December 2, 2021

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It is time to reassess nuclear energy

It is time to reassess nuclear energy

The development of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy in recent decades has been one of the most important measures taken by Norway and Europe to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity production.

But it’s a largely overlooked zero-emissions energy source, nuclear power.

Renewable energy sources contribute positively to reducing carbon dioxide emissions from energy production, but unfortunately only when the weather is right.

Steffen Oliver Saele Photo: Private

When the weather isn’t right, it’s coal and gas that often have to take the stick.

Recently, in Norway and Europe we experienced a very small energy crisis, in part due to this weather and dependence on fossils.

Previously, we were saved from this disability by rain and wind, and we will surely be saved again this time. But it is not wise to hope that this happens every time.

When the right weather does not come to the rescue, the first tool is to balance consumption and availability with increasing prices.

not problematic

For some, this is completely unproblematic, but not for everyone. The next metric, sometimes used in areas that rely heavily on weather, such as in Germany, is blackouts.

Hence not only the financial consequences, but also life and health.

The energy is fresh, storage is very difficult and little sunlight, wind and water can occur in large areas at the same time.

Foreign cables can loosen at times, but not if the areas we connect to are also affected by the same defect.

This is an issue that must be addressed to a much greater extent than it is today. With the current energy strategy extended, it’s not this season’s winter that should be cause for concern, but in ten years.

increased needs

Nuclear power was considered as an alternative in this country in the 1970s, but was suspended at that time.

The need was not so precarious, and there was significant unused hydropower capacity.

Today, there is still potential to increase capacity, but it is not enough to cover the need in the coming decades.

Statnett estimated a demand increase of 80 TWh by 2050. By comparison, we currently use about 135 TWh of electricity and a total of 337 TWh.

Some capacity can also be provided by wind, water and solar energy, as well as energy saving, but even this is not enough.

The need for power in the coming decades is largely related to what we want to do, which of course makes predicting the scale of exercise difficult.

But a lot of what we want to do is sensible things like electricity, a battery, hydrogen production, and more self-sufficiency.

And if we were to replace some plastic products with products made of wood, corn or other biodegradable materials, this would also require more energy.

So there are many understandable reasons for wanting more low-emissions energy. A country’s access to energy is also closely related to the country’s prosperity, which here in Norway includes “free” schools and hospitals.

New knowledge cannot be ignored

But while having access to a great deal of energy is beneficial, all forms of energy also have drawbacks.

This balance between advantages and disadvantages is the starting point for the EU’s assessment of an energy source or technology as “green”.

On behalf of the European Commission, the European Union Science Committee (JRC) has prepared and recently published a report examining nuclear power.

The report is perhaps the most comprehensive of its kind and clearly concludes that nuclear power should be considered at least as green and sustainable as other zero-emissions energy sources.

There are good reasons to consider nuclear energy sustainable. Of course, this is related to the fact that energy production takes place without greenhouse gas emissions, but also that nuclear power has a very high energy density.

This energy density means that the physical requirements become a few parts of hundreds of the needs of renewable alternatives, per unit of energy.

The need for space is only a thousandth, and in fact is so low that about five “industrial parks” (read: square kilometers), depending on the configuration required, will be enough to meet our energy needs by 2050.

spent fuel

If the need is to be greater after 2050, capacity can also be expanded without having to go wild at the expense.

Having a “fuel” here, uranium, and maybe someday uranium via thorium, is also unpardonable.

The energy can thus be stored for several years in the power plant, and the supply is released from the weather. And although we can store parts of our hydropower, this source also depends on the weather.

After a few years in the reactor, it’s a given that the fuel turns into waste, or more correctly: partially used fuel, which could one day be used in other power plants.

Unlike greenhouse gases from fossil energy, which are released directly into the atmosphere, this is the waste that is dealt with.

After a few hundred years in landfills a few hundred meters underground, where they will remain forever, this waste is just as dangerous as lead. Without lead or other heavy metals it is surrounded by the same mystery and drama as nuclear waste for this reason.

football stadium

And another advantage of the high energy density: very little waste.

If you put all the spent fuel from US nuclear power plants, which have had such production since the 1950s, on a football field, the stack size would not be higher than four meters.

These are naturally manageable quantities, and in no way can they be an obstacle to nuclear power in Norway either.

Another common and understandable complaint against nuclear power is the perception of its safety profile.

But here, too, the JRC report can, as many other studies have done previously, conclude that current nuclear power plants are at least as safe as wind turbines.

And just as with cars and planes from the 1960s, the power plants being built today are much safer. Tomorrow’s power plant, which we will enjoy in Norway as well, will be safer than this again.

If low risk is the most important factor for a power system, then fission of atomic nuclei is preferable.

As with the message of science about climate change, our elected representatives and environmental organizations cannot ignore scientific findings about nuclear power as a safe source of energy.

If you want to install a hundred screws, you can probably do so with a screwdriver. But if you have a drill bit in your shed, it’s probably easier to use.

However, a screwdriver is a useful tool, and may sometimes be preferred for other operations. There is a similar relationship between nuclear power and other zero-emission technologies.

Although nuclear power has great advantages, it is not a miracle technology and it cannot solve the climate crisis alone. It must be complemented by energy savings, renewable energy sources and other great technologies.

But it is time to discuss nuclear energy, as the most effective and sustainable tool, in a serious and honest way at the national level.

Reliable and safe energy without greenhouse gas emissions is too important not to do.

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