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Nuclear energy – The solution to climate change?

Nuclear energy – The solution to climate change?

Science Direct, NikolausMuellnerNikolausArnoldKlausGuflerWolfgangKrompWolfgangRennebergWolfgangLiebertI Institute of Safety- and Risk Sciences, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria

Received 24 August 2020, Revised 7 April 2021, Accepted 4 May 2021, Available online 16 May 2021. 


With increased awareness of climate change in recent years nuclear energy has received renewed attention. Positions that attribute nuclear energy an important role in climate change mitigation emerge.

We estimate an upper bound of the CO2 saving potential of various nuclear energy growth scenarios, starting from our projection of nuclear generating capacity based on current national energy plans to scenarios that introduce nuclear energy as substantial instrument for climate protection. We then look at needed uranium resources.

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.

1. Introduction……………

1.2. CO2 emissions from nuclear power plants

The direct CO2 emissions from nuclear power plants during operation are low. However, looking at indirect emissions as well and considering the whole life cycle of nuclear power (uranium mining, milling, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, construction and dismantling of the nuclear power plant, spent fuel processing and storage), nuclear power is certainly not emission-free…………..

6. Conclusions and policy implications

Anthropogenic climate change requires a rapid shift towards a CO2 neutral economy, if the global average temperature increase is to be kept below 2∘C, or, preferably, below 1.5∘C compared to pre-industrial levels. By 2050 the economy should be CO2 neutral, therefore climate change mitigation measures are needed in the near term to medium term future. Such a shift would strongly influence the energy (and electricity) supply system, which is currently based to a larger part on fossil fuels.

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.   According to current planning nuclear power would avoid at most4 annually 2–3% of total global GHG emissions in the years 2020–2040. Moreover, nuclear power cannot be expanded to be the main source of future electricity generation. Expansion scenarios require an increase in uranium mining, which is met by two limitations: uranium production could hardly keep up during the expansion phase, and the overall amount of available uranium is limited. Such scenarios would leave new nuclear power plants without fuel during their planned life time. Fast breeder reactors promise a solution to the problem of limited uranium-235 resources, but will not be available for commercial deployment before 2040–2050. And given the considerable research effort and research times up to now, it is even doubtful if a commercially deployable fast breeder reactor will be available then. But even assuming such a scenario were feasile, even % of projected global GHG emissions from other sectors in 2040 and would still require drastic actions to reduce all emissions to zero. However, current nuclear reactors, no matter how safe they may be, always carry a residual risk for severe, catastrophic accidents (Sehgal, 2012) and large releases of radioactive materials (Seibert et al., 2012). New reactors attempt to reduce the residual risk, but even with the future technologies currently envisaged a nuclear catastrophe cannot be fully excluded. The main contribution to current nuclear electricity generation stems from reactors built 1970–1990, which were designed 1960–1980. New reactor technologies promise that the risk for severe accidents is reduced by a factor of ten. However, according to current plans, the major part of future nuclear generating capacity stems from lifetime extensions of existing plants and only a limited part will come from new builds (in 2040 ~30% new builds, ~70% current operating reactors life time extended and/or in long term operation according to ISR-projection).

Given the modest contribution of nuclear power to climate change mitigation another option is feasible, which is the phase-out of nuclear power. This finding is in agreement with substantial evidence of a comprehensive global energy study of the International Institute of Applied System Analysis (IIASA, 2012). In this study a normative approach was adopted, a scenario that by 2050 society is on a climate pathway to fulfilling the 2∘C target while still providing access to modern energy services to all humans. Starting from the goal of a sustainable, CO2 neutral economy, IIASA (2012) calculates back and investigates which energy pathways lead to such a future. One of the important results of the analysis shows that none of the evaluated boundary conditions make it necessary to use nuclear power. Even high energy demand assumptions without substantial change in the transport system allow other energy sources to substitute nuclear energy.

The current contribution of nuclear energy to climate change mitigation is small and, according to current planning, will stay at this level in the near-to mid term future. Nuclear expansion strategies are not feasible due to resource limitations. New nuclear technologies without those limitations will not be ready in the critical time frame 2020 to 2050 due to the long research, licensing, planning and construction times of the nuclear industry. Current plans would keep the nuclear capacity roughly at its current level mainly by life time extensions of existing reactors. But given the limited contribution to climate mitigation, complete phase out is a feasible option as well. Society must decide, given the drawbacks of the use of nuclear energy (risk of catastrophic accidents, proliferation, radioactive waste), whether the nuclear option should be pursued, or whether other climate change mitigation technologies should substitute the nuclear contribution……..

June 10, 2021 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, climate change

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