Is nuclear power a global warming solution?


Are there any ways to prevent global warming?

The main cause of global warming is the increased emission of so called greenhouse gases , in particular carbon dioxide (chemical symbol CO2). These greenhouse gases have an average lifetime in the atmosphere of 50 to 200 years. This means that even if we stopped the emission of greenhouse gases completely tomorrow, global warming would still continue.

In other words: It is impossible to stop global warming, it is only possible to mitigate its effects through a drastic reduction of the emission of CO2.

 

Can nuclear power plants mitigate the effects of global warming?

Nuclear energy is used to generate electrical power. Therefore it is only possible to reduce the emission of CO2 if nuclear power plants are used instead of other, CO2 emitting technologies. This is in particular the case for electrical generation plants fuelled by coal, oil or gas. The CO2 emission can indeed be reduced, if electrical power plants driven by fossil fuels are being replaced by nuclear power plants. However the application of nuclear power unfortunately is highly problematic, therefore the problem of CO2 emissions must not be looked at independently of all other risks and problems. See our text about pros and cons of nuclear power for a summary of the advantages and disadvantages.

 

How much can nuclear energy reduce the main cause of global warming?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) records the energy consumption world-wide and produces a forecast for the next 25 years. In their last energy outlook published in autumn 2006, IEA predicts a strong increase of the carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2030 as a consequence of the increasing demand for energy world-wide.

Additionally, IEA investigated to which extent the above mentioned emissions of CO2 could be prevented if politics applied rigorous measures. One of many measures investigated was massive facilitations and incentives for building additional nuclear power plants.

From all measures proposed, nuclear energy was found to have the smallest effect (only 10%). This result is even more remarkable facing the fact that IEA is known for having no reservations whatsoever against nuclear energy.

The chart below shows the effects of each proposed measure to reduce the main cause of global warming, the emission of carbon dioxide:

 

How to mitigate the cause of global warming

 

Graph1: Proportional effect of measures to mitigate the main cause of global warming, the emission of CO2 by the year 2030. 100% = effect of all proposed measures together. Data source: International Energy Agency (IEA). http://iea.org

 

 

The following results attract attention:

  • Almost 80% of the desired effects are due to increasing the energy efficiency (36% due to increasing the efficiency of the use of fossil energy, 29% due to increasing the efficiency of electrical appliances and 13% due to increasing the efficiency at the electrical power generation).
  • 12% of the desired effects are due to furthering the generation and application of renewable energies.
  • Only 10% of the desired effects are due to furthering nuclear energy.

This result is surprising, in particular if you think about how nuclear power is praised as solution to global warming by politicians like George W. Bush and Tony Blair. It seems like they would (again) head into the wrong direction.

Instead of talking about measures to increase the energy efficiency, which accounts for 80% of the effects, some politicians propagandize building nuclear power plants, which according to IEA can only account for 10% of the desired effects. Here the focus is clearly on the wrong subject!

 

Why is the focus on nuclear energy instead of energy efficiency?

Unfortunately, there is no lobby for energy efficiency, except perhaps some environmental organisations. The nuclear industry however, does have quite a strong lobby world-wide. If a politician asks for a higher efficiency of cars, he or she gets opposed immediately by the automobile industry (keyword work places). If the same politician suggests building nuclear power plants, he or she can even hope for some money for the next election campaign.

 

Why use nuclear power at all?

If the focus is put only to avoid the emission of CO2 and if all other side effects are neglected, then nuclear energy can indeed contribute to the solution. However the problem of climate change should be solved and discussed in a much wider context: It is important to limit our consumption of resources to such an amount which does not curtail future generations nor other beings on Earth. We finally must learn to live a sustainable living .

In this context, nuclear power plants are no solution at all. On the contrary, it would mean to shift from one problem (CO2 emission) to another and not less severe problem (nuclear waste, risk of nuclear catastrophes, limited resource uranium, nuclear proliferation).

 

Conclusion

Nuclear energy could contribute only little to reduce the cause of global warming. Moreover, it can only be a serious option if you shut the eyes to the many cons of nuclear power.

Our energy consumption has increased year by year. Politics and industry made sure that the demand of energy was always fulfilled. Supply followed demand. Sustainability was rarely looked at.

We will now have to change our behaviour: We can only afford to use as much energy as we are able to produce in a sustainable way. Demand has to follow supply and not vice-versa any more. If we do so, pretended solutions like nuclear power are automatically out of discussion.