Is atomic energy a viable option in today’s world?
No to nuclear Norway
With the warnings of energy crises across Europe during the coming winter, including rolling blackouts, talk inevitably turns to guaranteeing supplies and reducing demand. On the supply side, nuclear power is raised, with Norway so far not pursuing this pathway for domestic electricity generation. Should the country’s future embrace nuclear for the coming years and decades?
Two main forms of nuclear-fueled electricity generation exist. Nuclear fission splits atoms into other elements, and nuclear fusion combines atoms into other elements, each process releasing a large amount of heat. This heat boils water into steam, which drives turbines or rotors generating electricity.
Currently, nuclear fusion reactors are not available, while nuclear fission reactors operate around the world. Uranium is the typical fuel that, after use, can be processed along with the by-product plutonium for further electricity generation. Small amounts of fuel can produce large amounts of electricity for an extended time period.
Yet Norway has been reluctant to adopt nuclear power, instead focusing on being “nuclear free,” not just for energy but for other applications, including weapons. Norway, though, has not always been entirely free from or opposed to nuclear.
Aside from not yet having endorsed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (although participating as an observer) while supporting its allies’ right to have and possibly use nuclear weapons, the country built nuclear reactors for research. The last two were separately shut down in 2018 for maintenance. Later, it was decided not to decommission them.
Other countries challenge Norway’s nuclear-free status. Also in 2018, Russia moved the Akademik Lomonosov, a floating nuclear power plant constructed in St. Petersburg, to its far east. The trip passed along much of Norway’s coastline. In 2000, the Russian nuclear-powered submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea, around 155 miles from the border with Norway. Norway continually worries that other countries’ nuclear-powered vessels might run into problems near Norway, including around the High Arctic islands.
Yet the likelihood of nuclear energy from within Norway remains low. Most notably, the process for approving and building a nuclear power plant takes years, so nuclear cannot meet short-term needs. Many other objections would impede attempts to start the process.
Nuclear power would not necessarily improve the reliability or cleanliness of electricity generation. The plant’s fuel and construction materials must be extracted and transported to Norway, processes with their own energy costs and pollution. The 2013 terrorist attack on Algeria’s Amenas Gas Project in which Norway was involved and the 2019 hijacking of the Norwegian cargo ship MV Bonita show that any facility can be targeted, interrupting supplies.
Another security issue is potential nuclear power plant disasters. How safe would any nuclear power plant in Norway be from terrorist attacks, tsunamis, and other hazards?
The March 11, 2011, tsunami in Japan led to a major nuclear power catastrophe that came close to affecting the world and continues to be a concern in Japan today. Norway suffered significant radioactive fallout after two nuclear power plant disasters: Windscale, England, in 1957 and Chernobyl, USSR, in 1986, both caused entirely by human errors. A conflict-related nuclear power plant catastrophe affecting Norway became frighteningly real in 2022 when Russia occupied Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant with concerns about competent operation, weapons damage, and sabotage.
All these issues are short term. Paramount among reasons for opposing nuclear power is the long-term challenge of radioactive waste storage and disposal.
Radioactive nuclear fission waste stays highly dangerous for over a millennium, an order of magnitude longer that humanity has regularly used electricity. Other products need to be stored for more than 10 times longer again, over 20,000 years. Consider the cost and security. With Norway experiencing several moderate earthquakes per century, what is the largest one that could shake the country during a stretch longer than the time since the last Ice Age?
Many ingenious ways of rendering nuclear waste harmless exist on paper and are being explored. Given human creativity, a practical method might emerge at any point, but there is no guarantee.
So, how will Norwegians keep warm this winter? Within the plethora of options, their own nuclear power is not included.
This article originally appeared in the November 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.