News Article

Is There a Future for Nuclear Power?

By Cas Biekmann | Fri, 05/15/2020 - 16:36

The exact science of climate change and how to tackle it remains under heavy debate. Despite both healthy and unhealthy critical questions, most governments have set themselves the goal to reduce carbon emissions. The arguments are clear on their side: regardless of climate change’s somewhat murky scientific prediction models, countries stand to benefit from clearer skies and a lesser reliance on fossil fuels that are, by definition, a finite resource. This in contrast to wind and solar, which will persist as long as the planet remains inhabitable for humanity. Another potential ‘unlimited’ source would be nuclear energy. But exactly how feasible is this form of energy generation, specifically in the Mexican context?

Nuclear power has a bit of a troubled history worldwide. Originally seen as the best bet for seemingly boundless energy, splitting the uranium atom seemed like the ideal way to power increasingly bold visions of humanity’s future. This all rapidly changed when people realized the implications. In stark contrast with wind and solar-derived energy, nuclear power can hardly claim to ever have had the blessing of environmental activists. Even before nuclear energy’s most famous 1986 disaster in Chernobyl, plenty of non-fiction and fiction approaches were imagining the catastrophic of a nuclear meltdown. For those who saw this event more as a failure of its underlying ideological system, other examples present themselves, such as the Three Mile Island accident that took place in Pennsylvania in 1979. 2011’s Fukushima disaster once again proved that nuclear energy was still risky when faced with abnormal situations, such as tsunamis and earthquakes.

Still, investigations from the Japanese government did allude that the nuclear part of the disaster could have been prevented if adequate measurers and protocols had been established beforehand, reported the New York Times. Now, as climate change has become the big puzzle to solve, nuclear power’s potential for creating massive amounts of energy without air pollution once again stands a chance. Technology is not standing still, either: WIRED reported yesterday about the first 3D-printed nuclear reactor core soon to be a possibility.

Competition is stiff. Especially in countries where wind and solar energies are broadly available, nuclear power is getting beaten around by the former two forms of generation. Adding COVID-19’s complications for energy demand to the mix, nuclear power plants are not at all profitable for the moment and needed to diminish their output, reported Bloomberg News. Nuclear is not down for the count, however, as it generates 2,821TW/h globally. It produced around 30 percent more electricity than solar and wind in 2019. What is more, over 55 power plants are currently in construction.

In Mexico, nuclear power can be considered to be a bit of a niche. In Latin America, there are only seven of the world’s nuclear reactors, reported SciDev. Two of these are in Mexico and they generate around 3 percent of the country’s energy needs. SENER’s Rocio Nahle once hinted that the big stumbling block for nuclear power is the negative perception that Mexico’s population has in regards to it, reported El CEO.

What further complicates the widespread adoption of nuclear energy are the relatively high investments needed to build a plant. Even though existing plants have low operating costs and can easily last 30 years in terms of operation, this is no small hurdle to overcome. After all, the negative perceptions seep into the minds of investors, too. Norma Boero, former President of Argentinean National Commission of Atomic Energy, wishes to change this perception. “Nuclear is not dangerous,” she told SciDev. “Saying that it is dangerous based on these two or three examples is similar to saying that boats are dangerous because the Titanic sunk.” Nonetheless, neither Mexico’s population nor its private investors or public sector seem particularly taken with nuclear energy for the moment. Until this changes, nuclear energy will remain a niche on the sidelines.

The data used in this article was sourced from:  
New York Times, WIRED, Bloomberg News, SciDev
Cas Biekmann Cas Biekmann Journalist and Industry Analyst