involves carbon emissions, pollution, and land use change. These trigger the degradation and loss of habitat, which are two of the most prominent drivers of species loss.
Renewable energy is a "green" alternative to fossil fuels, but its installation can disturb habitat. For instance, hydroelectric plants alter aquatic systems, wind turbines require large land masses, and biofuels can be produced from agrarian areas cultivated at the expense of pristine forests.
"For the least direct harm to biodiversity, the best energy options are those that use the least amount of land and fresh water (in production or mining), minimize pollution (e.g., carbon dioxide, aerosols, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals), restrict habitat fragmentation, and have a low risk of accidents that have large and lasting regional impacts on natural areas," write authors Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw. "Conservation-friendly energy sources must also be cost-effective, reliable, and accessible relative to more environmentally damaging methods if they are to displace them."
Nuclear power excels in fulfilling these requirements, the authors argue.
Nuclear plant in Cattenom, France. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
In the study, the authors compared the economic and safety costs and environmental benefits of coal, natural gas, nuclear, biomass, hydro, wind, and solar energy. Nuclear power, in comparison to coal, saves 2.4 billion tons of carbon emissions each year, and restricts the release of harmful substances such as heavy metals, chemicals, and aerosols. Nuclear power is also a favorable alternative to fossil fuels because of its energy density; a single clump of uranium the size of a golf ball could provide enough energy for a person's lifetime worth of energy, unlike the 800 elephants-worth of coal, which would release 12,000 tons of CO2, say Bradshaw and colleagues.
They also compared three types of energy mixes: a fossil fuel-dependent mix that is common today, a mostly renewable energy mix excluding nuclear power, and a majority-nuclear power mix that also utilizes other energy types such as renewable, fossil fuel, and carbon capture technology. The researchers found the majority-nuclear power mix was superior to the other mixes both in terms of minimizing carbon emissions and land use.
Furthermore, the implementation of next-generation nuclear power technologies that recycle fuel would use uranium 150 times more efficiently and would shorten the radioactive lifespan of the waste from a scale of millennia to a few centuries, thereby improving sustainability and reducing environmental impact, asserts the paper.
Nuclear power faces strong negative sentiments regarding its safety, especially following the disaster at Fukushima, Japan in 2011. The authors, however, point out that no energy technology is absolutely safe from accidents – the reactors in Fukushima were made in the 1960s to start with – and that nuclear power has less fatalities per unit of energy generated relative to any of the other energy sources in the analysis.
Another concern regarding nuclear power is its potential for nuclear arms proliferation. The authors explain that 90 percent of the world's nations already possess a degree of nuclear knowledge already, which they assert means that the implementation of nuclear energy is unlikely to lead to a further increase in nuclear arms use.
"Given the urgency of the global environmental challenges we must deal with in the coming decades, closing off our option on nuclear energy may be dangerously shortsighted," the authors write. "Foregoing nuclear power therefore means overlooking an already large global contributor to low-carbon electricity, especially given its use as a direct substitute for coal."
Is renewable energy useless?
Although the implementation of renewable energy still faces obstacles such as energy efficacy and use of land, renewable energy can still play a role in minimizing impact on biodiversity.
Windfarm in the Pedernales Peninsula, Dominican Republic. Photo by Tiffany Roufs.