In May 2011, Germany announced plans to phase out nuclear power by 2022. They intended to shut down the 17 nuclear power stations in Germany (which generated 25% of their electricity at the time) and switch to using ‘cleaner’ renewable resources. Since this time, the percentage of electricity generated by nuclear power stations in Germany has dropped to 12%, while coal power stations generate around 40%. Is this really the change they wanted?

We know that nuclear power is the most reliable clean energy source we have; many renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power have geographical limitations, and such power plants tend to have an emergency generator burning fossil fuels nearby. While nuclear energy isn’t renewable, as the Earth’s uranium supply will eventually be depleted, it is far more reliable than the renewable energy resources currently available. Not only that, but nuclear power is cleaner than other non-renewable sources; although nuclear fission produces radioactive waste, this can be carefully stored for long periods of time and does not enter the environment. On the other hand, emissions from fossil fuel power stations are pumped straight out into the air we breathe. For example, as Germany’s nuclear power was replaced with power from coal plants, the country has seen a spike in carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide emissions as well as particulate pollution. Which is really causing more harm?

Some may argue that the history of nuclear power station accidents is reason enough to close down nuclear power stations. The three largest nuclear power station accidents have been Three Mile Island (March 1979), Chernobyl (April 1986), and Fukushima (March 2011). Chernobyl, the most famous of the three events, caused around 50 deaths and was the result of inadequately trained personnel and a poorly designed reactor made of graphite. The second biggest nuclear accident was Three Mile Island in the USA, in which there was a small amount of radioactive gasses released following a partial core meltdown due to operator errors, but no deaths were caused, nor is the accident thought to have any long-term impact on the health of those living in the vicinity of the power plant. In both cases, it was human error that caused these accidents, and the fact that they were both over 30 years ago is enough to suggest that such mistakes are not likely to happen again. We saw this in the Fukushima accident, which was caused by the plant being struck by two natural disasters: an earthquake and then a tsunami; following the accident, the government looked into the vulnerability of Japan’s 54 reactor plants to natural disasters, and measures were put into place to avoid a repeat of such an event.

Overall, nuclear power is not as dangerous as it is made to seem. In fact, according to a 2007 study of the impact of electricity generation on people’s health in Europe, coal power has caused 5 times as many worker deaths, 470 times as many civilian deaths due to air pollution and over 1000 times as many cases of serious illness as nuclear power. Nuclear power is the cleanest option we have, and calls for its termination are brought about as a result of misinformation.

by Sanga Arivanantham