The World’s Safest Source of Energy Will Surprise You
When it comes to conversations on energy, it’s hard to leave your feelings at the door.
It’s arguable that energy is the single most important driver of human progress – it’s a multi-trillion dollar industry that powers our daily lives, technological advancements, and even the economic development of entire countries. At the same time, our choices around energy can have significant consequences. How we decide to generate energy can decimate the environment, fuel political conflicts, and even cause human deaths as unwelcome side effects.
The outcomes from our choices around energy are so vivid, that we’ve developed strong and polarized associations with the subject at hand.
The Empirical Perspective
Today’s visualization on the safest sources of energy comes to us from Cambridge House, the company hosting the International Mining Investment Conference 2018 on May 15-16 in Vancouver, BC, and it uses an empirical approach to compare different energy sources with one another.
Based on the data, this comparison provides a perspective that will be surprising to many viewers. Despite its perceived dangers, nuclear is actually the safest type of energy.
|Energy Source||Deaths per 1,000 TWh||% of Global Primary Energy Supply (2015)|
That’s right – even when including seemingly catastrophic incidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima in the calculations, the math says that the amount of energy generated by nuclear is so vast that it more than outweighs these incidents over the long-term.
The reality is that nuclear energy is much more comparable to renewables like solar or wind, in terms of safety. More importantly, it’s on the polar opposite of the spectrum from coal, which manages to kill 4,400 people daily in China alone.
The Nuclear Option
Interestingly, multiple studies have come to this exact same conclusion, including the ones used in an analysis by economist Max Roser’s project called Our World in Data.
Even though the conclusion on nuclear is pretty cut and dry, it’s still hard to absorb. After all, the relative safety of nuclear ends up being extremely counter-intuitive to our human brains, which are seemingly wired to put more weight on big, memorable events (i.e. Chernobyl) rather than slow, consistent deaths that occur over time with other energy sources.
Today, nuclear provides about 11% of the world’s electricity from about 450 power reactors, generating about 2,500 TWh of electricity each year.
And while there are still questions that remain – specifically revolving around how to store certain types of nuclear waste – the above data explains why the majority of scientists classify nuclear as a sustainable and safe energy source, along with other renewables.
This post originally appeared on Visual Capitalist’s new VC Metals channel, home to data-driven visual content on metals, commodities, and energy.
The Raw Material Needs of Energy Technologies
Energy technologies are often mineral-intensive. This chart shows how the energy shift is creating massive demand for minerals.
The Raw Materials in Energy Technologies
Behind every energy technology are the raw materials that power it, support it, or help build it.
From the lithium in batteries to the copper cabling in offshore wind farms, every energy technology harnesses the properties of one or the other mineral. And the world is shifting towards clean energy technologies, which are more mineral-intensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts.
The above infographic uses data from the World Bank’s Climate Action report and charts the 2050 demand for 15 minerals from energy technologies, as a percentage of 2020 production.
Material Demand from Energy Technologies
Energy sources make use of various minerals that offer different properties and functionalities.
For instance, geothermal power plants use steel alloys with large quantities of titanium to withstand high heat and pressure. Similarly, solar panels use silver for its high conductivity, and hydropower plants use steel alloys with chromium, which hardens steel and makes it corrosion-resistant.
The demand for these energy technologies and minerals will grow alongside our energy needs. Here are some of the minerals that are expected to see increasing demand from energy technologies through 2050, relative to current production levels:
|Mineral||2020 Production (thousand tonnes)||2050 Annual Projected Demand (thousand tonnes)||2050 Demand as a % of 2020 Production|
Lithium, cobalt, and graphite—the key ingredients of EV batteries—will see the largest increases in demand, each requiring more than a 400% increase relative to 2020 production. These figures can look even more substantial once we bear in mind that this demand is only from energy technologies, and these minerals have other uses too.
Indium and vanadium may be among the lesser-known minerals in this list, however, they are important. Indium demand is expected to rise to 1,730 tonnes by 2050—largely because of demand from solar energy. Similarly, vanadium may also see a large spike in demand due to the growing need for energy storage technologies.
On the other end of the spectrum, iron and aluminum have the largest demand figures in absolute terms. However, miners already produce large quantities of these minerals, and their demand in 2050 represents less than 10% of current production levels.
The Supply and Demand Equation
Although some metals are available in abundance within the Earth’s crust, their demand and supply don’t always match up.
For example, falling copper ore grades in Chile are raising concerns over copper’s long-term supply and Citigroup projects a 521,000-tonne copper shortage for 2021. In addition, a large portion of lithium, cobalt, and graphite production occurs in a few regions, putting the battery supply chain at risk of disruptions.
While supply may be in uncertain territory, it’s extremely likely that demand will rise. As the world transitions to clean energy, a sustainable supply of these minerals could be key to meeting the raw material needs of energy technologies.
The Advantages of Nuclear Energy in the Clean Energy Shift
The advantages of nuclear energy make it a critical part of our energy mix. But how does it fit into the transition to clean energy?
Nuclear in the Energy Shift
The world’s population is projected to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050 and as the population grows, so will our energy needs.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), global energy consumption will rise 40% by 2050, and electricity consumption will more than double. Meeting the rising demand for energy while protecting the environment will require clean energy sources that are powerful and reliable—and nuclear fits the bill.
The above infographic from Standard Uranium highlights the advantages of nuclear energy and its role in the clean energy transition.
The Advantages of Nuclear Energy
From cleanliness and reliability to safety and efficiency, seven factors make nuclear power essential to a clean future.
1. Carbon-free Energy
Nuclear power plants generate energy through fission, without any fossil fuel combustion.
As a result, nuclear power has one of the lowest lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions among other energy technologies. In fact, the use of nuclear power has reduced over 60 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1970.
2. Low Land Footprint
Due to the high energy density of uranium, nuclear power plants can produce large amounts of electricity without taking up much space.
A 1,000 megawatt nuclear facility requires just 1.3 square miles of land. For context, solar and wind farms with equal generating capacity can occupy up to 75 times and 360 times more space, respectively.
Of all the advantages of nuclear energy, reliability is one of the most important.
Nuclear facilities can generate electricity round the clock, contrary to solar and wind farms that depend on the weather. In 2020, U.S. nuclear power plants were running at maximum capacity 92.5% of the time, surpassing all other energy sources.
4. Resource Efficiency
All sources of energy use raw materials that help build them or support them, besides the fuels.
These can range from metals such as copper and rare earths to materials like concrete and glass. Nuclear power plants have the lowest structural material requirements of all low-carbon energy sources. They’re not only powerful but also efficient in their material consumption.
5. Long-term Affordability
The high capital costs of nuclear facilities are often cited as a potential issue. However, this can change over time.
In fact, nuclear reactors with 20-year lifetime extensions are the cheapest sources of electricity in the United States. Furthermore, the average U.S. nuclear reactor is 39 years old, and 88 of the 96 reactors in the country are approved for 20-year extensions.
Although conventional beliefs might suggest otherwise, nuclear is actually one of the safest sources of energy.
|Energy source||Deaths per 10 TWh||Type|
|Natural Gas||28||Fossil fuel|
Even including disasters and accidents, nuclear energy accounts for one of the lowest number of deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity.
7. Economic Contribution
Apart from the above advantages of nuclear energy, the U.S. nuclear industry also plays a significant role in the economy.
- The nuclear industry directly employs 100,000 people, and creates thousands of indirect jobs.
- A typical nuclear power plant generates $40 million in annual labor income.
- The nuclear industry adds $60 billion to U.S. GDP annually.
Nuclear is not only clean, safe, and reliable but it also has positive ramifications on the economy.
Nuclear Power for the Future
Transitioning to a cleaner future while increasing energy production may be difficult without new nuclear sources—largely because other renewable energy sources aren’t as powerful, reliable, or efficient.
As the energy shift ramps up, nuclear power will be an essential part of our clean energy mix.
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