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If the COP-26 summit were any indication of the future of coal, one thing is certain: the world will not end its dependence on coal anytime soon. This is especially true for developing countries like India and China, which depend on coal to meet the growing appetite for power from their burgeoning industries. The question we count then; is how to meet our insatiable demand for electricity and reduce our carbon emissions at the same time?
The renewable energy problem
Well, one would think that the answer to this riddle is of course renewable sources of electricity. But it’s more complicated than that. Recent studies have critically analyzed the environmental impact of solar and wind energy. They revealed that thousands of birds and bats are killed each year by wind farms. Solar farms require clearing large tracts of land that destroy the habitat of animals like desert tortoises, coyotes and rattlesnakes. The second big problem with renewable sources is that they are very inefficient. Solar and wind farms operate 15-40% of the time depending on the weather. They also convert energy from an inherently less dense energy source and therefore produce less electricity per unit area. It takes about 360 times more land for a wind farm to produce the same amount of electricity as a nuclear power plant!
Since renewables are an inherently weak source of energy, they require a higher material flow to produce the same amount of energy. According to a study by Environmental Progress, it would take 7 times more materials to build a solar power plant that produces commensurate levels of energy than a nuclear power plant.
But what about the narrative around clean energy?
Accepted, renewable energy is one of the cleanest sources of energy production. However, the resulting carbon emissions are not zero either. Take, for example, solar panels, the most essential component of a solar power plant. These panels are made up of heavy metals like lead, cadmium and chromium. If not disposed of properly after their expected 15-20 year lifespan has expired, they can pose a great threat to the very environment they are trying to save. An important point to note here is that no region other than the EU has a proper plan in place to dispose/recycle them once their lifespan has expired.
For starters, nuclear is a clean, zero-emission source of energy. It releases no harmful emissions into the environment. Radioactive waste is safely contained without being released into the environment. In fact, if we take into consideration the material flow required to produce a unit of energy, nuclear energy is much cleaner than renewable energies.
It is also a much more reliable source of energy than renewables. It is the only clean energy source that can deliver constant, uninterrupted 24/7 power to the masses. This makes nuclear ideal for industrial and commercial use.
Although nuclear power has the potential to revolutionize global energy production, it is little used and even banned in some countries. So what gives?
It turns out that nuclear energy has unfortunately been the victim of bad publicity and negative political campaigns. Preventable disasters such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have sparked a sense of paranoia and fear among the general public, which has precipitated political and environmental campaigns against nuclear power. More recently, after the Fukushima nuclear incident, Germany decided to dismantle most of its nuclear power plants and replace them with renewable energies. This has been very expensive, not only are electricity bills going up, but it has also made it more dependent on natural gas supplies from Russia.
Safety is a real concern for nuclear proliferation across countries and continents. However, the data shows that we can only attribute 0.07 deaths to nuclear accidents per terawatt hour. On the other hand, according to the WHO, 4.2 million people die each year as a result of exposure to ambient air pollution.
The point I’m trying to make through this article is plain and simple: nuclear power is the best alternative to smoky coal-fired power plants. It is by far our best hope of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and simultaneously meeting the growing demand for electricity. Nuclear is more reliable, scalable and clean compared to other alternatives. Plus, contrary to popular belief, it’s pretty safe too. Renewables can play a supporting role, but nuclear must take center stage. Governments should reevaluate their stance on nuclear power and set out concrete plans to proliferate nuclear power before it is too late.
Read also : The big problem with nuclear energy is not what you think
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