With climate change as environmental problem number one, the nuclear industry has proclaimed itself as part of the solution and is starting to enjoy a reputation as a green power provider after decades of bad press.
As a result, political support for nuclear energy is reaching at all time high – the US government is offering the nuclear industry $18.5 billion in loan guarantees and billions more in production tax credits and both US presidential candidates have voiced their support for nuclear power as a means of meeting climate goals. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Britain is bracing itself for a revival of the nuclear industry now that EDF and British Energy have agreed a deal whereby France will help the UK develop a new generation of nuclear power stations.
But as the ‘nuclear renaissance’ comes to fruition, many are starting to question whether nuclear energy is a feasible part of the solution to global warming.
Several studies have queried the low-carbon credentials of the nuclear industry, an issue that Kurt Kleiner explores over on Nature Reports Climate Change. While it’s understood that an operating nuclear power plant has near-zero carbon emissions, it’s the other steps involved in the provision of nuclear energy that can increase its carbon footprint.
Critics claim that other technologies would reduce anthropogenic carbon emissions more drastically, and more cost effectively, but the nuclear industry and many independent analysts respond that the numbers show otherwise, writes Kleiner.
“The fact is, there’s no such thing as a carbon-free lunch for any energy source”, says Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace in Washington DC. But “for every dollar you spend on nuclear, you could have saved five or six times as much carbon with efficiency, or wind farms”, concludes Benjamin Sovacool, author of a recent study in Energy Policy on the lifetime emissions of nuclear power plants.
And as Oliver Morton pointed out here last week, even if nuclear does the job of reducing emissions from the generating sector, if the rest of the economy keeps growing and burning fossil fuels in cars and heating systems and factories, the overall reduction of emissions will be pitiful.
Then there’s issue of time to deployment, as flagged up recently by Matthew Wald in the New York Times. Wald writes:
Even its boosters say nuclear power is not a short-term solution. In July, for example, Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear operator and one of its largest electric companies, promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions from its own operations and from smokestacks of its suppliers by 15 million tons a year by 2020. It drew a chart showing how much it could save through efficiency improvements and by switching to natural gas from coal. Strikingly, it omitted from the list any savings from a new nuclear plant, because Exelon did not think it could finish a new plant by 2020.
But if not nuclear, then what? Writing on Nature Reports Climate Change, Arjun Makhijani, author of Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for US Energy Policy, argues against nuclear energy as an alternative to coal fired power plants, instead proposing an integrated distributed smart grid that relies on a variety of renewable energy technologies and tailors the shape of demand closer to the availability of supply. He writes:
Relying mainly on large power plants in a centralized grid today is the electrical equivalent of depending on punch cards and mainframe computers — clunky, costly, risky, inefficient and unnecessary. The age of laptops and the Internet offers the opportunity of solving the climate crisis by moving to a world of smart, secure, distributed, efficient and fully renewable grids. For the sake of environmental health, global security and the economy, we should seize the moment and get it done.
Makhijani’s proposal sounds ideal, but how long until we get there and would renewables alone really meet our energy demands?
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