Nuclear power and climate change

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SUMMARY

The nuclear option does not make sense on any level: economically, environmentally, politically or socially. It is too costly, too dangerous, too slow and has too small an impact on global warming.

— Prof. Ian Lowe, 2007, ‘Reaction time: climate change and the nuclear option’, www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/09/14/2032596.htm

“There are serious problems that have to be solved, and they are not limited to the long-term waste-storage issue and the vulnerability-to-terrorist-attack issue. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that both of those problems can be solved. We still have other issues. For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal − which is the real issue: coal − then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale. And we’d run short of uranium, unless they went to a breeder cycle or something like it, which would increase the risk of weapons-grade material being available.”

— Al Gore, 2006, Grist Magazine, <www.grist.org/article/roberts2>

Nuclear power has no part in a climate-friendly, sustainable future for the following reasons:

Nuclear power is a blunt instrument: Building 12 reactors in Australia would reduce emissions by 8% if they replaced coal-fired plants yet reductions ten times as large are required. Doubling global nuclear power output at the expense of coal would reduce emissions by just 5%. Those figures are halved if nuclear power displaces gas, and there is no reduction in greenhouse emissions if nuclear power displaces renewable energy sources. In any realistic nuclear expansion scenario, nuclear power makes only a modest contribution to climate change abatement – and then only if we assume that nuclear power displaces fossil fuels.

There are better options: Global renewable energy capacity – mostly hydroelectricity – already exceeds nuclear capacity. Energy efficiency measures are capable of generating large reductions in greenhouse emissions and can do so more cheaply and quickly than nuclear power – therefore, investing in nuclear power instead of energy efficiency measures exacerbates and accelerates climate change. Renewable energy sources can also be deployed more rapidly than nuclear power, and credible clean energy scenarios have been developed which sharply reduce emissions from the electricity sector without recourse to nuclear power (see www.choosenuclearfree.net/clean)

Cost: Nuclear power is more expensive than some (but not all) renewable energy sources. Nuclear power is typically a far more expensive means of reducing greenhouse emissions than energy efficiency measures.

Greenhouse emissions: Claims that nuclear power is ‘greenhouse free’ are false. Nuclear power is more greenhouse intensive than some renewable energy sources and most energy efficiency measures. Life-cycle greenhouse emissions from nuclear power will increase as relatively high-grade uranium ores are mined out.

Too slow: Expanding nuclear power is impractical as a short-term response to the need to urgently reduce greenhouse emissions. The industry does not have the capacity to rapidly expand production as a result of 20 years of stagnation. Limitations include bottlenecks in the reactor manufacturing sector, the dwindling and ageing workforce, and the considerable time it takes to build a reactor and to pay back the energy debt from construction.

Weapons of Mass Destruction: There is a long history of peaceful nuclear programs providing political cover and technical support for nuclear weapons programs. An expansion of nuclear power is likely to exacerbate the problem. Other risks include catastrophic accidents, terrorism and sabotage, nuclear theft and smuggling, and conventional military strikes on nuclear plants.

Nuclear-induced climate change: A regional nuclear war involving 100 Hiroshima-size bombs – a tiny fraction of the global arsenal – would directly result in catastrophic climate change.

Nuclear power and climate change: Countries and regions with a high reliance on nuclear power also tend to have high greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the US operates 104 power reactors, accounting for around 20% of its electricity, yet the US is one of the world’s worst greenhouse polluters both in per capita and overall terms.

Consequences of climate change for nuclear hazards: Nuclear power plants around the world have already experienced many problems caused by phenomena which are likely to become more frequent and more severe as a result of climate change − in particular flooding and severe storm events. The nuclear industry has been very slow to address these problems.

Developing nuclear power in order to increase fossil fuel exports: Some countries are planning to replace fossil fuel-fired power plants with nuclear power in order to increase fossil fuel exports. In such cases the potential climate change benefits of nuclear power are lost.

Environmentalists do not support nuclear power: There is a widespread perception that there is a considerable degree of support for nuclear power among environmentalists. However the evidence leads to the opposite conclusion: there is strong and unwavering environmental opposition to nuclear power – and that includes environmental organisations primarily concerned with climate change.

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