The Future is Nuclear: The Nuclear Power Debate and COP26

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Perhaps you’ve heard of Greenpeace, one of the world’s largest and oldest environmental protection NGOs. Since 1969, they’ve fought tirelessly against exploitative fishing, habitat destruction, and the encroaching climate crisis. Although it’s potentially not a controversial opinion in environmentalist circles, I have a lot of respect for Greenpeace: earlier this year I decided to help out with Falmouth’s Greenpeace branch. The nuance they bring to issues around the climate crisis, such as through their “Just Transition” campaign, highlighting the potential for job insecurity brought about by decarbonisation initiatives, exemplifies their position as a leading voice in environmentalism.

However, as much as I am proud to be a part of Greenpeace, what frustrates me about the organisation is that often they lack nuance in their discourse around nuclear power, a worrying trend amongst environmentalist groups that has been brought to the forefront by recent decisions at COP26. 

The reasons that Greenpeace gives for continuing their opposition to nuclear energy is that it is more costly and more dangerous than renewable energy, while producing harmful waste, and to an extent it is right in all these claims. Greg Jericho in the Guardian argues that compared to solar and wind power, nuclear energy is becoming cheaper at a much slower rate, and nuclear plants sometimes take decades to build, whilst solar fields can be installed in months. Undeniably, there is also some risk to nuclear plants, as evidenced by Fukushima in 2011, and they do produce a degree of toxic waste, although research into recycling elements of nuclear waste products is very concrete.

While progress has been made, there is still international opposition to what is, in my opinion, a vibrant and essential part of the future energy sector

However, there are advantages to nuclear power plants that renewable sources of energy do not have. While they are costly and time-consuming, they take up comparatively little space compared to their energy output. Wind and solar require vast tracts of land to reach anywhere near the output of a nuclear power plant, including the space needed for batteries in which to store the energy. Nuclear power, meanwhile, does not require batteries to store its energy in, and while being complex machines, use space more effectively than wind and solar. Crucially, nuclear power plants also produce energy consistently, even more reliably than coal, while the output of wind and solar power varies due to weather. What this highlights is that a combination of nuclear power, providing a baseline of consistent energy production, alongside mass-produced wind and solar power, is the most effective route to the decarbonisation of energy. More pressingly, it’s important that existing nuclear power plants avoid decommissioning and are repaired and restored so that they are able to continue production. 

So why do organisations such as Greenpeace oppose nuclear energy so viciously? Although I don’t doubt that they firmly believe their views on the effectiveness and safety of nuclear power, I personally believe a number of issues complicate the discourse. Environmental groups have a history of loud opposition to nuclear technology: Greenpeace was even founded in opposition to nuclear weapons testing off the coast of Alaska, and walking back on the issue might damage their credibility. The nuclear debate is also clouded by the inherent ambiguity of the label of “environmentalism”.

While all environmentalists would agree that mitigating global heating is a key goal of the movement, when this comes at the cost of the development of rural areas and, to an extent, the destruction of natural life, groups such as Greenpeace have conflicting goals. There might be a tendency within Greenpeace to protest hard engineering projects that alter the natural landscape, as demonstrated by their confused opposition to HS2 while simultaneously demanding better funding for public transport in order to reduce the carbon impact of cars. To decarbonise effectively, the world will need to see rapid development of clean energy resources on an unprecedented scale, and while this will undeniably have some impact on rural spaces, these kinds of projects are necessary to protect all life in the future. Rising temperatures, which will make it impossible for many forms of plants to grow in their native habitats, will be more destructive than any engineering projects designed to mitigate temperature increases.

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So how did this discourse translate into decision-making at COP26? The results are mixed. Some nations seem to fully really recognise the important role that nuclear power will play in the coming years. Echoing the importance of investing in clean energy for developing nations, the US promised $25 million to develop nuclear plants in smaller states. Russia has also stressed the importance of nuclear energy to its vision of net zero. As optimistic as these developments are for advocates of nuclear power, though, there were many at COP26 that align with Greenpeace’s anti-nuclear views. Germany, Belgium, and New Zealand in particular oppose nuclear power, and plan on continuing to decommission their nuclear plants. While progress has been made, there is still international opposition to what is, in my opinion, a vibrant and essential part of the future energy sector. 

Meanwhile, COP26 has been a chance to showcase some of the technology that emphasises nuclear energy’s ability to compete alongside other energy sources. Some companies have been particularly praised for developing smaller nuclear power plants. NuScale and Nuclearelctrica are planning on constructing the deployment of Europe’s first modular nuclear power plant, while similarly, Rolls Royce has secured £450 million from the British government to produce small nuclear reactors in the UK. Smaller nuclear reactors could revolutionise the way nuclear plants are built, cutting production times rapidly while using less space. Developments in small-scale nuclear reactors could also offer a solution to the question of carbon neutral shipping, which at the moment is one of the emissions issues which the world lacks a solution for. Meanwhile, China has recently tested next-generation technology allowing thorium, a more plentiful resource than uranium, to be used in new nuclear power plants. 

With such exciting developments as this, it seems impossible to me that the development of nuclear energy, or at the very least the maintaining of current sources of nuclear power, shouldn’t be a major priority in the world’s struggle to reach zero emissions. If COP26 was the “death knell for coal power”, I firmly believe it is only the beginning for nuclear energy, and environmentalist organisations will need to rapidly change their positions to catch up.

This article is in our Opinions section. As such the views within are those of the contributor and do not represent an editorial stance.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Falmouth University, the University of Exeter or Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union.