Why do we fear nuclear power but not coal?, by Larissa Basso

Nuclear power is a controversial topic. Since the discovery of radiation, in the XIX Century, developments regarding its use have taken the headlines. As usual with any technology, it is intrinsically know-how, neutral; it is the use that is made from it that will be classified as good or bad. Nuclear power is a significant source of energy that can be employed to generate electricity, with low carbon emissions resulting from it. Yet, its employ is resisted and has shrunk in recent years. At the same time, the use of coal to produce electricity has never been greater, despite proven damaging consequences to health and the environment, and the acute Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions that come from its burning. Sometimes, coal replaces nuclear power. Why is nuclear power resisted so fiercely but coal is not, even if consequences from burning the latter are proven as or more deleterious to human living?

From 1973 to 2012, shares of both coal and nuclear power in global Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES) and in global electricity have increased. In 1973, coal answered for 24.6% of global TPES (total global TPES was 6106 Mtoe) and 38.3% of global electricity production (total electricity production was 6129 TWh), while nuclear power answered for 0.9% and 3.3% of them, respectively (IEA, 2014a). In 2012, 29% of global TPES (total global TPES was 13371 Mtoe) and 40.4% of global electricity (total global electricity was 22668 TWh) came from coal, while 4.8% and 10.9%, respectively, came from nuclear power (IEA, 2014a). In 2013, the greatest producers of coal were China (45.5% of global share), the United States (11.6% of global share) and India (7.8% of global share) – coincidently, they are the three greatest energy markets in the world; China and India are also among the greatest importers of coal (IEA, 2014a). In 2012, nuclear power greatest producers were the United States (32.5% of global share), France (17.3% of global share) and Russia (7.2% of global share) (IEA, 2014a). The International Energy Agency projects an increase of around 15% in the use of coal by 2040, if restrictions on GHG emissions are in place, and of around 60% in the use of nuclear power by the same year – but nuclear power would generate only 12% of global electricity by 2040 (IEA, 2014b).

Concerns over the use of nuclear power to generate electricity could be grouped in four. The first relates to safety of nuclear power plants. Throughout the history of nuclear power, there have been accidents, two classified in the highest level of the International Nuclear Events Scale, created by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): Chernobyl, 1986 (ex-USSR, now Ukraine) and Fukushima-Daiichi, 2011 (Japan). There were differences between the accidents, starting with their causes: in Chernobyl, lack of containment procedures and human failure were the fundamental cause; in Fukushima, it was a tsunami; in Chernobyl, lower safety requirements caused 10 times more radiation to be released than in Fukushima; prompt action in isolating the reactors, quick and efficient food safety campaigns and evacuation in Fukushima significantly reduced the long-term consequences as well (STEINHAUSER et al, 2014). It is important to acknowledge the risk of radiation leakage, as even the most stringent security scheme cannot reduce the possibility of accidents to zero. However, coal has intrinsic risks as well. Coal mining is dangerous: mine wall and roof collapse, suffocation and gas poisoning and explosions are still relevant concerns. Although safety requirements have increased for coal power plants as well, especially in higher income countries, accidents are not zero: some recent examples are the explosions in the United States (San Antonio, 2013) and Kosovo (2014). And given that coal power plants exist for a longer period of time and in larger number than nuclear power plants, statistically the first have killed much more people than the second throughout the years.

The second concern regards nuclear waste and danger of radiation leakage. Depending on the type of reactor in place, a nuclear power plant can generate a significant amount of waste that remains radioactive for years – new reactors, called fourth-generation reactors, recycle used fuel. This waste needs to be disposed in sites built according to strict safety requirements, so that leakages do not occur. Although nuclear waste is definitely a concern, coal is hazardous as well. Burning coal liberates important quantities of SO2 and NOx, which pollute the air and the water, leading to chronic health issues, among them heart diseases, strokes, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections; the World Health Organization estimates that, annually, 7 million premature deaths are linked to air pollution (WHO, 2014). In addition to the toxic elements released by its burning, coal processing generates waste that contains arsenic, mercury, selenium, and lead (HUTTON and SYMON, 1986; TANG et al, 2012). If this waste is not properly treated, these chemicals are released in the environment and contaminate water and other resources, affecting ecosystems and leading to increased rates of different diseases, including cancer (EPSTEIN et al, 2011).

Also important, coal is the energy source that emits the highest amounts of GHG in combustion (EPA, 2014), and increased concentration of GHG in the atmosphere is the cause of climate change. Increased use of coal mean ever more GHG emissions, when exactly the opposite is needed to mitigate the problem. Meanwhile, nuclear power does not contribute to air pollution or GHG emissions (EPA, 2014). Even if life-cycle emissions – emissions resulting from the whole process of electricity generation, from building the power plant to producing electricity – are taken into consideration, nuclear power emissions are substantially lower than fossil fuels emissions and similar to renewable energy (NREL, 2014). The use of nuclear power prevented 1.84 million deaths between 1971 and 2009, while 4,900 deaths were caused by it (KHARECHA and HANSEN, 2013).

The third concern is proliferation of nuclear weapons. Nuclear fission is a process that can be applied either to produce electricity or to produce a nuclear bomb, although some steps are different. Concern over who obtains this know-how is legitimate. Yet, it is not sufficient to justify that nuclear power should be extinct. Currently, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, United States, United Kingdom) plus India, Pakistan and North Korea are known to have nuclear bombs, but several other countries produce electricity from nuclear power: Japan, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Canada, Germany, South Korea and Brazil are some of them. Thus, the fact that a country dominates nuclear technology does not necessary mean that it will use it for military purposes. Strengthening the international regime on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons is of crucial importance and the only current guarantee for the non-use of nuclear weapons, even by those that already have them.

The fourth concern is the cost of nuclear energy. Nuclear power is considered expensive due to the costs of obtaining fuel and keeping up with stricter requirements of construction and maintenance of the plants, and safe disposal of the waste. The costs of a coal power plant are lower because the fuel is abundant and widely distributed, and lower construction and safety requirements for coal plants are in place; thus, many of the socio-environmental costs of coal are externalized, left out of the price. However, if estimated costs to produce electricity from different energy sources are leveled to include previous externalities – in case of coal, the costs of filters and procedures to reduce contamination of the air and water, for example, and a fee of USD 15 per metric ton of CO2, to compensate for the elevated GHG emissions from coal burning -, costs of electricity generated from coal or nuclear energy become virtually the same: USD 95.6 per MWh of electricity generated by coal, and USD 96.1 per MWh of electricity generated by nuclear energy (EIA, 2014).

In summary, looking at the facts, there is no reason to fear nuclear power more than coal. By and large, coal is more dangerous and is proven to cause serious damages to human health and the environment in a much larger scale than nuclear power, not to mention the consequences of its use to climate change. Yet some countries, like Germany, are closing nuclear facilities and replacing them with coal power plants. This is not to say that we should all opt for nuclear and build as many nuclear power plants as possible: many energy options are available at different places, each with advantages and disadvantages. Crucial for a rational energy planning is to consider both benefits and downsides of each energy source and to be guided by facts and full information. The world will need much more energy in the future while also needs to fight climate change, so we need to think more broadly, deeply and wisely about how to obtain it.


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Larissa Basso is a PhD Candidate at the Institute of International Relations of University of Brasília and member of the International System at the Anthropocene and Climate Change Research Network (larissabasso@gmail.com)

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