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Nuclear Power Is Crucial to Phasing Out Carbon Emissions

Third Way: Nuclear Reimagined

By 2050, energy demand of developing countries will exceed total energy demand of OECD countries. Access to abundant clean energy will facilitate rapid economic growth in the developing world, and with it plummeting maternal and infant mortality, billions lifted out of extreme poverty, and 15 years added to the average lifespan of sub-Saharan Africans. Advances in food production will intensify crop yields and improve distribution. And the US and a handful of other world powers will lead the way for continued innovation in clean energy technology and accessibility.

This is of course the ideal scenario. In thirty years’ time, we can only hope to have reduced and nearly mitigated the climate crisis using the same technologies that solved poverty and made pollution of the environment a non-issue. Right now, this ideal seems hopelessly out of reach. And it is, unless we decide to embrace the one source of energy that can ensure our efforts do not go to waste: nuclear power.

This seems like a bold statement. But it does not mean abandoning all other technologies in favor of 100% nuclear everywhere. And it does not mean that nuclear power is the only solution that works. It means, simply, that if we look to history to tell us what has worked the best to bring us closer to our ideal of universal clean energy access, nuclear power is the only source of non-emitting energy generation that has been able to rapidly meet large scale energy needs. 

The extreme energy density of uranium fuel makes it the largest source of clean energy in the U.S. The U.S. avoided more than 14 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions between 1995 and 2016 from using nuclear power, the equivalent of removing three billion cars from the road (NEI). Nuclear reactors provided 56% of domestic clean electricity  and 19% of total electricity in 2017 (United States Department of Energy). By comparison, renewable energy sources (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass combined) provided 11% of total U.S. electricity  consumption in 2017 (United States Energy Information Administration). 

Nuclear power provided 8.1% of world electricity production in 2015; at its peak in 1996, it provided 17.6% of world electricity production (WorldBank). 

Within two decades of beginning its nuclear power program, Sweden had displaced over half of its fossil fuel use with new nuclear capacity (Qvist & Brook, 2015).

In France, a successful transition to 80% nuclear power between 1980 and 1987 rolled back the country’s emissions to 1960s levels. While energy consumption increased by 46% during this time period, emissions dropped 28.4% from 134 million tons per year to 96 million tons per year. The French scenario is the only example of a major energy-producing country meeting Kyoto Protocol requirements. 

And after six decades of global nuclear power operation, less than 1,000 deaths can be attributed to radiation or accidents (the most conservative estimate), while the technology has spared over one million lives from avoided air pollution alone (Kharecha and Hansen, 2013).

Advanced reactor designs currently in development will further propel the ability of nuclear reactors to serve remote areas, operate more safely than ever, and achieve economies of scale, as utilities can fabricate them on an assembly line rather than on-site at a large generating station.

Leading environmental organizations tell us to expect the worst and hope for the best — yet they do not advocate for expansion of nuclear energy because it is unpopular among the environmental community. This was the old paradigm; now is the time to rethink what matters to us. Climate change will not wait for us to make up our minds about how to proceed with an energy transition.

Shifting into a new paradigm means coming face to face with the urgency of what is happening, and using every resource available to combat it. It means abandoning the way we used to think about our problems, about our children’s future, and about our own destructive capabilities as a species when it comes to nuclear power. In an era of the past, we feared pollution and radioactive contamination. Because of that fear, we stopped building nuclear reactors in the 1970s, and halted an upward trajectory in learning curves and development that could have guaranteed the production of enough generating capacity to serve the globe ten-fold (Lang et al, 2017).

So we can continue to let our disagreements over the minutiae of each and every energy source stall progress, but the developing world will still require ten times the energy it has today in a matter of three decades. And clean energy generation will need to make up a vast share, if not all of this new capacity in order to prevent rising global temperatures. 


Problem solving is not about agreeing on everything. Problem solving is about making the tough decision to loosen our tight grip on what divides us in order to focus on what we need most: a semblance of progress and forward momentum. Nuclear power is able to meet the basic requirements for an energy system that provides energy for all, at minimal cost to the environment. We simply cannot afford, intentionally or unintentionally, to forget about it.

Canon Bryan's picture

Thank Canon for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 11, 2019 2:12 pm GMT

So we can continue to let our disagreements over the minutiae of each and every energy source stall progress, but the developing world will still require ten times the energy it has today in a matter of three decades. And clean energy generation will need to make up a vast share, if not all of this new capacity in order to prevent rising global temperature

Really appreciate this perspective, Canon. How do you think the economics will factor it? Keeping open existing nuclear plants is one thing, but making the numbers work to install new plants in the developing world is a whole different challenge

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Sep 12, 2019 4:42 am GMT

The French scenario is the only example of a major energy-producing country meeting Kyoto Protocol requirements.

That's the best kept secret in the clean energy industry.  Advocates are constantly telling us how their favored energy source is promising and successful, but surprisingly, nuclear remains the only source with a successful track record for deep decarbonization of a major grid.

It should also be pointed out that nuclear works well in combination with hydro (where available), as demonstrated in Sweden and Switzerland which also have low carbon grids.  In fact, I like to group hydro with nuclear as "conventional clean energy", to distinguish it from the variable renewables solar and wind which still have yet to be demonstrated in any low carbon grid!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 12, 2019 1:40 pm GMT

Thanks for the insights, Nathan. Can you expand upon what makes nuclear and hydro a good complementary pairing?

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Sep 14, 2019 7:23 am GMT

It would be great if nuclear kept the promise (a first?) that "Advanced reactor designs will...serve remote areas, operate more safely .... achieve economies of scale...." as the author suggests. Please let us know 1) when that might happen 2) who will pay for it? Will the first dozen roll off the assembly line in the next 15 years? 5? 30? Too little, too late?  I would love to be convinced otherwise.

In the meantime, note the following:

1. Globally, “Renewables will have the fastest growth in the electricity sector, providing almost 30% of power demand in 2023, up from 24% in 2017. ... Hydropower remains the largest renewable source, meeting 16% of global electricity demand by 2023, followed by wind (6%), solar PV (4%), and bioenergy (3%).” › renewables2018

2. In April, 2019, “Clean energy such as solar and wind provided 23% of US electricity generation during the month, compared with coal’s 20%, according to the Energy Information Administration.”

3.  “Nuclear energy production has been falling since 2006.”

“Nuclear electricity generation kept rising during the 1990s until it hit a peak of 2,660 terrawatt-hours in 2006. But then it started falling — and generated just 2,359 Twh of electricity in 2013.”

“There are 390 nuclear reactors in operation — down from 438 a decade ago.”

4. Comparing relative costs of different energy sources is very tricky.  One way is the "Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost" of different sources, taking into account capital costs, running costs, transmission cost, but not including tax credits.

Nuclear was only exceeded by biomass and offshore wind in total cost in 2018.  Which way might these change going forward?

5. Amongst a wealth of other interesting data, in the US “Greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 (after accounting for sequestration from the land sector) were 13 percent below 2005 levels.”

Somehow I doubt that the reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions in the last 12 years was due to nuclear. Do you?

Renewables are far from perfect. But so far they are cleaner, cheaper, faster (and, I contend, safer -  based on a few hundred commercial nuclear reactors built and at least three major disasters) than nuclear. Based on the data, that´s where I have to put my money. At least for now. 

But, there are jokers still in the deck. Here is one:

Another is the possible implementation of a carbon tax.  Which way might that push new energy projects? Europe seems to have spoken. The US might speak differently.





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