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Fact Check: Is nuclear power good for the environment?
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Fact Check: Is nuclear power good for the environment?

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


The latest data on global CO2 emissions puts into doubt the efforts of the world to combat climate change. According to a report, CO2 emissions will rise 4.9% by 2021 compared to the previous year. 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.

What about nuclear? According to supporters of this controversial energy source, it is a low-carbon way to generate electricity. It’s something that we could use, at the most, until we can develop more 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 energy is about to make a comeback.” But is there really anything to it?

Is nuclear energy a source of zero-emissions electricity?

No. Also, greenhouse gas emissions can also be caused by nuclear energy. However, there is no energy source that is entirely free from greenhouse gas emissions. More on this later.

When it comes to nuclear, uranium extraction, transport and processing produces emissions. As well as CO2 emissions, the complex construction of nuclear power plants releases CO2. 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 insist that nuclear energy is not emitted. ENCO, an Austrian consulting company, is one of them. It released a report in late 2020. A study was prepared for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy that looked favorably at the possible future role of nuclear in the Netherlands.

“The main criteria for their choice were reliability, security of supply, and no CO2 emission,” the statement read. 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 PaperOn nuclear energy and the environment. They came up with a completely different conclusion. “Nuclear energy is not CO2 neutral when you consider the current energy system,” they stated. 

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 studies reviewed by DW found the same conclusion: Nuclear power is not emission-free.

What is the amount of carbon dioxide that nuclear power produces?

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 ReportFor example, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) released in 2014 an estimate of between 3.7 and 110 grams of CO2 equivalent (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. Because of stricter safety regulations, power plants built in the new decade generate more CO2 while being constructed.

Research that covers the entire lifecycle of nuclear power plants from uranium extraction through to storage of nuclear waste is rare. Some researchers point out that this data is still missing. One life cycle StudyThe World Information Service on Energy (WISE), a Dutch-based organization, calculated that nuclear plants emit 117 grams CO2 per kilowatt hour. It should be noted, however, that WISE is an anti-nuclear group, so is not entirely unbiased.

Emissions Balance Energy Sources 2020

Other options are available, however. studiesWhen considering entire life spans, similar results were obtained. Mark Z. Jacobson is the director of the Atmosphere / Energy Program of California’s Stanford University. He calculated a climate loss of 68 to 180 grams CO2/kWh depending upon the electricity mix used in uranium manufacturing.

Is nuclear more climate-friendly than other energies?

Calculating the whole life cycle of a nuclear power plant will show that nuclear energy is far more efficient than fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. But the picture is drastically different when compared with renewable energy.

The new data is still not published from the German Environment Agency, which is run by the government. nuclear powerThe photovoltaic panels systems release 3.5 times as much CO2 per kilowatthour. This figure is 13 times higher than that of onshore wind power. Compared to electricity from hydropower plants, nuclear produces 29 times more carbon.

Can we rely on nuclear power 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 populist AfD party, for instance, has supported nuclear power plants calling them “modern, clean, and safe.” The AfD has called for a return to the energy source, which Germany has pledged to phase out completely by the end of 2022.

Some countries also support plans to build nuclear plants. Others argue that the energy sector is even more harmful for the environment without it. Wealer of Berlin’s Technical University and other energy experts see a different point of view.

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

Mycle Schneider is the author of “The Mycle.” World Nuclear Industry Status Report, agrees.

He said that nuclear power plants are four times more expensive than wind or solar and take five times longer to construct. You can expect a 15- to 20 year lead time for a nuclear plant once you take all of this into account.

He stated that the world had to reduce greenhouse gasses within a decade. Schneider said that nuclear power will not be able make a significant contribution in the next ten years. 

Antony Froggatt (deputy director, environment and society program, Chatham House in London), stated that “Nuclear power isn’t being considered at this time as one the key global solutions for climate change.”

He stated that nuclear power was not a good option because of its high costs, environmental effects and low support from the public.

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 said that renewable energy would produce more energy, which is faster and more affordable than nuclear.

“Every dollar spent on nuclear energy is therefore a deprived dollar from urgent climate action. He said that nuclear power was not climate-friendly in this sense.

Climate change has also affected nuclear energy. Many nuclear power plants had to be shut down temporarily or removed from the grid due to the increasing heat. 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 said that the much-ballyhooed “renaissance in nuclear power” is not possible when all the facts are considered. He claimed that the nuclear industry had been shrinking for many years.

“In the 20th century, 95 nuclear power plant have been online and 98 have been closed down,” Schneider said. Schneider stated that the number of nuclear power stations has decreased by 50 reactors since the 1990s, excluding China. “The nuclear industry is not thriving.”

Jo Harper, Gero Rueter also contributed additional reporting

This article was translated from German by Martin Kübler 

Correction, November 30, 2021 Data are sourced from WISE (The Umweltbundesamt) and the Umweltbundesamt (WISE). DW apologises for the error.


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