How much CO2 is produced by atomic energy?
One of the few pros of nuclear power is the relatively low emission of carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the major causes of global warming. For this reason, nuclear power has been proposed as "the" method to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Some of the nuclear lobbyists even claim that the production of electricity by atomic energy does not emit any CO2. But this is nonsense. Whenever a plant is built to produce electricity, CO2 is emitted. So even the production of electricity by renewable resources like solar power, water, wind, or biomass does release some CO2.
To calculate the amount of CO2 being released, the whole life cycle of a plant as well as the production of the raw energy has to be looked at. For a nuclear power plant, this includes construction, operation, maintenance and refurbishments, decommissioning and dismantling of the reactor. Of the same importance is the nuclear fuel: Recovery of uranium from the earth’s crust, extraction of uranium from ores, enrichment and chemical treatment, transportation as well as disposing of used fuel.
A life cycle analyses (LCA) carried out by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith came to the following result:
Electricity from atomic energy emits 90 to 140 g CO2 per kWh of electricity produced.
The relatively high range of uncertainty is due to the different grade of ores used. It depends on how rich the ores are that are used to obtain the Uranium. For poor ores, the higher value does apply and for rich ores, the lower value does apply.
This leads to an interesting issue: The world-wide reserves for Uranium are a very limited resource. It is estimated to last for about 50 to 70 years with the current demand. If additional nuclear reactors are built, the supply will last correspondingly shorter.
The higher the demand for Uranium, the more and more poor ores will have to be processed. This however will lead to a CO2 balance for atomic power, which gets worse and worse over time. Storm and Smith in the above mentioned life cycle analysis came to the conclusion, that between the years 2050 (if additional nuclear power stations are built) and 2075 (no additional nuclear reactors) the CO2 emissions of electricity from atomic energy will be higher as the same electricity produced by a gas burning plant! So nuclear energy can definitely not be the solution to mitigate the effects of global warming!
Let’s compare the CO2 emissions to produce 1 kWh of electricity by different technologies:
|Technology||g CO2 per kWh|
|Solar power, water power and wind power||10 – 40|
|Nuclear power plants||90 – 140|
|Combined heat and power in private houses||220 – 250|
|Gas buring plants||330 – 360|
|New coal burning plants||1’000 – 1’100|