The world is at an energy crossroads: the world’s dependence on fossil fuels is increasingly unsustainable.
Oil and gasoline prices have skyrocketed in recent years, as have production costs and electricity tariffs. Global warming is progressing and countries have not been able to meet the emission cut targets.
Moreover, it is not enough that the war in Ukraine highlights Europe’s energy impact due to Russia’s high dependence on gas.
“The time has come for a nuclear renaissance,” French President Emmanuel Macron said recently.
Like Macron, who promised to reduce France’s nuclear production by a third five years ago, many have changed their stance on nuclear, which was widely criticized after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
“Global anti-nuclear sentiment has changed, although gas prices have risen sharply over the past year, and the current crisis is the last straw,” explains Alfredo García, a scientist and Spanish nuclear technologist. BBC News Mundo (BBC Spanish service).
The world is warming – Photo: Arte / BBC
Is it possible to replace natural gas, oil and coal?
“Unfortunately, a war was needed to show that we can not rely heavily on fossil fuels,” Garcia said. According to various studies by international organizations, they account for at least two-thirds of the world’s electricity and greenhouse gas emissions.
According to a study by Harvard University (USA), air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels caused 8 million deaths in 2018.
At current rates, emissions are expected to increase by 14% this decade, undermining the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which will reduce global warming to 1.5 ° C by the end of the century.
Demand for this specialty has grown significantly as a result of recent corporate scandals. There are two options: nuclear and renewable.
Greenpeace believes that fossil fuels can be transformed into energy without the use of nuclear energy.
“Adopting a 100% renewable and efficient energy model is technically feasible, economically feasible and sustainable,” says Meritz Benasser, head of energy and climate change at Greenpeace in Spain.
Proponents of nuclear power, however, question whether this is possible: renewables are less productive, require more space and materials, and rely on weather conditions to operate the stage.
Transforming nuclear power also has its difficulties: it usually takes 5 to 10 years to build a nuclear power plant and operate it.
“Changing the energy model is not easy or quick, the process must be gradual. Progressive transformation requires the electrification of various sectors and a firm commitment to nuclear and renewable energies, working as a team. It is difficult to calculate the total cost, but we must do it within three decades.” Garcia explains.
How is nuclear energy produced?
Nuclear power plants use nuclear fission to produce energy – that is, the fission of atoms.
When a heavy atom splits – usually uranium 235 – neutrons are produced and the energy released creates a chain reaction in a fraction of a second.
It emits neutrons, gamma rays and a large amount of energy. Intense heat is used to raise the temperature of the water and generate steam. This steam then rotates the turbines in a reactor, which activates a generator to generate electricity and eventually feeds the electric phase.
The use of nuclear fusion for energy production is a technology not yet mastered by mankind. It consists of releasing large amounts of energy by linking the nuclei of atoms to each other, which is done by accelerating the atoms at high speeds. This is similar to the reaction that occurs in stars like the Sun.
It does not generate radioactive waste, does not consume valuable resources, and produces almost unlimited energy. Fusion is considered by many to be the ultimate solution to mankind’s future energy production.
But to successfully recreate it on Earth requires technology that is still under development.
Nuclear fusion site for power generation is not yet a reality – Photo: Arte / BBC
In February, the European Commission (EC) classified nuclear energy as “green” and considered it necessary to convert it from fossil fuel energy to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the main greenhouse gas.
Nuclear power plants emit an average of 28 tons of CO2 per gigawatt-hour of energy, which is 888 Tn / GWh for coal, 735 Tn / GWh for oil and 500 Tn / GWh for natural gas. Of EC.
Solar energy emits almost three times more CO2 than nuclear power, 85 Tn / GWh, while hydropower and wind power produce 26 Tn / GWh.
According to the same report, nuclear power uses less mineral and fossil resources compared to other sources and produces much less chemical waste, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide – which produce acid rain.
The UN warned in 2021 for its part that global goals of controlling global warming could not be achieved if nuclear power were eliminated. Over the past half-century, the organization says, nuclear power has reduced global carbon dioxide emissions by two years.
“Nuclear energy is as green and safe as renewable energy.
But not everyone agrees that nuclear power is pure.
“Nuclear power does not emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as fossil fuels, it actually emits more CO2 per kWh than renewables, because the nuclear reactor requires fuel to produce electricity and its output emits greenhouse gases.”
Pennasar cites data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that even if the world’s nuclear capacity were tripled, reducing carbon emissions by only 6% would not be enough to achieve climate goals.
Nuclear critics say uranium extraction is harmful to the environment and that disposal of the plant is costly and polluting. They say there is a very low risk of an accident or military attack on nuclear power plants, but if that happens the consequences could be catastrophic.
Another argument against nuclear power is that nuclear fission produces radioactive waste that is highly polluting.
The waste is a by-product of nuclear power generation and consists of solid and liquid products containing radioactive isotopes.
They can be toxic for thousands of years and their treatment is very complicated. For example, high-level radioactive waste should be stored in three different stages, the last being stored underground at a depth of 200 to 1,000 meters.
“The nuclear industry has not been able to find a satisfactory and safe technical solution to this problem,” a Greenpeace spokesman told BBC Mundo.
However, Alfredo Garcia says that “nuclear power alone is fully responsible for the cost of managing its waste, which is treated with the highest safety standards and has scientifically accepted technical solutions.”
Building and maintaining a nuclear power plant is very expensive.
For example, the plant under construction at Hinkley Point C in the south of the UK, which will supply 7% of the country’s energy from 2025, is estimated to cost about US $ 30 billion.
Atucha, Argentina’s fourth nuclear power plant, has signed a $ 3.8 billion (R $ 39.8 billion) agreement between the country and China in February.
While a nuclear power plant typically exceeds US $ 6 million per megawatt capacity, an integrated circulating gas power plant would cost US $ 500,000 per megawatt capacity.
However, nuclear power is cheaper to produce because it does not require large and continuous fuel. Although enriched uranium is an expensive material, it can produce large amounts of energy in small quantities.
Which countries are betting on nuclear energy?
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 96 reactors are in the process of producing more than 90 gigawatts, with the United States accounting for about a third of the world’s nuclear output, followed by China and France, each accounting for more than 13%. .
In France, nuclear power plants generate 70% of the world’s electricity, ranking first in the world in this regard. French President Emmanuel Macron has announced an energy plan for the coming years, with six new reactors estimated at around 50 million euros.
Germany had planned to close its last three nuclear plants this year, but the war in Ukraine has made that plan difficult. Clemens Fuest, head of the Ifo Economic Research Institute, recently announced that the plants would continue to operate “for at least several years, depending on Russian gas.”
This difference in attitude shows Europe’s divisions in nuclear power: the governments of Germany, Austria, Denmark, Spain, Luxembourg and Portugal refuse to promote this energy source, while Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, France’s self-styled “nuclear alliance” with Romania and Slovakia. Recently the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia joined the latter group.
In Latin America, the nuclear power region contributes only 2.2% to electricity generation. There are seven reactors: three in Argentina, two in Mexico and two in Brazil.
In the world, the biggest bet on nuclear power is China, which plans to become the next world power in this regard. Between 2016 and 2020, the country will double its capacity to 47 gigawatts with 20 new plants, and by 2035 it will reach 180 gigawatts, more than double the current capacity of the United States.
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