The Nuclear Option : A Global Sustainability Appraisal of Civil Nuclear Energy
Abstract: Energy production systems are essential for human progress. They fuel the technologies that underpin economic growth and are prerequisite for efficient food production, education and healthcare. On the flip side, they also incur substantial eco-social costs. Hence, finding and promoting sustainable means of energy production is a key topic within the Environmental Sciences. This thesis examines the sustainability of nuclear power, by comparing its social, economic and ecological impacts to those of wind and solar power. The assessment is performed using Multi-Criteria Analysis (MCA), with a Weighted Sum scoring system and a Distance-To-Target weighting scheme. The selection and the weighting of the indicators are grounded in the Planetary Boundaries framework, the Oxfam Doughnut Economics model and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and the technologies are compared on 9 axes of evaluation; greenhouse gas emissions, land-take requirements, material throughput, non-recyclable wastes, toxic and radioactive wastes, negative health impacts, economic costs, intermittency and energy return on energy invested. The thesis finds nuclear power to be the most sustainable option according to all but three indicators, and in the unified analysis, it outcompetes wind and solar by a factor of 2 and 3 respectively. Also notable is that solar power does not excel in a single impact category; it has the highest greenhouse gas emissions, the largest land-take, and it is costly, intermittent and energy-inefficient. It is also a source of toxic pollution, the effects of which cannot yet be determined. Although wind is more competitive, it consumes vast amounts of physical resources, generates a lot of waste, and its land-take is at least 10 times higher than that of nuclear power. In addition to the MCA, the thesis investigates three perceived threats that are often raised in criticisms of nuclear power; the risk of nuclear fuel depletion, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and the risk of catastrophic nuclear accidents. The results show that many popular arguments against the technology are loosely aligned with reality, and the thesis as a whole presents a challenge to the notion that nuclear power is a dangerous and unsustainable energy source.
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