5.3 Case Study: Nuclear Energy

Course subject(s) 5. Understanding and Identifying Risk

The Nuclear Energy Debate

The worldwide need for energy is growing. The International Energy Agency foresees a 60% increase in global energy demand between 2004 and 2030, and most of this increase is expected from emerging economies. Fossil fuels are not an attractive option to meet this demand both because these resources are finite (and running out), and more alarmingly, their continued usage will only exacerbate the growing threat posed by climate change. Therefore, there is an urgent call for renewable energy production from sources like wind, tidal and solar power.

The main advantage of nuclear energy — compared to fossil fuels — is its capacity to produce large amounts of energy using relatively small amounts of fuel with considerably little greenhouse gas emissions. However, nuclear energy as we are no doubt aware has serious drawbacks, such as the risk of accidents, security concerns, and political concerns about proliferation. Disasters like Chernobyl in 1985 and Fukushima in 2011 are well known examples. From an engineering perspective, there is also the nuclear waste problem. This waste problem is perhaps the Achilles’ heel of nuclear energy as it remains radioactive (and therefore dangerous to health and environment) for thousands of years.

Some countries, like Denmark and Germany, have begun to phase out nuclear energy completely and shifting their reliance to renewables. But many nations still consider nuclear energy as a viable option to meet the increasing demand, despite and the risks associated with nuclear energy. Over 45 countries are actively considering embarking upon nuclear power programs in recent years, ranging from sophisticated economies to developing nations. The front runners after Iran are the UAE, Turkey, Vietnam, Belarus and Poland (source).

Before we can comment on the issue, it must be noted that nuclear energy production can be achieved by two different processes: closed and open fuel cycles.

  • In an open fuel cycle, uranium is irradiated only once and thus-spent fuel is considered as waste to be disposed of directly. This waste remains radioactive for approximately 200,000 years.
  • The closed fuel cycle on the other hand reuses spent fuel after irradiation to produce more energy; gradually diminishing the ultimate waste product’s toxicity and volume substantially. As such, this fuel cycle has many long-term benefits, but it creates many additional short-term risks.

This means that we have to deal with conflicting values. When it comes to risks, there is a trade-off between costs/benefits for present and future generations. This inter-generational issue is still topical after more than four decades of widely deployment of nuclear energy.

This will all be explained in the fascinating lectures by Prof. Behnam Taebi below. Before you short watching, reflect on the following questions:

  • Are we willing to transfer all risks of spent fuel to future generations? Or is it more just to diminish risks and hazards of our waste to the maximum extent for the benefit of future generations, even though it presents some additional risks to the present generation?
  • Should we manage the waste in a such way that it will not impose undue burdens on future generations?
  • What does the Precautionary Principle mean for nuclear energy?
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