The Future of Nuclear Power and its effect on CO2 emissions


Economist: “Well-designed carbon prices can boost green power, encourage energy-saving and suppress fossil-fired power much more efficiently than subsidies for renewables.”

That’s pretty strait forward, but this is not what’s happening. If fact, it’s quite the opposite. Fossil fuels, as well as renewables are all subsidies in one way or another. Moreover, (most) economists have clearly emphasized that a carbon tax (perhaps even on product level and not on production level to also capture the carbon intensive transport system) would be much more efficient that most current policies. However, yet the developments look rather different – which is frustrating to most that follow the issue.

Since the turn of the century, global energy has become more, not less, carbon intensive. Take a major CO2 emiting fuel: Coal. It now supplies 41% of the world’s electricity and 29% of the world’s energy—a bigger share than at any time in at least four decades. (Though this is not the case in the OECD (around 18%), which I will focus on later.)

Wind and Solar do increase, but can they cope with the challenge alone? In an ideal world: Yes. But being pragmatic, nuclear energy still provides the best low-carbon source of reliable “baseload” electricity – whereas electricity from renewable is hard to store and –to use the common phrase: what if the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine… Though, they are unpopular and currently vastly expensive, but not as expensive once they are running. The (US) Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry body, says that last year generating electricity from a nuclear plant in America cost on average 2.40 cents per kilowatt-hour ($24/MWh). That is still cheaper than gas- or coal-fired power.

In addition, nuclear power plants are more likely to replace coal-fired power, than to replace renewables. Think of Germany, which remains to be a leader and role model in the climate change debate. As it has begun to shut nuclear reactors, the proportion of electricity produced by coal-fired plants has increased, as baseload electricity was needed, which has pushed up carbon emissions. In other cases, gas-fired plants replaced nuclear. There are positive claims too though: Sweden’s government claims that nuclear plants, which provide 50% of the country’s baseload electricity, will quickly be replaced with renewable energy, mostly from wind farms. If it works, excellent, but will it on all occasions?

It is an open debate and there is no right or wrong. But for people to decide, let’s add numbers and a graph:

The flowing graph is a tweak on Joergen Randers’ (Norwegen academic and professor on climate change strategy) data on energy in the OECD (without US). What I did is to hold nuclear energy –more or less- stable as a share of energy source (dotted line). Be aware that in Randers’ prediction energy consumption in OECD starts to decline by 2015 – hence, nuclear energy, even with a constant share, will still go done in absolute numbers (=less or smaller reactors). But the share of coal would be reduced significantly.

Nuclear Share kept stable
Share of Energy use (OECD without US)

As a result: The second Graph shows the effect of the altered shares on CO2 emissions.

CO2 emissions in different scenarios
CO2 Emissions in different Scenarios (OECD without US)

Whatever the future of nuclear energy will be, it may be advisable to not exclude nuclear technology from the research portfolios when thinking of energy innovations. It may yield some very beneficial options for the future; one of them is definitely reduced CO2 emissions.


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