Nuclear Energy - Will it help solve climate change?

by Environment North member Kerstin Muth

Environment North has been opposed to nuclear energy since the 1970s due to the absence of a real solution for the radioactive waste, cost and safety.  

Excerpts from two letters to the Financial Times outline opposing positions on the necessity of nuclear energy helping to address climate change.

First the letter from those believing nuclear energy is necessary to address climate change:

On December 17, 2019 climate scientist James Hansen and others wrote,

“Nuclear power is the single biggest source of low-carbon electricity in Europe today and is recognised in many of the scenarios assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency and other organisations as having a critical role to play in responding to the climate emergency. It is therefore vital that nuclear is included in the EU's new classification system for environmentally sustainable activities, which is being negotiated in Brussels. … But progress is being blocked by several countries, including Germany, which claim nuclear should be excluded because of their concerns about nuclear waste. This is in spite of clear evidence that nuclear waste does not and will not cause harm to sustainability objectives. Nuclear energy displaces fossil fuel use, with significant air pollution and climate benefits. …”

Now the position by those that believe nuclear energy is not the best option to address climate change:

On December 20, 2019 energy analyst Paul Dorfman and others wrote, “We write in response to James E Hansen et al’s letter (“EU must include nuclear power in its list of sustainable sources”, December 17), which mistakenly advocates nuclear energy to address climate change. In fact, spending on new nuclear power significantly reduces our chances in effectively responding to climate change. This is because, for nuclear to be considered a feasible option, new reactors should be able to be completed economically, efficiently and on time — however, practical experience proves otherwise. Nuclear new-build represents a high-risk technical, regulatory and investment option, with significant delay and cost overrun. Market analysis shows investment in nuclear power to be uneconomic — this holds for all plausible ranges of investment costs, weighted average costs of capital, and wholesale electricity prices. In the end, the fate of new nuclear seems inextricably linked with, and determined by, that of renewable energy technology rollout. Worldwide, market trends for new nuclear are in stark decline and renewables are markedly rising. ....”


This recent article in Energy Policy examines the potential of Nuclear Energy in helping to solve the climate crisis in more detail.  The highlights of the article which do not support nuclear energy are quoted as follows:

•  Nuclear power's contribution to climate change mitigation is and will be very limited.

•  Currently nuclear power avoids 2–3% of total global GHG emissions per year.

•  According to current planning this value will decrease even further until 2040.

•  A substantial expansion of nuclear power will not be possible.

•  Given its low contribution, a complete phase-out of nuclear energy is feasible.

The following is from the article abstract,

“…The most important result of the present work is that the contribution of nuclear power to mitigate climate change is, and will be, very limited. At present nuclear power avoids annually 2–3% of total global GHG emissions. Looking at announced plans for new nuclear builds and lifetime extensions this value would decrease even further until 2040. Furthermore, a substantial expansion of nuclear power will not be possible because of technical obstacles and limited resources. Limited uranium-235 supply inhibits substantial expansion scenarios with the current nuclear technology. New nuclear technologies, making use of uranium-238, will not be available in time. Even if such expansion scenarios were possible, their climate change mitigation potential would not be sufficient as single action.

Click here to read the whole article.

Environment North would like to add that there are considerable GHG emissions emitted in the full life cycle of nuclear energy from mining to final decommissioning and waste storage.  While there are less greenhouse gas emissions than energy produced from fossil fuels such as coal it is not greenhouse gas emission free.