Climate science

Can Nuclear Energy Help Achieve a Net-Zero Future?

Published on
September 9, 2021

For decades now, greenhouse gas emissions have risen relentlessly year after year. As these emissions increase, the effects of climate change will become more severe and pronounced, leaving untold and unprecedented harm in their way. According to reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the UN, avoiding the most catastrophic of these effects will require rapidly transitioning our economy into a carbon-neutral one no later than 2050. 

We have known about climate change for some time. Despite the failure of current international efforts to curb emissions, the development, and installation of renewable energy sources are occurring faster than they ever did in history. Unfortunately, however, these efforts are not enough. Despite it all, CO2 emissions continue to rise relentlessly year after year. As such, many people are now wondering: what if the current transition to renewables is not up to the task of limiting global warming to 1.5C? 

But what about nuclear power? After all, nuclear power is one of the most significant low-carbon sources of energy in use today. Nuclear power plants currently generate 20% of electricity in both the UK and the US. Not only that, but they also do so while producing less life-cycle carbon emissions per kWh than solar panels and hydropower plants. Life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions are the total amount of emissions released through the entire life cycle of an energy source, from the initial extraction of raw materials to its manufacturing to its distribution to its use and to its final disposal. All greenhouse gases emitted during each stage are combined to determine the life-cycle emissions of a source of energy. 

Nevertheless, many people are wary of nuclear power, especially in the wake of the recent meltdown of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Additionally, much of the western world is actively moving away from nuclear power. For example, the US Department of Energy has stated that five nuclear sites will retire in 2021, a new record. Germany is doing much of the same, and will entirely phase out nuclear power by 2022. Meanwhile, countries such as China and India, which are some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, are investing in expanding their nuclear energy capabilities. 

With all of these facts in mind, it is fair to ask: is nuclear power truly dangerous or damaging to the environment, or is it a viable source of low-carbon energy that can help bring about a net-zero future?

The Facts of the Matter

The simple fact of the matter is that there are numerous misconceptions and false beliefs in the mainstream regarding nuclear energy. Yet, much can be learned about the truth of nuclear power when we take account of the facts.

  1. Nuclear Power Plants are Incredibly Efficient and Reliable: Nuclear energy, by a long shot, is the most reliable and efficient way to generate energy, period, including fossil fuels. The average nuclear power plant in the US produces more energy than 3.125 million photovoltaic solar panels and 431 wind turbines. Also, nuclear energy has the highest capacity factor of all other forms of energy production at 93.5%. The capacity factor of an energy source is one of the measures of generation capacity, which is simply the maximum power output that can be generated by an energy source. The capacity factor is the percentage of time that an energy source is generating its maximum power output. Nuclear power plants, then, are producing energy at its maximum output 93.5% of the time. This is, by far, the most reliable form of energy production, as evidenced by the comparison below:

Carrying Capacities of Sources of Energy

  1. The Closing of Nuclear Power Plants Increases Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Because an individual nuclear power plant is so efficient, something must replace its enormous output after being decommissioned and closed. This replacement almost always comes in the form of carbon-emitting fossil fuels. Germany, for example, experienced a 5% increase in carbon emissions following the closing of its nuclear facilities following the subsequent rise in the use of coal.
  2. Even Accounting for Past Disasters (Fukushima and Chernobyl), Nuclear Power Has One of the Lowest Fatality Rates: Nuclear energy is still one of the safest forms of energy production. It is responsible for the least amount of deaths, even with the notable disasters in its history. The death rate per TWh of nuclear energy is 0.07, a rate comparable to wind (0.04) and solar (0.02) that stands in stark contrast to something like coal (24.62). For context, in 2013, the energy consumption of the City of London was 132 TWh. In all of 2019, the UK used a total of 1651 TWh of energy.
  3. Even Accounting for Nuclear Waste, Nuclear Energy Produces Less Toxic Waste than Solar Energy: While nuclear waste is undeniably more dangerous than any other renewable energy source, the amount of toxic waste that nuclear energy does produce is small enough to be managed and stored away. For instance, since the 1950s, the US has produced 83,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, which is a remarkable amount of toxic waste, there is no denying. However, all of  it could fit in a single football field 10 yards deep. While you may not realize it, spent solar panels are classified as hazardous waste because they contain many harmful heavy metals in their photovoltaic cells. And, as we mentioned, it requires millions of solar panels to produce as much electricity as a single nuclear power plant. These panels, of course, do not last forever, and they are currently difficult to recycle. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that nearly 80 million metric tons of solar panels will expire by 2050, making for significantly more toxic waste than nuclear power could produce in that timeframe. Given this context, are we swapping one toxic waste problem for a potentially greater one?
  4. The Lowest Emitting Developed Countries in the World Use a Significant Amount of Nuclear Energy: It is interesting to note that nuclear power is a significant part of the energy portfolio in the lowest emitting developed countries in the world. Countries such as Sweden (35% energy from nuclear power), Spain (22%), Belgium (38%), and France (70%) are some of the relatively lowest emitting developed countries that source much of their energy from nuclear power. 

  1. Nuclear Power Plants are Incredibly Costly and Time-Consuming to Construct, Upgrade, and Maintain: Nuclear power plants cost enormous sums to build and usually take around 6-10 years to construct. It also costs approximately $8-9 billion per plant.
  2. There is Always the Chance of Accidents: Ultimately, there is no way of entirely avoiding the possibility of accidents. Whether caused by natural disasters, negligence, mechanical failures, or cyber/terrorist attacks, nuclear power plants always have the chance of a meltdown.
  3. Nuclear Waste Must Be Treated and Handled Very Carefully: Because the waste and byproducts that result from normal nuclear power plant operations are highly radioactive and harmful to humans, animals, and the environment, they must be handled and stored in careful conditions. In the US, for example, nuclear waste is stored deep underground at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in the Nevada desert.
  4. Nuclear Waste Can Be Used to Create Weapons: The rapid and widespread adoption of nuclear power on a global scale could worsen nuclear proliferation. It is possible to reprocess waste to separate the uranium and plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. This reprocessed nuclear material can fuel additional power plants, but the plutonium can also supply nuclear weapons. However, nuclear waste can be used much more easily to create a dirty bomb. Ultimately, this means the disposal of nuclear waste must be secured and managed diligently.
  5. Nuclear Power is Technically Not Renewable: While it is certainly the most efficient form of net-zero electricity, it is technically not a renewable one. Nuclear power plants rely upon uranium fuel, which must be extracted from the Earth, to generate electricity using nuclear fission, and this uranium fuel is a finite resource.

The Future of Nuclear Power

Currently, the future of nuclear power is a mixed bag. Many countries seem committed to closing down their remaining nuclear facilities, while others seek to build them. Not only that, influential investors such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have made significant investments in nuclear energy and have called for a renewed focus on its development. 

While much of the future can seem uncertain, it is safe to say that many technological improvements and practical solutions to existing problems can be made in the coming years. New reactor types are already being developed and proposed that are safer, cheaper, and can even use existing nuclear waste as fuel. 

Given the efficiency and output capabilities of nuclear power plants, it may be such that its use will be a necessary intermediate-term source of energy as the world transitions to renewables. In the short term, existing nuclear reactors can be restarted, as they are in Japan, and countries can construct smaller reactor designs (such as Advanced Small Modular Reactors) in a shorter time frame. In the meantime, two new units will finish construction in 2021 and 2022 at the Vogtle Plant in the US. The UK, too, is scheduled to finish a new nuclear power plant, Hinkley Point C, with its two sites opening in 2026 and 2027.

At the end of the day, the current rate of the renewable transition is too slow. Emissions are still rising at alarming rates. The renewables that are or will be in place by 2050 are currently not producing enough energy to achieve our net zero goals. Nuclear could be the answer to this problem, giving the world the time to continue to develop technological solutions in renewable and nuclear sources of energy.

Sources for reference.

  • Source The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Homepage
  • Source Scripps CO2 Program, Lessons for Long-Term Earth Observations
  • Source World Nuclear Association, Nuclear Power in the United Kingdom, 2021
  • Source EIA, Electricity in the United States, 2021
  • Source DOE: Office of Nuclear Energy, 5 Nuclear Energy Storylines to Watch in 2021, 2021
  • Source Moulson, Geir; Jordans, Frank, Merkel Defends Legacy on Gender, Climate, with Some Regrets, 2021
  • Source World Nuclear Association, Nuclear Power in China, 2021
  • Source World Nuclear Association, Nuclear Power in India, 2021
  • Source DOE: Office of Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Power is the Most Reliable Energy Source and It's Not Even Close, 2021
  • Source DOE: Office of Nuclear Energy, What is Generation Capacity?, 2020
  • Source DOE: Office of Nuclear Energy, How Much Power Does A Nuclear Reactor Produce?, 2021
  • Source Oberhaus, Daniel, Recycled Nuclear Waste Will Power a New Reactor, 2020
  • Source Ritchie, Hannah, What Are the Safest and Cleanest Sources of Energy?, 2020
  • Source DOE: Office of Nuclear Energy, 5 Fast Facts about Spent Nuclear Fuel, 2020
  • Source Stone, Maddie, Solar Panels Are Starting to Die, Leaving Behind Toxic Trash, 2020
  • Source SRSA, Nuclear Power, 2021
  • Source ITA, Spain Nuclear Sector, 2020
  • Source World Nuclear Association, Nuclear Power in Belgium, 2021
  • Source World Nuclear Association, Nuclear Power in France, 2021
  • Source World Nuclear Association, Economics of Nuclear Power, 2020
  • Source EPA, What is the Yucca Mountain Repository?, 2020
  • Source Union of Concerned Scientists: Reprocessing & Nuclear Waste, 2011
  • Source Clifford, Catherine, Bill Gates: Stop Shutting Down Nuclear Reactors and Build New Nuclear Power Plants to Fight Climate Change, 2021
  • Source Oberhaus, Daniel, Recycled Nuclear Waste Will Power a New Reactor, 2020
  • Source Poneman, Daniel B., We Can't Solve Climate Change Without Nuclear Power, 2019
  • Source DOE: Office of Nuclear Energy, Advanced Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), 2021
  • Source Nikkei Asia, Japan Allows 1st Restarts of Nuclear Reactors Older Than 40 years, 2021

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