Bits of Freedom
Bits of Freedom

Tinkerer and thinker on everything free and open. Exploring possibilities and engaging with new opportunities to instigate change.

Jonas Öberg
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Jonas is a dad, husband, tinkerer, thinker and traveler. He's passionate about the future and bringing people together, from all fields of free and open.

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Bits of Freedom

Re-evaluating nuclear power

Jonas ÖbergJonas Öberg

Some time ago I participated in a campaign workshop with the FSFE. One of the people holding the workshop admitted to previously having been arrested for demonstrating against nuclear power by climbing a nuclear power plant.

It's interesting that regardless of your political affiliation: communist, socialism, capitalist, libertarian, you can find something in free software which is appealing to you. The FSFE has always made a point of being a-political, and while there's a certain interest from the green parties across Europe in free software, we make sure to include other political parties as well, and would not support initiatives which only come from individual parties.

But this post is not about free and open source software. It's about electrical power. Our use of electricity is only increasing, and for a good reason: with electricity, we can transport large amounts of energy over vast distances with a reasonable amount of loss along the way. We couldn't do the same with water, or wind, and good luck trying to transport solar rays for electricity generation. Coal isn't cutting it: we want less of non-renewable energy sources, not more. Oil and gas is out for the same reason.

Our need for electricity is increasing: we cook, clean, run cars and public transport on it. Increased use of electricity is a good thing for the environment, especially as it often replaces fossil fuels. Electric cars are taking over from diesel and gas; our homes are heated with air source heat pumps, earth heat, and other sources (powered by electricity), replacing oil and gas.

But electricity is just our means of transporting energy: it needs to be generated. And when the electricity is generated by coal, oil, or gas, we're not much better off than when we started. And when Germany (and Sweden earlier) set as a goal to shut down nuclear power plants, it solidified and ensured our continued reliance on fossil fuels, primarily coal.

Unfortunately, those caring the most for our environment are locked in thinking from the 1970s and 1980s when there were rightful concerns about nuclear power, which made it reasonable to work to correct those concerns. But that was close to 40 years ago, and a lot has happened since then.

Nuclear power plants built today don't suffer from the same concerns as those built in the early days of nuclear power. Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot of them being built: most of the nuclear power plants today are second generation power plants, which is pretty much anything built after 1965. In 1996 we started building third generation nuclear reactors, but very few of them have been built, and research has meanwhile progressed to fourth generation nuclear reactors. Each generation more power efficient, cleaner, and safer.

In 2015, Sweden consumed 159 TWh of electricity. 46% of this is from water power, 10% from wind power and 34% from nuclear power. The rest is a combination of largely solar and bio fuels. Today, Sweden is largely fossil free, when it comes to producing electricity.

What would happen if we take away the 54 TWh that comes from nuclear power every year? We're not going to decrease our energy consumption by as much, so it needs to come from somewhere. Some of it we can produce ourselves by increasing energy production from fossil fuels and bio fuels, but some of it we'll need to import, from countries where burning fossil fuels is popular. Fat load of good that did the environment. But at least we'd be nuclear free!

What about the waste from nuclear power, I hear you ask! Why should we use energy which requires us to store waste products for 100,000 years? We shouldn't, and we won't. We're recycling most of our waste today, so why not nuclear fuel? That we need to store some fuel for thousands of years is an indication there's something more we can recycle from it. Unfortunately, researching or commercializing nuclear reprocessing is quite an unpopular thing, so we're not developing that area as fast as we can.

All this leads to a situation where we'll increase our use of fossil fuels, we'll need to store nuclear fuel for 100,000 years because we can't figure out what else to do with it, and we'll use more and more energy every year. It's an uphill struggle for the environment.

Nuclear energy is a great idea, but it came at the wrong time. It developed an undeserved bad rep. If you look at the death rate of various energy sources per TWh production, nuclear is better (has a lower death rate) than any of the alternatives, even when comparing against solar and wind power, if you'd believe that.

It's time to re-evaluate our opinion of nuclear energy, base our opinions on modern reactor designs, invest in its development, build new and efficient nuclear power plants, kill off all fossil fuel, and save the environment.

Jonas Öberg
Author

Jonas Öberg

Jonas is a dad, husband, tinkerer, thinker and traveler. He's passionate about the future and bringing people together, from all fields of free and open.