Summary: 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.

Nuclear analyst Mycle Schneider notes that countries and regions with a high reliance on nuclear power also tend to have high greenhouse gas emissions. While his paper was written 10 years ago the general arguments still hold:

The largest generators of nuclear power also have energy sectors with the highest CO2 emissions. Western Europe and the United States produce about two-thirds of the nuclear electricity in the world [yet] their energy sectors also produce 39% of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions.

The same analysis applies to overall CO2 emissions per country or region. There is an interesting correlation between nuclear generation and CO2 emissions. The United States alone, [with] less than 5% of the world’s population, accounts for 25% of the world’s total CO2 emissions and generates 29.4% of the world’s nuclear electricity. Western Europe, with only 6.5% of the world’s population accounts for about 15% of global CO2 emissions and 34% of the nuclear power production.

China is the counter example. With 21.5% of the world’s population, the country emits 13.5% of global CO2 and generates 0.6% of the world’s nuclear power. The example of China illustrates well the potential role of energy efficiency in greenhouse gas abatement. Analysis of developments between 1980 and 1997 shows that while the country reduced its CO2 emissions through penetration of “carbon-free fuel” by hardly more than 10 million tonnes of carbon, the reduction due to energy efficiency measures delivered savings of more than 430 million tonnes of carbon over the same period.

Projections for Germany, produced by Prognos, suggest that while nuclear power output is expected to decrease by 40% by 2020, CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour are expected to decrease significantly (probably by around 20% or more). This is not only because of a lower coal content in the fuel mix, but also especially because of an expected 22% decrease in the energy intensity of the German economy.

It seems obvious that there is no forced correlation between a high level of nuclear generation and low CO2 emissions of a given country. So far France is the exception. France is also the most nuclear-intensive country in the world, apart from Lithuania. France operates 59 nuclear reactors that produce 75% of its electricity while nuclear plants represent about 55% of the installed capacity. At the same time, France has a relatively low level of greenhouse gas emissions. The question is therefore justified whether a combined policy of nuclear power and energy efficiency is a possible alternative over the long run and whether it is cost efficient.

A recent major study carried out by the French national planning commission (Commissariat général au plan) which looked into three different scenarios (“market oriented”, “industrial”, “environmental”) came up with some interesting results:

* even in the “environmental” scenario, France’s final energy consumption would increase by 9% by 2020 (compared to a reduction of at least 5% projected by Prognos for Germany);

* the scenario with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions is not the most nuclear and “there is no evident correlation, even in France, between emissions and nuclear power”, according to Benjamin Dessus, Chairman of the Long Term Working Group undertaking the study.


* Schneider, Mycle (WISE Paris), April 2000, “Climate Change and Nuclear Power”, published by World Wide Fund for Nature, < change/fullnuclearreprotwwf.pdf>.