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Is Nuclear Energy Sustainable?

is nuclear energy sustainable

Is Nuclear energy sustainable? To get straight to it, no. Nuclear energy is not sustainable at any point in the process. This includes the building of the power plant, the operating of the power plant and the disposing of nuclear waste every year from each facility. Below I discuss what sustainability issues there are at each phase of the process, what possible alternatives are for some of them and why these alternatives would work when broken down by cost and the amount of electricity produced.

Building a Nuclear Power Plant

nuclear energy cooling tower
Inside Nuclear Energy cooling tower Elma, WA

Building Nuclear power plants is very cost intensive. It costs billions of dollars to build 1 power plant. As an example the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant being built in England is costing around 31 Billion USD and keeps piling on more costs. On top of all the material resources it consumes in the process. Its estimated that 1 nuclear power plant requires:

  • 457 million tons of concrete which produces a lot of Co2.
  • 40 million tons of steel.
  • 5 years to build.
  • All costing an estimated $23-$30 billion to build.

To put that into perspective, a geothermal plant costs around $400 million to build. So for for every 1 nuclear power plant we can build an estimated 57-70 geothermal power plants with that power distributed across the planet instead of 1 localized area. While a nuclear power plant produces 1 GW of electricity, electricity is also lost in the transportation before it reaches its destination. So investing in something like geothermal which relies solely on the heat of the Earth and can produce electricity in a much safer manner makes a lot more sense.

To put into perspective the costs of a nuclear energy facility, it costs $23-$30 billion for a nuclear power plant to produce around 1GW of electricity. A large geothermal power plant like HellisheiĆ°i in Iceland can produce around 300MW of electricity and cost around $800 million to build. So to produce the same amount of power a nuclear power plant produces with geothermal energy, we could build 4 large geothermal power plants like the one in Iceland and spend only $3.2 billion and would be producing more energy at 1.2GW of electricity. If we spent $23-30 billion on geothermal facilities of this size we could produce 8.4GW of electricity. That’s more than 4 times as much electricity as a nuclear power plant at the same cost. So even economically, the costs of a nuclear energy facility are unsustainable.

While nuclear power plants are advertised as “carbon free”, this is in no way true even during the operation of the plant. During the operation of the plant there is carbon intensive mining and refining involved in sourcing the materials required to make the fission rods that have to be replaced yearly. There is also a lot of carbon produced in the manufacturing of the facility due to the large amount of concrete and steel required to build it. The catch with nuclear power plants is there are 2 entirely different sustainability issues involved that no other source of electricity has a problem with. The operating risks and the nuclear waste issue.

Sustainability of Operating a Nuclear Power Plant

nuclear power plant at night
Belgium Nuclear Power Plant at Night

During the entire lifetime operation of a nuclear power plant there is still high risk to damage of the facility from geological activity, accidents, malfunctions, etc. Which if any of these were to happen it puts areas hundreds of miles wide in danger. We’ve seen this happen with Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Nuclear disasters to name only 3 out of more than a dozen incidents globally. Because of the Chernobyl incident, that area is uninhabitable for thousands of years. Nuclear power plants have to have their nuclear fission rods replaced which means that there is constant mining of a very hazardous materials. Those hazardous materials end up becoming nuclear waste that has to be stored somewhere and this is a process that cycles every single year. After building the first nuclear power plant and calculating the input vs output we should have realized a long time ago nuclear power plants are a really bad idea and in no way could lead to a sustainable future. Given the risk factors of nuclear energy, it seems like a really over engineered and complicated way to simply make steam.

How Nuclear Power Plants Produce Electricity

nuclear energy plant belgium
Nuclear Energy Plant Belgium

Seriously, that’s how nuclear power plants produce electricity, they make steam to spin turbines. That’s it. People go through all the work to mine and refine extremely dangerous materials that risk the lives of all living things around them which inevitably results in leaving a chosen area uninhabitable for thousands of years, be it the nuclear energy site itself and/or the nuclear waste dump site… to make steam that turns turbines, which then makes electricity. Many people are completely unaware that nuclear power plants create electricity this way. Geothermal power plants create electricity the same way by using steam to turn turbines… minus the radioactive waste and nuclear meltdown issues. Nuclear energy by definition and its outcomes is the exact opposite of sustainability.

Another way to think of how nuclear energy works is like an “artificial geothermal power plant”. Some Earth’s heat is generated from deep withing the Earth from all the friction of flowing molten material and the decay of radioactive elements. That natural heat can then be used to create steam when combined with water and create electricity from turbines. Both types of power, geothermal and nuclear, run 24/7 365 days a year. They output electricity regardless of the weather. The key difference is the man made one, nuclear energy, puts all living things in danger. No other form of sustainable energy like geothermal, wind, tidal and solar present even a fraction of of the danger that nuclear energy presents if any at all.

Nuclear energy and weapons (aside from a cataclysmic natural disaster like a asteroid impact) are the one type of energy on this planet that can render it uninhabitable. Not just from a potential nuclear power plant accident or war but from material that needs disposed of and what it does to those areas. This brings us to the nuclear waste issue. Every 12-24 months around 40 to 90 fuel rods need to be replaced in each nuclear power plant. So nuclear material has to constantly be mined and refined in order to make these nuclear rods used to create power at the facility. So the next question is, what do we do with thousands of tons of radioactive material that’s created every year from the fuel rods that get replaced?

The Issue of Unsustainable Nuclear Waste

calder hall england nuclear power plant
Calder Hall England Nuclear Power Plant 1973

Aside from the billions of dollars it requires to make 1 nuclear power plant, the amount of risk and danger operating nuclear power plant puts both the Earth, living things and people in… there is the looming issue of nuclear waste. I would put nuclear waste next to burning fossil fuels and emitting Co2 when it comes to the sustainability of living on Earth and putting living things in danger.

The only way nuclear waste is (and has been) disposed of is to place the radioactive material inside barrels with multiple layers (to prevent them from leaking, which doesn’t always work) and then bury those barrels full of radioactive material inside a mountain or designated area in the ground. If that sounds absurd to you, its because it is. This policy of “disposing” of nuclear waste puts future generations of humanity, let alone any other living thing, in danger.

There’s 2 likely future scenarios that nuclear waste could put humanity in danger. The first is, when these containers inevitably leak whether its a year from now or 300 years from now. A great example is the nuclear storage facility in Washington State called the Hanford Site. This is where the nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project (which developed the atom bombs during World War 2) is stored. The nuclear waste was stored in containers that were supposedly designed to last hundreds of years. Just a few years ago, they discovered that many of these containers were either leaking or in danger of leaking because the radioactivity was eating away at the materials the containers were made of. This nuclear waste dump sits right on the Columbia River that runs through Washington down to Oregon. So you can see what risks there are to the Columbia River and all the natural systems its connected to, should a more serious accident happen.

Their solution? Put the containers of nuclear waste inside other larger containers, re-bury them and continue business as usual. This way of dealing with it is basically like saying “let the future generations of humanity figure this out”. Because it takes thousands of years for nuclear waste to break down. Now while this is nuclear waste from weapons development, the same waste from nuclear power plants is also produced and stored in the same manner. The danger is what happens to water aquifers, rivers, forests, land and all the resources its connected to those should there be a radioactive leak that cannot be contained? They would be unusable for hundreds if not thousands of years. Presently, there are 14 countries with nuclear waste dumps totaling over 250,000 tonnes of radioactive waste. These nuclear waste sites present a very real danger to not only living things today but in the future for thousands of years.

Summarizing the Sustainability of Nuclear Energy

Due to the cost of producing nuclear energy facilities, the dangers of operating the power plants and the looming nuclear waste issue, nuclear energy is in no way sustainable. Everything discussed in this article regarding the unsustainable development of nuclear energy all can be avoided if humanity decides to use clean, sustainable energy that costs way less to implement and actually produces more electricity with the same investment. The risk factors of any other sustainable energy source are no where near that of nuclear energy. In my opinion, nuclear waste dumps are one of the greatest mistakes of humanity that still needs to be corrected.

Simply put, if the amount of money spent on nuclear energy was spent on sustainable energy sources, geothermal being the ideal candidate, we would have been on our way to a sustainable energy future a long time ago. But now that we know and understand more about the outcomes of nuclear energy today its not too late to change our policies moving forward an invest in more sustainable and safer forms of energy production. A change in these policies would be a huge step in securing the safety and energy production of humanity’s future.

Jacob Haust

With a passion for design, electric vehicles, engineering and the environment, Jacob is combining his interests to help make the world a more sustainable place for generations to come. He went to University for Industrial Design where he understood materials, processes and manufacturing. This is a key part as a designer in order to understand what can and can't be done when manufacturing with certain materials and what materials to choose when designing for specific applications. So he has a fairly deep understanding of materials used in everyday products and the processes used to make them. As a kid he also lived in Iceland for years where he toured geothermal power plants and gained an appreciation for the engineering and sustainability of this energy source.

jacob haust


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