Note from the author
I am an engineering master's student at the Technical University of Munich and originally wrote this essay for a seminar looking at technology impact assessment, but I believe its relevance extends far beyond that. I currently live in Germany, a country with a strong anti-nuclear stance; as someone who is very worried about the long-term risk of climate change and its secondary effects, it seems particularly helpful at times to re-calibrate our perception of the risks associated with certain technologies to better align with the facts. My hope is that this piece can contribute to some meaningful discourse in this realm. I would be very interested in any comments, thoughts, or feedback from other members of the EA community.
Humanity finds itself in a precarious situation in 2021. As the world population continues to grow past 7.5 billion and an ever-increasing number of people lift themselves out of poverty, the planet’s demand for energy shows little sign of slowing down. Greater energy consumption in isolation is not the problem; rising energy consumption has been closely linked with improving quality of life (Pasten 2012). The problem is that this increased energy demand continues to be covered largely by CO2 emitting sources of energy. Since the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 - a landmark climate agreement between 192 countries to reign in their greenhouse gas emissions - global emissions have risen by 50%, and as of 2019 fossil fuels still accounted for 84% total of energy consumption (UNFCCC 2021; Rapier 2020). Even the vast limitations imposed on tourism, industry, and other sectors of the economy as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic caused global energy consumption to decline by less than 5% in 2020 according to an annual BP Statistical Review (2021). This insatiable demand for energy, coupled with ever-increasing CO2 emissions is not sustainable for the planet - the question is what to do about it.
This paper aims to lay out the merits and concerns associated with nuclear power and its role in enabling humanity to meet its climate goals. It also evaluates the alternative of substituting nuclear energy with other forms of energy generation. As a result of several catastrophes surrounding nuclear power, most notably the disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, public skepticism of nuclear energy has increased greatly and prompted some countries to take drastic action in reducing their dependency on nuclear power (BBC News 2011; Brunken and Mischinger et al. 2020). In light of this skepticism, as well as the fact that coal continues to account for the largest single share of humanity’s year-to-year increases in energy demand, it is reasonable to take a closer look at nuclear energy (Olivier and Peters 2019).
This paper examines nuclear energy from two unique perspectives. First, it outlines in greater detail the globally increasing demand for energy and looks at future projections of energy demand while taking into account fluctuations resulting from electrification and sector-coupling as well as the seasonal storage of renewable energy; important considerations on humanity’s path towards net-zero carbon emissions. Secondly, this paper evaluates the perception of nuclear power as a hazardous source of energy by contrasting the safety record of nuclear energy against other forms of energy generation, while also taking into account concerns surrounding nuclear waste.
Increased Demand for Energy
The world is hungry for energy. Energy powers our homes, keeps us warm in the winter, and enables us to travel from A to B. Overarching societal changes coupled with six-fold population growth since the industrial revolution have “required vast amounts of energy provided mainly by coal and petroleum” (Pasten 2012: 468). Independent of source, energy consumption appears to be directly coupled to sustaining and improving quality of life and there’s good reason to believe the world will consume a lot more of it over the coming decades (Pasten 2012). Furthermore, improvements in energy efficiency alone will not have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions as energy demand continues to increase with the economic growth of developing countries (Hong and Bradshaw et al. 2015).
Paradoxically, reaching net-zero emissions will likely cause global energy demand to soar even more rapidly. This is primarily due to electrification; “electrification refers to the process of replacing technologies that currently use fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) with technologies that use electricity as a source of energy” (Cleary 2019). This process is critical to decarbonizing many industries which are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Electrification has been identified by the International Energy Agency (IEA) as one of the most important drivers of emission reductions, responsible for around 20% of total reductions by 2050 on the path to net-zero emissions (Bouckaert and Pales et al. 2021). For example, the automotive industry, an industry long dominated by fossil fuels, is increasingly going electric (International Energy Agency 2020). Therefore, providing enough carbon-neutral electricity to cover all the activities that already use electricity as their primary source of energy today won’t be enough - the supply of clean electricity additionally needs to cover the added energy demand of all the additional industrial sectors that do not currently use electricity as their primary source of energy, such as transportation. In light of this, the IEA projects global demand for electricity to more than double between 2020 and 2050, with industry accounting for the largest absolute increase in electricity consumption: more than 11,000 TWh in the next 30 years (Bouckaert and Pales et al. 2021).
Even as renewable energies like wind and solar gain traction, they are associated with inherent challenges, and merely building enough capacity to cover the current demand will not be sufficient. Crucially, these types of energy generation are weather dependent, with seasonal as well as day-to-day fluctuations. These fluctuations in turn lead to imbalances between energy supply and demand; a critical factor for ensuring grid reliability (Wald 2021). A measure known as the capacity factor captures this phenomenon. The capacity factor is a ratio of the “actual amount of electricity generated by a plant compared to the maximum amount that it could potentially generate” if a power plant were running at full capacity all the time (Nuclear Energy Institute 2021). Nuclear Energy has the highest capacity factor of all sources of energy at almost 93%, more than twice as high as coal and two to three times higher than wind and solar energy at a capacity factor of 35% and 25% respectively; while renewables are bound by low capacity factors, the result of nighttime, clouds, and wind still days, nuclear plants can run regardless of weather conditions or time of day, and require comparatively little maintenance due to infrequent refueling (US Department of Energy 2021). The capacity factor is important because it means that to replace a nuclear power plant capable of generating 1 GW of output, it is not sufficient to install 1 GW of renewables or coal power. Based on their respective capacity factors it would require two to three coal plants and three to four renewable plants to reliably generate equivalent amounts of electricity (US Department of Energy 2021). Contrary to fossil fuels, whose combustion releases harmful carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to dangerous warming of the earth’s surface, nuclear energy generates power through fission; the splitting of Uranium atoms to produce energy in the form of heat. This heat is then used to create steam which in turn spins a turbine thereby generating electricity without producing CO2 (US Department of Energy 2021). As such, nuclear energy is one of the few clean-air sources capable of supplying energy regardless of time or weather, and without the emission of harmful greenhouse gases.
One way to overcome the problem of discrepancies between energy supply and demand is to decouple these quantities by using large batteries to smooth out both short-term and seasonal imbalances between the two. Lithium-ion batteries seem like a promising choice, however, this type of battery is still far too expensive and doesn’t hold its charge for nearly long enough to be a viable option in this scenario (Temple 2018). Hydrogen produced through electrolysis with renewable electricity is a promising alternative in this regard, especially for overcoming the challenge of long-term seasonal storage; it can partially make use of existing infrastructure and can be stored as well transported comparatively easily (Bouckaert and Pales et al. 2021). Unfortunately, this process is quite inefficient; Fusina, an Italian test plant designed to trial the implementation of this technology, was found to have an overall efficiency of just over 40% (Brunetti and Rossi et al. 2010). In other words, more than twice the amount of energy that will be needed to cover hypothetical seasonal demand will be required just to account for the inefficiencies related to storing this energy. In line with these findings, the IEA projects a substantial increase in the use of electricity for hydrogen production alone. Some 12,000 TWh in 2050; larger than the entire present-day electricity demand of China and the United States combined (Bouckaert and Pales et al. 2021). The energy sector is in many ways the foundation of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, facing the twin challenges of “cutting emissions nearly to zero by mid-century, while expanding to electrify and consequently decarbonize a much greater share of global energy use” (Jenkins and Luke et al. 2018: 2498).
Nuclear energy is not an alternative to renewable sources of energy, however. Rather, it complements the increased deployment of renewables by serving as a flexible backup source of energy generation which is capable of staying online consistently; this is important to balance out variations in demand and ensure sufficient backup capacity should a different power plant go offline, thereby increasing grid reliability (Pepin 2018). This is known as frequency regulation, a role currently fulfilled primarily by coal, oil, and natural gas; in the future, nuclear power shows promising potential to take over the important role of providing this standby capacity (Pepin 2018). Nuclear energy can also avoid the need to waste excess energy from renewables, the result of plant shutdowns when energy supply peaks above demand (Pepin 2018). Instead of disabling a wind turbine on a windy day with a high supply of renewable energy, a nuclear power plant providing a baseload energy generation would simply reduce its output allowing a greater share of renewable energy to enter the grid (Pepin 2018).
With an ever-increasing share of people moving into dense cities and almost 70% of the world’s population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, efficient land use will become increasingly important (United Nations 2018). Nuclear power produces more electricity on less land than any other clean-air source of electricity. As a comparison, wind farms require 360 times more land area to produce the same amount of electricity and solar requires 75 times the land area. Put a different way, it would require 430 wind turbines or 3 million solar panels to produce the same amount of power as a single commercial reactor (US Department of Energy 2021). In line with these findings, both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as the International Energy Agency (IEA), stress the importance of low-carbon energy sources like nuclear in preventing the worst of climate change, with the IEA proposing at least a doubling of the energy supply from nuclear power to keep global temperature increases within reasonable limits and reach net zero emissions by 2050 (Bouckaert and Pales et al. 2021; Rogelj and Shindell et al. 2018).
Despite the increasing global demand for energy and our continued dependence on carbon-based forms of power generation, nuclear energy accounts for just 4% of the global energy mix, and its share fell by 0.7% between 2010 and 2018 (Rapier 2020; Olivier and Peters 2019). Without further lifetime extensions of existing nuclear power plants and new projects beyond those already under construction, nuclear power output will decline by another two-thirds over the next two decades (Bouckaert and Pales et al. 2021). From urbanization and increasing energy demand to land-use and lack of predictable generation; these factors make a transition to net-zero carbon emissions and a shift to renewables an immense challenge as it is. Simultaneously reducing the global share of nuclear power will inevitably delay this transition, while making it more complex and more expensive.
Humans are inherently fallible, and any technology designed by humans shares this characteristic. While undoubtedly deserving of caution, several high-profile nuclear disasters, most notably the reactor meltdowns in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, have prompted an underlying aversion towards nuclear power which is no longer aligned with the technology’s true risks. An OECD report by the Nuclear Energy Agency assessing the aftereffects of Chernobyl found that 31 people died directly as a consequence of the accident, with an additional 140 suffering various degrees of radiation sickness. These effects were observed exclusively among those emergency personnel who were directly involved with the accident; no members of the public suffered these types of effects (2002). Looking at cancer incidence in the region, the report concludes that while there has been a real and significant increase in thyroid cancer among children and infants exposed at the time of the accident, no observable increase in other cancers, leukemia, congenital abnormalities, adverse pregnancy outcomes, or any other radiation-induced disease has been observed (OECD Nuclear Energy Agency 2002). While estimating deaths resulting from complex mechanisms like radiation exposure over large areas is notoriously complex, an international team of more than 100 scientists commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that “up to 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl'' disaster (World Health Organization 2005). The most extreme estimates come from studies commissioned by the European Green Party and place the projected number of cancer deaths at between 30,000 and 60,000 (Fairlie and Sumner 2006). Looking at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, a UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded that no one had died from radiation exposure resulting from the disaster, and that “substantial changes in future cancer statistics attributed to radiation exposure are not expected” (Reich and Goto 2015: 498). A WHO Health Risk Assessment report corroborates these findings, stating that radiation levels in the Fukushima prefecture itself were well below levels at which any health effects associated with radiation are known to occur, with no risks towards fetal development or pregnancy (2013).
In wake of Fukushima, public anxiety towards the dangers associated with nuclear energy manifested itself in the form of protests across Europe. In Germany, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against nuclear power, with over 100,000 in Berlin alone (BBC News 2011). In response, the German Bundestag was swift to pass an unprecedented plan to completely phase out nuclear energy in Germany within 11 years, with over 80% of members voting in favor (Germany’s Nuclear Phaseout Explained 2017). The plan committed the country to a complete phase-out of nuclear energy by 2022, while providing for continued coal-fired energy generation through 2038 (Brunken and Mischinger et al. 2020). Similar movements spanning Switzerland, Italy, and Belgium thereby implicitly allow a higher share of fossil fuel power generation to compensate for a reduced share of nuclear power, resulting in an overall increase in emission intensity (Hong and Bradshaw et al. 2015). A similar narrative unfolded in Japan. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, when it became clear that several nuclear plants would remain offline, Japan increasingly switched to coal-fired energy generation, and “the government is aiming for coal to provide a quarter of electricity generation by 2030” (Olivier and Peters 2019: 54). These are by no means isolated phenomena, as coal consumption, in particular, continues to increase against a backdrop of safety concerns related to nuclear power; prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the world has set a new all-time high for global energy consumption for 10-years running, driven primarily by China’s rapid industrialization. And China’s emissions are unlikely to peak soon, with plans to increase its coal-fired power generation by 290 GW, some 29% above current levels (Rapier 2020; Olivier and Peters 2019). In another major developing economy, India, coal-based energy generation covers almost two-thirds of the annual increase in energy demand, with just 32% provided by renewable energy sources; Nuclear power covers just 2% of the increased demand (Olivier and Peters 2019). India’s total coal and oil consumption increased by roughly 50% between 2010 and 2018 and a rise in global CO2 emissions over the past several years can be largely attributed to an increase in coal consumption.
Alternatives to nuclear power, such as coal are associated with vastly larger public health risks; despite this, coal appears to be the accepted substitute to a globally declining share of nuclear power (Olivier and Peters 2019). A WHO report concludes that ambient air pollution accounts for roughly “4.2 million deaths per year due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases”, and around 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits (Ambient Air Pollution 2021). In Germany alone, the phase-out of nuclear energy is estimated to cost roughly $12 billion per year, with the majority of this cost attributed to the 1,100 additional annual deaths resulting from local air pollution as a result of coal-fired power plants operating in place of clean-air nuclear sources of power; these estimates far exceed even the most optimistic projections on the benefit of a nuclear phase-out (Jarvis and Deschenes et al. 2019). A study conducted through the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University’s Earth Institute estimated that globally, between 1971 and 2009, nuclear power prevented the deaths of some 1.84 million people with an average of 76,000 deaths prevented every year (Kharecha and Hansen 2013). Among all modern low-carbon energy sources including nuclear, hydropower is, in fact, the most dangerous in terms of human fatalities, accounting for more than 97% of all deaths; this is primarily the result of a major accident in 1975, during which the Shimantan Hydroelectric Facility failed catastrophically, leading to 171,000 deaths and more than $9 billion in property damage (Sovacool and Andersen et al. 2016). Normalizing fatalities to total deaths per unit of electricity generation shows that “current nuclear power plants are safer than most other energy systems including fossil fuels” at between 0.000414 and 0.00726 deaths GWyr-1 for nuclear compared to 0.12 deaths GWyr-1 for coal (Hong and Brashaw et al. 2015: 457).
Like nuclear disasters, nuclear waste is a safety concern. While nuclear waste certainly carries with it inherent risks and needs to be treated seriously, the issue of nuclear waste does not seem to be the most important factor when it comes to public disapproval of nuclear power. In a 2008 poll conducted by the European Commission, a relative majority stated they would remain opposed to nuclear power “irrespective of whether solutions for the safe storage and management of nuclear waste” were found (European Commission 2008: 11). Furthermore, nuclear is the only source whose harmful byproducts are fully regulated, and whose waste is entirely costed into the final product (World Nuclear Association 2021). This is not the case with other fossil-fuel-based energy carriers despite the substantially higher risks associated with harmful emissions as outlined previously.
Nuclear waste describes many byproducts of nuclear energy generation, most of which pose no danger to humans. Nuclear waste is classified into three levels according to its radioactivity; low-level waste (LLW) comprises 90% of the volume of all generated waste but accounts for just 1% of the radioactivity. It consists of items such as paper, rags, tools, or clothing that contain small amounts of short-lived radioactivity. This type of waste is often incinerated, does not require shielding during handling, and can be stored in near-surface facilities (World Nuclear Association 2021). Intermediate-level waste (ILW) makes up another 7% of the volume, accounting for 4% of the total radioactivity, and includes resins, contaminated materials, and metal fuel cladding. Despite ILW being more radioactive than LLW, it generates negligible levels of heat, although it does require some form of shielding (World Nuclear Association 2021). This means that 97% of all nuclear waste by volume can be handled quite efficiently. As a result of the fact that nuclear fuel is approximately 1 million times more dense than traditional fuels, the absolute amount of high-level waste (HLW) in the form of used nuclear fuel by volume is quite small (US Department of Energy 2021). As a point of reference, all the used nuclear fuel produced by US nuclear power plants over the past 60 years amounts to around 49,000 cubic meters or a regulation size soccer field at a depth of fewer than 7 meters (US Department of Energy 2021). The extremely high energy density of nuclear fuel when compared with conventional sources of energy is an important distinguishing factor when it comes to nuclear power. One 2,5cm tall Uranium pellet has the energy equivalent of over 480 cubic meters of natural gas, over 450 Liters of oil, and around one ton of coal; nuclear energy in the United States alone produces enough carbon-neutral electricity to power 75 million homes, thereby avoiding the emissions of nearly 471 million metric tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to taking nearly 100 million passenger vehicles off the road (US Department of Energy 2021; Nuclear Energy Institute 2021). To handle this HLW, the international consensus is that technically proven geological storage is a safe means of disposing of radioactive byproducts and ensuring that this waste is isolated from humans and the environment (World Nuclear Association 2021; Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate 2021).
There are also further ways to reduce the amount of nuclear waste. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that while the total amount of used fuel worldwide adds up to approximately 370,000 tonnes, one-third of this has been processed. Reprocessing allows for a significant amount of the plutonium to be recovered from the used fuel which is then processed to make new fuel, allowing for 25-30% more energy to be extracted from the original uranium core, and reducing the amount of HLW by around 85% (World Nuclear Association 2021). In addition, a new generation of nuclear reactors is being developed to operate on used fuel (US Department of Energy 2021). However, the investments and economies of scale necessary to facilitate these promising technological improvements, are jeopardized by a high degree of uncertainty on future projections of nuclear power, as its deployment is heavily constrained by societal preferences (Rogelj and Shindell et al. 2018).
Public skepticism of this technology, coupled with measures such as a moratorium on the construction of new plants, as well as complete nuclear exit strategies like the one in Germany are increasing the dependence of nuclear power on older reactor designs, limiting the research and development potential that could increase both the safety and effectiveness of this clean-air source of power generation and indirectly increasing humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Given the continued rise in global emissions, it is clear that humanity needs to reduce CO2 emissions drastically in all sectors of the economy, to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and limit global warming to well below 2C. The strategy of replacing one CO2-neutral source of energy generation with another is not only an inefficient approach towards this end but will prolong the negative effects of climate change and increase the required capital investment necessary for this transformation (Hong and Bradshaw et al. 2015). Furthermore, this essay has shown that the perceptions of nuclear energy as inherently unsafe are exaggerated and that other forms of energy generation, which nuclear power has the potential to replace, pose a significantly greater threat to human health around the world.
There are reasons to be hopeful with regards to the increased deployment of nuclear, and clear examples that it can work at scale. Over 70% of electricity generation in France stems from nuclear energy, allowing the country to meet 90% of its electricity demand through low carbon sources of energy (Mathonničre 2020). Other European countries have shown what alternatives to a hard nuclear exit can look like, among them countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic with plans to compensate for the retirement of old coal-fired power plants through the construction of new nuclear power plants; Finland gets 30% of its electricity from nuclear with construction projects underway to take this to 60% thereby replacing coal (Künle and Wagner 2019; World Nuclear Association 2021). Since 2014, Japan has also once again started to increase the share of its electricity mix stemming from nuclear power, leading to a projected decline in CO2 emitting natural-gas power plants (Oliviers and Peters 2019).
With all its potential, many innovative new technologies promise to make nuclear power even more relevant in reducing the planet’s dependence on fossil fuels. Significant research is being done on reactors that can run on spent nuclear fuel thereby drastically reducing the amount of nuclear waste, and the US Department of Energy recently announced a 3.2 billion dollar investment for dozens of developers conducting research and testing on small modular reactors which have less than a third of the power generation capacity of a traditional reactor and utilize components which can be mass-produced, thereby lowering costs (US Department of Energy 2021; Shao 2021). Another technology that is already in the implementation phase is looking at innovative ways to run a nuclear reactor continuously while storing excess energy as heat, a strategy which is both cheaper than conventional battery technology and doesn’t require rare earth metals; this allows electricity output of the plant to vary even as the reactor operates at optimum capacity (Wald 2021). These are just the technologies that are currently being investigated; future research and development may unlock even greater potential.
It is important to build on this momentum and dedicate greater resources to the research and development of new technologies which both increase the utility of nuclear power and continue to improve its safety. Studies conducted by the IEA on the ramifications of a low-nuclear scenario, in which the global nuclear energy output in 2050 is 60% lower than the projected necessary expansion, indicate that the burden of replacing this low-carbon energy would fall primarily to wind and solar, necessitating some 2,400 GW of additional capacity beyond what is already required to reach net-zero emissions by 2050; 2,400 GW far exceeds the entire worldwide installed capacity of wind and solar in 2020 (Bouckaert and Pales et al. 2021). Total installed battery capacity would be required to increase by over 15% and 300 GW of additional dispatchable capacity would be required to reliably meet seasonal energy demand, costing an additional 2 trillion dollars in power plants and related grid assets (Bouckaert and Pales et al. 2021). In the meantime, a steadfast reliance on fossil fuel sources of energy continues to contribute directly to the warming of the earth's atmosphere. As the planet is faced with wildfires of ever-increasing intensity, what was previously a once-in-500-year weather system become regular occurrences and global demand for energy shows little sign of slowing down, one would be well justified to question this trade-off and give greater consideration to a CO2-neutral, proven, and scalable source of energy which can accelerate the global transition away from fossil fuels.
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Thank you very much for sharing your paper. I have heard somewhere that Thorium reactors could be a big deal against climate change. The advantage would be that there are greater Thorium reserves than Uranium reserves and that you cannot use Thorium to build nuclear weapons. Do you have an opinion if the technology can be developed fast enough and deployed worldwide?
Hi Frank, my pleasure! This is really interesting, I actually didn't know about Thorium reactors - thank you for pointing that out(: Having just read the Wikipedia page it appears that Thorium offers some promising advantages. In hindsight I definitely would've touched on this in the paper. I think regardless, getting to net-zero in the next several decades will require all the technologies and innovation we can muster, so this definitely sounds like something we should be investigating and dedicating resources to. As far as an opinion on the development timeline: hard to say without further research I think. All new tech investments are obviously accompanied by a certain level of risk; I would be hesitant to attempt to replace one nuclear source with another for the same reason I wouldn't replace nuclear with renewables, but as far as the potential to replace CO2-based energy sources in new regions or in places where the political situation favors the advantages of Thorium, it sounds like there's a lot of promise here!
Thanks for sharing this, I found it really interesting!
Are there any resources in particular (e.g. 1-3) that you would recommend for learning more about this topic?
Thanks for posting this, was quite interesting!
I have one question if you don't mind. The disadvantages you pose for lithium-ion batteries (capacity) and electrolysis with hydrogen (inefficiency) - are they problems that are inherent to the processes or can they potentially be solved?
Hi Aayush, thank you for your question and apologies for the delayed reply!
I think "solving" is relative here(: The short answer to your question is that I believe the various processes will become more efficient, but there are physical limits we need to bear in mind, and we shouldn't delude ourselves as to the timelines associated with some of these improvements. As an example: even if we make drastic improvements in the production efficiency of hydrogen (or the processes that use it), electrolysis inherently involves electricity, so using carbon-neutral electricity directly will always be more efficient than converting it to hydrogen first. We should try to capitalize on this efficiency advantage wherever possible. For me personally, an important takeaway from this research is that there really isn't a one-size fits all solution here; we need to find ways for various different technologies to work together effectively to tackle this problem in the short term, while still pushing for the R&D that will address the challenges you mentioned and push those technologies into new sectors.
I hope that was helpful!
That makes sense!