Nuclear power is a non-renewable resource. It is, however, low carbon. There are two main types of nuclear power; fission and fusion. Fission operates on the principle of breaking apart atoms to release energy, fusion on slamming them together. There are no commercial fusion reactors in the world (though there are demonstration models), a technology which attempts to replicate the type of reaction that is fuelling our sun. Fission on the other hand has been used since the late 1940s, following the development of the atomic bomb, and is based upon the same principle. To be clear, when I refer to nuclear power, I refer to fission, rather than fusion.
A nuclear reactor, once built, is able to produce very large amounts of energy very cheaply, assuming the cost of Uranium processing do not increase in the future, and that nuclear power runs much as it has in the past – as what is known as base load power. Base load power is essentially a continual steady supply of energy near full output, and no variation from this pattern.
As the technology has been around close to 70 years, we also know it is commercially proven, unlike CCS or some of the more experimental renewable technologies.
The first drawback to nuclear power is that reactors are very expensive to build. Nuclear reactors are hugely complex. Extensive planning and safety considerations need to be met. This makes them difficult to finance; few companies are willing to make an investment in a technology that will take some 30 years to pay back.
Furthermore, at the end of a nuclear reactor’s life, it has to be decommissioned. This involves taking apart the reactor and remediating the site, i.e. dealing with the nuclear waste and radiation. This is expensive, and is another big issue for investors – not only are you asking a business to front a large bill to construct the reactor, and take the payback over several decades, you are then asking them to pay a significant cost at the end of the project. The German nuclear decommissioning costs that were a result of German policymakers decision to retire it’s nuclear capacity (as a backlash to the Fukashima incident) have also stalled development plans in the UK, with RWE and E.ON both pulling out of new developments.
Another concern is the radioactive waste that is a by-product of the fission reaction. Though small in volume, a long-term solution for dealing with this waste (as opposed to just storing it) has never adequately been addressed. This becomes a greater concern if nuclear becomes adopted worldwide as the solution to decarbonizing our grids, as the volumes of waste will greatly increase.
Public perception of safety is another concern. Disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukashima all tar the image of nuclear. Personally, I feel the media overplays the danger of nuclear; there are valid concerns over safety and rightly so, however, we do not hear the same hype over the number of deaths associated with the coal industry, where a tragic number of lives are lost in third world countries mining coal. I may at some point return to the Fukashima reactor, because it’s an interesting case to learn from, but I would stress that though a large area of land has been exposed to radiation that makes it unsafe to inhabit, no one has to my knowledge reportedly died from the accident. This is compared to the 15,000 lives so far accounted for taken by the combined earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan and led to the nuclear incident. A sense of proportion to risk nuclear presents must be maintained.
Another, more political issue is the concern of nuclear proliferation. In other words, the danger of a civil nuclear program being used to mask a military development of nuclear weapons in less stable countries (such concerns have been raised with Iran), or the risk of nuclear materials being stolen from a power plant for nefarious purposes.
A final concern to note is the inflexibility of generation. Nuclear is cheap because it generates at full output all the time. It is difficult to use nuclear in anything other than an on/off state. This makes it somewhat incompatible with wind, which requires a degree of flexibility in other generation to account for the variability in its supply of electricity.