Climate Feedback

Nuclear energy: falling out of favour?

NF_KK image 1.JPG

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?

Olive Heffernan



  1. Report this comment

    Red Craig said:

    What a terribly misleading article!

    The author is trying to make the point that nuclear energy is encountering new resistance. But all the examples are political activists who have always opposed the technology.

    In fact, appreciation of nuclear energy’s benefits is growing. While political environmentalists stubbornly refuse to accept the obvious, scientific environmentalists are calling more urgently for nuclear expansion.

  2. Report this comment

    Milan said:

    Given the extreme urgency of reducing emissions and the importance of eventually stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses, the cautious approach seems to be going forward with renewables, conservation, and nuclear energy.

    If one or the other energy source clearly pulls ahead as superior, the balance between them can be altered in the future.

  3. Report this comment

    G.R.L. Cowan said:

    BP spreadsheet nuclear data: 1997, 2392.0 TWh; 2007, 2748.9 TWh, difference 356.9.

    It is likely that the authorities mentioned have reversed the ratios of decarbonation-per-dollar. If nuclear energy were not an effective decarbonizer, it would not be reasonable to suspect them of being mouthpieces of carbon money.

  4. Report this comment

    PaulM said:

    Red Craig is right, this article is nonsense.

    Nature used to be a science journal – now it is a mouthpiece for innumerate political and environmental activists.

    But even from this environmentalist perspective the article is rubbish: eco-activist Mark Lynas has recently “had a Damascene conversion: the Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma” as reported by the Times and elsewhere.

    Lynas also says: “According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nuclear is just as low-carbon a power source as wind and solar: the world’s 439 operating nuclear reactors save the planet from 2 billion extra tonnes of carbon dioxide per year”.

  5. Report this comment

    Mike said:

    Two comments:

    First, the biggest issue slowing down the building of new plants has little to nothing to do with actual construction. Breaking ground to closing the breaker takes about six years. On the other hand, getting through all the red tape and inevitable anti-nuclear protests adds a massive amount of time before they can even break ground.

    Second, a distributed energy grid would be nice but large baseline power plants will always be needed; it supplies the reliability that many renewable sources cannot provide and the energy density that heavy industry will always need.

  6. Report this comment

    Knut Holt said:

    Either everyone must reduce the energy consume dramatically, that means living like poor people in many ways, or one must use all alternative energy sources, inclusing nuclear energy.

Comments are closed.