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Fact Check: Is nuclear energy good or bad for the climate? DW | Environment | All topics from climate change to conservation | DW
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Fact Check: Is nuclear energy good or bad for the climate? DW | Environment | All topics from climate change to conservation | DW

A nuclear plant cooling tower is being torn down in Mülheim-Kärlich, Germany


The latest figures regarding global carbon dioxide emissions raise questions about the effectiveness of international efforts to address the climate crisis. CO2 emissions are set to soar 4.9% in 2021According to a studyPublished earlier this month by Global Carbon Project (GCP), an international group of scientists who track emissions.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and associated lockdowns, 2020 saw emissions drop 5.4%. Most observers expected a rebound this year — but not to such an extent. The energy sector continues to be the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, with a share of 40% — and rising.

But what about nuclear? The controversial energy source supports by supporters says it’s a climate-friendly means to generate electricity. It’s something we could at least use. until we’re able to develop comprehensive alternatives. In recent weeks, particularly during the COP26 climate summit, advocates have been creating a stir online with statements like “if you’re against nuclear energy, you’re against climate protection” and “nuclear energyIt is poised to make a comeback. But is it possible?

Is nuclear energy a zero-emissions source of energy?

No. No. Emissions from any energy source are not completely eliminated, but we’ll get to that later.

When it comes to nuclear, uranium extraction, transport and processing produces emissions. The complex construction of nuclear power plants releases CO2 as well as the demolition of decommissioned facilities. And, last but not least, nuclear waste also has to be transported and stored under strict conditions — here, too, emissions must be taken into account.

A nuclear plant cooling tower is being torn down in Mülheim-Kärlich, Germany

Dismantling nuclear power plants — as seen here in Mülheim-Kärlich, Germany — also produces CO2

Yet, interest groups claim that nuclear energy is not emitting any emissions. ENCO, an Austrian consultancy firm, is one such group. It released a report in late 2020. study prepared for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy that looked favorably at the possible future role of nuclear in the Netherlands.

It said that the main factors for choosing ENCO were reliability and security, with no CO2 emissions. ENCO was founded by experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and it regularly works with stakeholders in the nuclear sector, so it’s not entirely free of vested interests.

At COP26, environmental initiative Scientists for Future (S4F) presented a paperThe climate and nuclear energy. The group reached a completely different conclusion. “Nuclear energy is not a viable option, given the current energy system. CO2 neutralThey said, 

Ben Wealer of the Technical University of Berlin, one of the report’s authors, told DW that proponents of nuclear energy “fail to take into account many factors,” including those sources of emissions outlined above. All of the studies reviewed by DW agreed that nuclear power is not emission-free.

How much CO2 does nuclear energy produce?

Results vary significantly, depending on whether we only consider the process of electricity generation, or take into account the entire life cycle of a nuclear power plant. A reportThe UN released the following information in 2014. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate ChangeAccording to the IPCC, there was a range of 3.7-110 grams of CO2 equivalent per unit of kilowatt hour (kWh).

It’s long been assumed that nuclear plants generate an average of 66 grams of CO2/kWh — though Wealer believes the actual figure is much higher. Due to stricter safety regulations, new power plants generate more CO2 than older power plants.

Researchers are still unable to find data that includes the entire life cycle for nuclear power plants, including uranium extraction and nuclear waste storage. In one life cycle studyThe World Information Service on Energy (WISE), which is based in the Netherlands, has calculated that nuclear power plants emit 117 grams CO2 per kilowatthour. It should be noted, however, that WISE is an anti-nuclear group, so is not entirely unbiased.

Emissions Balance Energy Sources 2020

But, there are other studiesSimilar results have been achieved when considering entire life spans. Mark Z. Jacobson, director at Stanford University’s Atmosphere / Energy Program, calculated a climate loss of 68 to 180 grams CO2/kWh depending on the electricity mix used for uranium production.

How climate-friendly does nuclear energy compare to other energies?

If you include the entire lifecycle of a nuclear power plant in the calculation, then nuclear energy is certain to be a better choice than fossil fuels like natural gas or coal. But the picture is drastically different when compared with renewable energy.

According to unpublished but new data from the German Environment Agency, (UBA), and the WISE figures. nuclear powerReleases 3.5 times more CO2 per Kilowatt-hour than photovoltaic solar panel systems. This figure is 13 times higher than that of onshore wind power. Nuclear generates 29 times as much carbon when compared to electricity from hydropower stations.

Could we rely upon nuclear energy to stop global warming

Around the world, nuclear energy representatives, as well as some politicians, have called for the expansion of atomic power. Germany’s right-wing populists are a good example. AfD partyThe AfD has supported nuclear power plants, calling them “modern” and “clean”. The AfD has called for a return to the energy source, which Germany has pledged to phase out completely by the end of 2022.

Other countriesThey have also supported plans for new nuclear plants. They argue that the energy sector without it will be even more destructive to the climate. But Wealer from Berlin’s Technical University and many other energy experts see a different perspective.

He stated that nuclear energy’s contribution is too optimistically viewed. “In reality, [power plant]Construction times are too long and costs too high for noticeable effects on climate change. It takes too much time for nuclear energy to become accessible.”

Mycle Schneider, author World Nuclear Industry Status Report, agrees.

“Nuclear power stations are four times more expensive than conventional power plants windHe said that solar or nuclear plants take five times longer to build. You can expect a 15- to 20-year lead time for a nuclear plant when you take all of this into account.

He stated that the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions within a decade. Schneider added that nuclear power would not be able make a significant contribution in the next 10 year. 

Antony Froggatt is the deputy director of the environment program at Chatham House in London. He stated that nuclear power is not being considered as a key global solution to climate change.

He stated that excessive costs, negative environmental consequences, and a lack of public support were all reasons to oppose nuclear power.

A graphic comparing the cost of various energy sources, along with environmental and health costs

Renewables could be funded with nuclear funding

Due to the high costs associated with nuclear energy, it also blocks important financial resources that could instead be used to develop renewable energy, said Jan Haverkamp, a nuclear expert and activist with environment NGO Greenpeace in the Netherlands. He stated that these renewables would provide more energy, which is both cheaper and more efficient than nuclear.

Every dollar invested in nuclear energyIt is therefore a dollar being diverted from real urgent climate action. He stated that nuclear power was not climate-friendly.

Climate change has also had an impact on nuclear energy. Several nuclear power plants were forced to be shut down temporarily or taken off the national grid because of the rising temperatures. Power plants depend on nearby water sources to cool their reactors, and with many rivers drying up, those sources of water are no longer guaranteed.

Mycle Schneider explained to DW that the much-hyped “renaissance” of nuclear power is not true when all facts are considered. He stated that the nuclear industry has been shrinkingFor many years.

“In the last two decades, 95 nuclear power plants went online and 98 were shut down. Schneider said that if you exclude China, the number of nuclear power stations has declined by 50 reactors over the past two decades.” “The nuclear industry is not thriving.”

Jo Harper and GeroRueter provide additional reporting

This article was translated from German by Martin Kübler 


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