Who’s the Beauty and Who’s the Beast? Or is there none at all?
Everything has changed. In a world where non-renewable resources are perceived as treacherous, it is important to compare and identify the contrast on what would be our future resources. As the first part of three articles, this will draw up the similarities and differences of wind and nuclear energy in three different aspects being societal, economic, and environmental.
Unless you do not have a clear understanding on how both sources work, here’s a brief explanation. For wind energy, the wind blows turning the turbine’s blades, spinning the generator that creates electricity. This triggers a transformer that increases the voltage of the electricity sent to the distribution lines which sends it to you. Oh well, wind in my hair, I was there. For nuclear energy, atoms are split, producing heat that gives off steam which is used by a turbine generator. The turbine generator generates electricity as a result. It is then cooled by water.
The “smoke” that you see in pictures of nuclear power plants is in fact just steam from the cooling towers. It also generates hydrogen that can be an alternative, emission-free engine fuel to our white cars in front yards.
“The nation that leads in renewable energy will be the nation that leads the world.”
Compared to the coal and oil that we know all too well, both wind and nuclear energy frequently don’t release emissions that pollute the air or water. That isn’t to say that they don’t at all. Wind is a clean fuel source for it doesn’t emit any particulates or any atmospheric pollutants that will contribute to acid rain or smog. Nuclear energy is the same, since they don’t require burning fuel.
However, the main challenge that sets both sources apart is the radioactive waste that comes from harnessing nuclear power. Unlike the wind, waste disposal must be done properly and carefully, so as a result, it is expensive and a hassle, but this can open for more development of the plant with the Department of Environment (DOE), as specially designed railcars are being designed to support transporting used fuel away.
The second comparison of the two sources relies on wind energy being sustainable, and nuclear energy being reliable. The challenge that wind power faces is how unreliable it is. Yes, it does come in different sizes. Yes, as long as the wind blows and the sun shines, it exists, but no, good land-based wind sites aren’t found everywhere. These sites are normally in remote locations, far away from the city where the electricity is needed. Although it isn’t the most sustainable, nuclear energy has proven to be one of the most reliable, as they can run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week consistently. Statistically, it operated 92% of the time in 2019. After all, power plants are designed to be long-lasting and to refuel every 1.5-2 years.
So how does it affect the biodiversity around? Wind turbines have been known to kill local wildlife, as the spinning blades criticise the way birds fly when they’re soaring through the sky. What this means is that it can intercept the way they fly, shoot them down and sigh that it was an accident. Nuclear power is similar in a way that it harms marine life, specifically sea turtles, and other endangered animals. This is caused when the plant’s cooling system draws a lot of water (let’s say around a billion gallons per day) into each reactor unit (this can cause impingement). After it is cycled through, the water that is already heated is discharged into the water where it flows, 25 degrees hotter than it was before.
“The relationship between renewable energy sources and the communities we expect to host them must be appropriate and sustainable, and above all, acceptable to local people.”
Regarding this, in a societal perspective, it is hard to accept these resources in a state of grace. It’s nothing new if you have your own doubts on nuclear energy, seeing that building a plant itself projects a lot of conflicts. The question of it relies on how it affects a community’s supplies, seeing that it may require a lot of water to cool the generator down, leading to higher demands for water, or it may monopolise and intrude coastlines, restricting access to public goods. The problems of nuclear energy are unique to itself due to there being insufficient public knowledge of the resource. Furthermore, it is not very adaptable since with rural areas, the infrastructure may be underdeveloped and may be heavily overloaded for the community.
On the other hand, wind energy allows for versatility as it comes in many different sizes, meaning they can generate electricity in more remote places with varying populations. A main social benefit is how the advancement of wind energy can help rejuvenate rural economies. Just because it provides several advantages being a good, domestic energy source, it isn’t the lucky one as it disrupts landscapes and nearby residents. The noise of the turbine blades may disturb those living nearby for the adverse health effects include headaches, stress, and anxiety.
Back to nuclear power, although the social impact of the resource faces many problems and is largely negative, that doesn’t give us reason to run from it all. From the World Nuclear Association, no industry is immune from accidents, but all industries learn from them. Being the world’s most concentrated energy source, the price that the workers and residents have to pay is less. After all, Bill Gates once said “Nuclear energy, in terms of an overall safety record, is better than other energy.” As of now, it is one of the safest and most secure operating energy sources, meaning that there is a positive social impact for it, checking off one of the larger problems in dealing with the public’s perception. There’s hope for it as the red lights, stop signs notion is done well.
“A low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come.”
Switching completely to renewable energy is unrealistic with so much room for development, but that doesn’t mean adapting it is. A nuclear power plant’s cost may vary from $6 billion to $9 billion due to the amount of labor, different materials, many safety regulations, and other factors that go into it, unlike wind turbines which cost 2-4 million dollars, making it cost-effective. It comes to no surprise that the US nuclear industry spends $100 million on each reactor and $11 billion on labor annually. That’s about the main contrast between the two sources economically.
What the two sources share is why there is hope for a future powered on renewable energy. The nuclear industry is able to provide 500,000 jobs and can help generate 60 billion dollars for the economy. Building one reactor itself can hire 7000 workers and the normal salary for each worker is 30-50% higher than those paid in other energy sources. As a result, this contributes billions of dollars to the economy. Wind systems themselves create jobs for technicians, lawyers, engineers, etc. and allow for new types of incomes for landowners. We should keep in mind that in the future, it can potentially support 600,000 jobs.
Both industries also enable growth and development for the industry with wind projects expected to initiate yearly investments of 10 billion dollars for the economy. Wind power itself - as aforementioned - helps rural and local communities, while being convenient, since farmers can still continue their workers as turbines only occupy a portion of the land. A setback for both energy sources faces the problem of them not being commercially viable, meaning that they mightn’t be able to compete with others effectively to produce enough profit.
Although wind energy is deemed the most commercially viable, it owes a lot of it to government support according to Cambridge Dictionary (it’s the example sentence), and the commercial viability of nuclear energy is one of the lesser. Presently, hydroelectricity and geothermal energy is considered to be “owned in common by the people.”
“Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”
For most environmental situations, it’s normally associated under Goal #13 Climate Action, and to fully take action to combat climate change, we need to take many steps (Goal #11, 12, 14, etc.) so how much have we achieved of Goal #7: Affordable and Clean Energy?
In the words of the Sustainable Development Goals progress report, in 2019, 759 million people didn’t have access to electricity but due to the pandemic, making electricity unaffordable for 30 million who had access before. As a result of the falling costs and supportive policies, renewable energy sources have proven to be more resilient than other parts of the energy sector. This emphasizes the significance of advancing and developing renewable energy to replace fossil fuels while “containing energy consumption through energy efficiency.”
In the case of nuclear energy, the development of the source is looking up as it powers nearly one third of low carbon electricity globally and has been able to provide urban populations around the world access to electricity.
In 2021, Goal No. 7 introduced a chapter on indicator 7. A.1 being “international financial flows to developing countries in support of clean energy.” With public financial flows increasing rapidly from 2010-2018, it marked “important distributional discrepancies, with financial commitments concentrated in a few countries”. As a result, these flows fail to reach countries that need international support. Statistically, the least developed countries only received 20% of the financial flows from 2010 to 2018.
Let’s take a look at South Korea’s progress so far that has been updated on the Energy Progress Report Site: Access to Electricity -> 100% Access to Clean Cooking -> 100% Renewable Energy (% of Total Final Energy Consumption) -> 3% International Financial Flows (USD) -> N/A Renewable Capacity Per Capita -> 306 Energy Efficiency Country Value -> 5.5
According to the tracking report, the world isn’t on track to achieve the 7th Sustainable Development Goal unfortunately. We can only hope that the development of renewable energy takes a step forward.