The Necessity of Nuclear to Reach Net-Zero

The Necessity of Nuclear to Reach Net-Zero

In the next decade, the world has to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. To get there, many countries are considering a controversial form of renewable energy: nuclear power.

Reuters: World could see 1.5C of warming in next five years, May 10, 2022.

Nuclear power has many drawbacks, some would say too many. It can be dangerous, as exemplified by the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011. There are no perfect solutions to disposing of nuclear waste, and nuclear runoff can be used to make weapons. Construction of new plants is in the billions and takes a long time, putting the world’s 2030 deadline at risk.

But major climate organizations say that nuclear power is not only reliable -- it’s essential to meeting net-zero targets. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included nuclear power in all four of its plans to reduce emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA) also promotes nuclear power, emphasizing that by 2050, 90% of electricity will be generated by renewables, about 30% of which will come from nuclear power. Unlike wind or solar energy, nuclear is impervious to changes in the weather and doesn’t need complicated storage systems to prop up the grid.

These uncertainties raise the question: is nuclear power worth it?

Energy Live News: COP26 Live |Nuclear power has a role to play in all net zero scenarios, IEA finds, November 8, 2021.

IAEA: Onkalo | A solution for nuclear waste, December 21, 2021.

The Economist: Nuclear power | Why is it so unpopular?, March 5, 2021.

Why This Matters

Nuclear has been a reliable source of power, providing over half of the clean energy in America, though its use here has dwindled since the ‘90s due to a number of closures. France, the largest exporter of electricity, derives 70% of that power from nuclear sources. "What we have to build today is the renaissance of the French nuclear industry," stated Macron in February, "because it's the right moment, because it's the right thing for our nation, because everything is in place."

There are also new innovations that could alleviate many of the perceived drawbacks of nuclear power. Nuclear waste, for example, could be tapped as a clean energy source if recycled and used in fast-neutron reactors. And small modular reactors (SMRs), which are receiving increased investment in France, are new types of nuclear power generators that are faster and cheaper to build.

Jacopo Buongiorno, director of the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the New Scientist: “There are reasons to believe that the next wave of construction might be a little bit better.”

Still, governments across the world have been wary about its expansion, such as Germany, which phased out its nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster. Unfortunately, many of the countries that moved away from nuclear replaced it with fossil fuels instead of renewables like wind and solar.

Third Way: Why We Need To Save Our Nuclear Power Plants, February 3, 2022.

Tomorrow’s Build: These Mini Nuclear Reactors Can be Built Anywhere, April 22, 2022.

DW: Atom, mon amour | France's faith in nuclear energy, October 19, 2019.

Is Nuclear Really An Option?

One reason nuclear power is an attractive solution to the world’s over-reliance on fossil fuels is that it’s “carbon-free,” meaning that the amount of carbon emitted per unit of energy generated is lower than solar power and about the same as wind.

However, these statistics do not take into account that it takes seven years to construct a functional nuclear reactor, leaving other sources of energy to pick up slack in the meantime. Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson calculated that this means nuclear emits 9 to 37 times more carbon per unit of energy generated than wind power. A 2020 study also found that “larger-scale national nuclear attachments do not tend to associate with significantly lower carbon emissions, while renewables do.” The concrete used to construct nuclear reactors also has a large carbon footprint, making reactors hardly “carbon-free.”

While it seems the world has a choice when it comes to nuclear and other renewable alternatives, it’s not likely to be the case. As Buongiorno told the New Scientist, “It’s not an either-or situation: we’ve got to do them both.”

WW0 Newsmaker of the Week: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Director of Climate & Energy, Third Way, December 17, 2021.

DW: Do we need nuclear power to stop climate change?, July 16, 2021.