As our demand to reduce greenhouse gas emissions grows, we must prioritize supplying the energy needs of society. This means we must generate much more zero-emission electricity. Already a major contributor of carbon-free electricity in 32 countries, nuclear power is a proven, scalable tool with the largest economic multiplier effect. About 30 countries are considering, planning or starting nuclear technology to meet domestic energy needs, tackle climate change, and improve the lives of people suffering from energy poverty. Advanced industrial democracies like France, the United Kingdom, and Japan are fast reversing their nuclear phaseout policies.
Comprehensive lifecycle emissions of electricity generation sources by the United Nations ECE show nuclear, wind, and solar to have the lowest impact. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 granted nuclear the same tax credits as solar and wind, and the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act of 2019 has mandated the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reform the U.S. regulatory framework to comply with risk-informed performance-based measures.
Industrial energy facilities’ land footprint is proportional to habitat destruction and biodiversity loss. Nuclear is the most land-sparing energy technology, allowing for conservation and rewilding of nature. Rooftop solar has minimal incremental land footprint at the point of installation. While Onshore Wind’s direct impact (turbine base) is minimal, the usability of the space between turbines is degraded.
Over six decades of civilian nuclear generation, with 440 reactors now operating in 32 countries worldwide. Measured in deaths per unit electricity generated, nuclear has proven itself to be as safe as solar and wind. According to the UN, there has been only one accident at a nuclear power plant resulting in fatalities from radiation. This was a reactor in the former Soviet Union which lacked a containment building and other basic features of plants in the US and elsewhere in the world.
Lifecycle material use by technology also show nuclear to be the lowest resource-intensive carbon-free energy source.
Batteries, steel and cement not included.
Fuels not included, which are not needed for storage-less technologies (wind/solar/wave).
For perspective, Uranium is 20 grams per megawatt-hour, and costs in the order of magnitude as Chromium and Molybdenum.
Nuclear waste products are compact and contained. Today, spent fuel is safely stored in secure concrete casks. In the future, it could be recycled as fuel in advanced reactors or stored permanently underground. In the entire history of commercial nuclear power, nobody has ever died from spent nuclear fuel, yet fossil fuel waste (air pollution) contributes to millions of deaths annually.
To understand the costs of electricity provision requires systems level thinking. The combination of plant-level costs, grid-level systems costs, and full social & environmental costs creates a framework that allows policymakers to compare the costs of different generating options.
Firm resources — generators able to provide power on-demand regardless of the time of day or weather — like nuclear & hydro do not need extensive storage, transmission, and (fossil) backup generation to ensure system reliability.
Arbitrarily limiting generation technologies to intermittent sources raises system-level raise costs. System-level costs increase exponentially at high penetration of intermittent sources like solar & wind.
Nuclear generations operate at over 90% capacity factor 24 hours and 365 days, underpinning reliability.
Chart capacity factor is for installed base of rooftop solar in New York State.
Only a quarter of anthropocentric greenhouse gasses are from the electricity sector. Decarbonizing industrial processes, building heating and cooling, and all transportation is a much larger and harder task. While a portion of these sectors can be electrified (e.g. electric vehicles, heat pumps), some cannot (e.g. steel-making, aviation).
Beyond the electric sector, civilian nuclear technology can efficiently provide direct heat for industrial processes, produce low-carbon liquid fuels to decarbonize transportation, and power negative emissions technologies.
Nuclear is an evidence-based pathway for deep decarbonization. Real-world evidence shows that nuclear is the only technology to have ever scaled up fast enough to counter climate change except hydropower. Today, most of the world’s hydro resources are tapped out.
- United Nations ECE. Life Cycle Assessment of Electricity Generation Options. March 2022
- Our World in Data. What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy?
- U.S. Department of Energy. Energy & Employment Jobs Report
- OECD-NEA. Meeting Climate Change Targets: The Role of Nuclear Energy. 2022
- New York Independent System Operator Gold Book
- Our World in Data. Emissions by Sector