Is nuclear energy good for the climate?

In recent years, exciting innovations aimed at powering the world while reducing carbon emissions have emerged. Attention has focused on advances in wind and solar power, in particular, but another energy source may have the most immediate potential: Advanced nuclear power. Very controversial topic, but what about the facts? Can nuclear energy really help save the climate?

In 2020, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 5.4% due to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns. Most observers expected a rebound this year – but not to such an extent. The energy sector remains the main emitter of greenhouse gases, with a share of 40% – and growing.

Proponents of this controversial energy source say it is a climate-friendly way of generating electricity that can save economies from fossil fuels.

Is nuclear energy a zero-emission energy source?

No. Nuclear energy is also responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, no energy source is completely emission-free, but we’ll get to that later.

With regard to nuclear, the extraction, transport and processing of uranium produce emissions. The long and complex process of building nuclear power plants also releases CO2, as does the demolition of decommissioned sites. Finally, nuclear waste must also be transported and stored under strict conditions – here too, emissions must be taken into account.

The advantages of nuclear energy

One of the main advantages of the nuclear sector is that it is an established industry with proven technologies and supply chains. Nuclear energy already displaces 1.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year. Through the refurbishment and long-term operation of existing reactors, the nuclear sector can continue to displace carbon dioxide for decades: up to 50 gigatonnes of cumulative carbon emissions between 2020 and 2050.

There is also significant potential for building new large-scale nuclear reactors, which could displace 23 gigatonnes of emissions between 2020 and 2050 by displacing fossil fuel generation. A key pillar of global decarbonization strategies, nuclear power would also save money: according to the International Energy Agency, meeting the Paris targets without nuclear power would cost the world an estimated $1.6 trillion more.

But the nuclear sector can also play a much more important role. As countries develop other types of carbon-free power generation, such as solar or wind power, nuclear power can serve as a base load to support renewables and ensure a constant, reliable and efficient supply of electricity. distributable.

How much CO2 does nuclear energy produce?

The results vary considerably, depending on whether we consider only the electricity production process, or whether we take into account the entire life cycle of a nuclear power plant. A 2014 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, estimated a range of 3.7 to 110 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour (kWh).

It has long been assumed that nuclear power plants generate an average of 66 grams of CO2/kWh, but some believe the real figure is much higher. New power plants, for example, generate more CO2 during their construction than those built in previous decades, due to stricter safety regulations.

Studies of the entire life cycle of nuclear power plants, from uranium mining to nuclear waste storage, are rare, and some researchers point out that data is still lacking. In a life cycle study, the Netherlands-based World Information Service on Energy (WISE) calculated that nuclear power plants produce 117 grams of CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour. It should be noted, however, that WISE is an anti-nuclear group and therefore not completely impartial.

What conclusion?

Nuclear power is one of the most promising energy sources of the future, and has great potential to fight global warming. The disagreement concerns the form that this energy should take. Proponents of nuclear claim it is an efficient and easy-to-implement source, and those who oppose it suggest using combined methods of solar, wind and geothermal energy. .

But it should be noted that according to many, nuclear remains one of the cheapest, greenest and most stable sources of energy, in addition to being an effective way to reduce carbon emissions.

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