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40% of the British public “don’t know enough about nuclear energy”: 6 reasons why it’s here to stay

Written by at 16:16

Nuclear power is a controversial subject. There are arguments on both sides as to whether or not we should use it. But latest government statistics reveal that it is playing a bigger part in our lives (regardless of what we think of it), with approximately 39% of the UK’s electricity coming from low-carbon sources, and almost half (48%) of that coming from nuclear power.

However, despite nuclear power being one of our most common forms of energy, and one that is likely to become even more prominent in the future, it would appear that the British public don’t know enough about it. Love Energy Savings recently conducted a survey, asking more than 750 people the question; ‘would you support an increased use of nuclear energy?’ An overwhelming majority of 40% stated that they didn’t know enough about the subject of nuclear energy to make an informed decision, which is clearly a big problem in itself.

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People’s perceptions of nuclear power are likely to have been affected by major disasters in the past. Upon hearing the words, their minds immediately jump to well-publicised incidents such as the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, or the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in Japan, in 2011. But there’s no escaping the fact that the world is becoming more reliant on nuclear energy, so it’s important that we have at least a loose understanding of it.

As of July 2015, there were 438 nuclear reactors operating for electricity generation purposes in 30 countries across the world, and at that time 67 plants were currently under construction in 15 countries. 

Given this rate of growth, and with our supply of fossil fuels starting to dwindle, nuclear power is here to stay (rightly or wrongly). Love Energy Savings is here to raise awareness of nuclear power, bringing you six reasons why it’s here to stay. Once you know more about it, you can decide whether or not it’s a good thing!

1. It has lower pollution

We’re all aware of the problems caused by using fossil fuels to generate electricity; burning oil, gas and coal releases a phenomenal amount of dangerous carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. This contributes to the build-up of gases around the planet, which traps the sun’s rays in our atmosphere, causing the planet to heat up - a process called global warming.

Unlike fossil fuels, uranium produces next to no greenhouse gases, meaning that it is a relatively clean form of energy. Uranium can be broken down by the process of nuclear fission, creating far less harmful gases that could escape into our atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

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However, whilst it may not generate harmful greenhouse gases, uranium actually produces a huge amount of radioactive waste. This waste has a very high temperature and is incredibly radioactive, making it extremely difficult to dispose of. Radioactive waste at its very lowest levels can take hundreds of years to become safe - a problem which will have to be solved as our dependency on nuclear power increases.

2. It's finite, but there's plenty of energy to go around

One of the biggest problems with other finite sources of fuel (those that will eventually run out) such as coal, oil and gas, is that we have to burn huge amounts to provide the amount of energy we need. And while uranium itself is a finite source, a comparatively small amount is required to generate a decent amount of electricity. In fact, a single kilogram of uranium-235 can generate approximately 24,000,000 kWh of heat.

This is because nuclear fuels like uranium have a much higher energy density. So when the atoms are broken down by nuclear fission, as opposed to burning, the amount of energy released is thought to be as much as ten million times greater than that released by a fossil fuel. This means there is more for us to harness and turn into electricity. 

3. We have the technology already

Whilst nuclear power does come with its disadvantages - major safety concerns for one - the ready availability of the technology cannot be ignored. In an ideal world, 100% of our energy would come from renewable sources such as wind, solar and tidal, but sadly we’re a long, long way from achieving this. 

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Although these renewable and low-carbon forms of power are incredibly important, there is no way that we can win the fight against global warming without them. The technology that is needed to harness these, while it has been developed to a certain extent, is still lagging a long way behind what is required.

4. It costs less than you think

It’s easy to assume that nuclear energy is expensive, but it actually costs less than you may initially think. The first reason for this is that the actual cost of the uranium itself is relatively low. And while nuclear power plants may be expensive to build and set up, the expense of keeping them running is rather low. Another factor to consider is the lifespan of a nuclear reactor, which can be anywhere between 40 and 60 years depending on how often it gets used. 

When all of these factors are taken into consideration, the overall expense of nuclear power is surprisingly low. However, much of this depends on the price of uranium; if this rises in the future (which is a very real possibility as supplies become depleted) the cost of nuclear power will inevitably creep higher.

You can learn more about global uranium markets by visiting the World Nuclear Association’s website.

5. Nuclear energy is reliable

Unfortunately, a great disadvantage of renewable energy sources is that they are generally weather dependent. Solar panels cannot produce electricity from the sun at night and not much when the skies are cloudy, and wind turbines cannot turn on a still day.

Nuclear power can be produced at any time of the day – in fact, reactors can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The only time they would need to be turned off would be for maintenance. This ensures a continuous supply of relatively clean energy.

6. We have the space to build them

It is a common misconception that nuclear power stations take up vast amounts of land. However, the truth is that they don’t actually require a great deal of space. Unlike their wind-powered counterparts, which have to be spaced out very strategically, the only requirement of a nuclear power station is that they need to be built near the coast due to their cooling requirements. 

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The image shows the number, and size, of nuclear power stations in the UK. Carbon Brief has put together a world map which shows the nuclear power stations scattered across the world. It puts the notion of nuclear power stations taking up huge amounts of land into perspective.

Space may soon become even less of an issue, as in April 2016 it was reported that mini nuclear power stations would be given the green light to be built near small UK towns. Whilst they will still have to be built near water, these mini power stations have the ability to power entire coastal towns, significantly reducing the country’s dependency on fossil fuels.

Can nuclear power help against global warming?

The short answer to this question is ‘yes’. As we’ve outlined above, using nuclear power and fission to generate energy produces very little greenhouse gases, which are of course the main contributors to global warming. Surely, if we have an energy source readily available for us to use that will both drastically reduce our dependency on fossil fuels without pumping harmful gases into the atmosphere, then we should utilise it?

On the other hand, nuclear power is far from perfect. Issues that remain prominent in the public’s minds include safety, from a radioactive waste point of view, to the possibility of meltdowns and the power of this material in the wrong hands, the economic costs and the unsightly view of the reactors themselves.

But if we are to meet our target of keeping the planet’s temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which was reduced from the previous target of two degrees at the Paris COP21 Climate Talks last year, then we are going to have to depend on nuclear power to some extent. While the ideal solution would be to rely on clean and renewable sources for 100% of the world’s energy, if we are to reach the targets and stop the damaging effects, our methods need to become more diverse and more realistic.

There is little doubt that an increase in nuclear power is one of the main options available to us. But can we reach a place where it can be carried out safely, economically, and reliably? It’s an intriguing debate that more of us need to get involved in.

We all have a part to play in the battle against climate change and the team at Love Energy Savings are always here to help you to not only save money on your energy bills, but also to offer advice on how to reduce your carbon footprint.

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