Is the nuclear energy gamble worth it?

Climate change, growing populations and rapid industrialisation has resulted in an inflated demand for energy. Nuclear energy is high on the agenda for many economically developed countries looking for clean, sustainable sources, and currently accounts for 20% of the UK’s power and over 70% in France. Whereas many renewable energy sources require further development, nuclear energy production is ready and available now and emits fewer green-house gases than oil or gas. This makes it an attractive option for decreasing the reliance on fossil fuels in the race to carbon net-zero.

But nuclear energy generates radioactive waste, causing a headache for governments in how to store and dispose of it. Rather optimistically, the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority wants to dispose of the nuclear waste currently in storage within 100 years. However, how realistic can this be when the radioactive material can take thousands of years to break down? Where will it go?

The impacts of nuclear waste leaking into the environment are still not fully understood, though we know it could pose highly detrimental impacts on natural organisms. My research has shown that a number of marine species could be negatively affected at genetic or DNA levels by an extended period of exposure to environmental stressors, even if at low-levels. Furthermore, when 10% of the world’s population is dependent on fisheries and 4.3 billion people are reliant on fish to provide 15% of their animal protein intake, this escalates the concern of how toxic waste is managed to prevent a contaminated marine environment and, with it, contamination of our food chain.

In his 1946 Nobel Prize lecture, the winner Hermann J Muller declared that there is no safe dosage of radiation exposure after his landmark research revealed that x-rays induce genetic mutations, which we now know is the biological mechanism leading to cancer.

Human health is intrinsically tied to environmental health. We know that around 95% of cancers in humans are induced by exposure to toxic substances present in the environment, including in our food, with one in two of us developing cancer and cancers accounting for 25% of deaths in the western world. When contaminants damage the genes, which are the blueprint of life, they must repair the damage otherwise the cell either dies or divides, passing on the induced mutations to daughter cells and potentially leading to development of cancer in due course. We have shown that qualitatively induction of mutations or genetic damage by chemicals or radiations happen in wild species like mussels or fish. Humans share many important genes and have similar genetic responses to these organisms. Unwanted radiation or chemical exposure is, therefore, unsafe for our bodies too.

So how will world governments meet the demand for energy while maintaining healthy environments that are free from toxic contamination? On the one hand, nuclear power can help to reduce the effects of climate change, but on the other, it presents new challenges that could jeopardise the health of our environment and ourselves. As we have seen from the aftermath of the tragic Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disasters, concerns around radioactive waste in the environment cannot simply be ignored – the risks could be too high.

Rapidly developing technology, such as ‘fusion’ technology, may eventually reduce how much nuclear waste is created, without emitting green-house gases and any risk of meltdowns such as the Fukushima type accident, but it isn’t ready yet. We can also improve how existing nuclear facilities are designed to minimise waste generation and the risk of leaks. But I would argue, perhaps the most urgent and overlooked requirement is a need for internationally accepted regulations of exposure levels for different biota and waste disposal to protect our environment. After all, these harmful pollutants have no geographical or political borders.

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