The Biggest Obstacle For Nuclear Energy

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By Haley Zaremba

Nuclear has long been touted as one of the most promising”clean” energy alternatives to fossil fuels. As a form of energy production with zero carbon emissions, it’s commonly seen as key to decarbonization and an effective global clean energy transition in order to combat climate change.  It may come as no surprise, then, that China’s own ambitious plan to bring the nation’s carbon footprint all the way down to zero by the years 2060 relies heavily on the bolstering of its nuclear energy industry, which is on track to become the biggest in the world.

Although nuclear has many vocal advocates, however, China is in the minority in its doubling down on nuclear energy. Around the world, nuclear has largely fallen out of favor. The United States, the world’s largest producer of nuclear energy, has allowed its nuclear fleet to age out and get priced out by a flood of cheap natural gas thanks to the domestic shale revolution. What is left of the nuclear industry is outdated and heavily reliant on government subsidies. Japan, another one of the world’s leading nuclear energy producers, has swerved sharply away from nuclear energy since the tragic Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

While nuclear energy has its benefits, it also has plenty of drawbacks. Nuclear disasters, while extremely rare, loom large in the public imagination and make nuclear unfavorable for many who don’t want a potential for nuclear fallout in their backyard. It’s also extremely expensive from start to finish: building a new plant requires huge investment, and the radioactive waste created as a byproduct of the nuclear energy production process has to be managed for tens of thousands of years. And now, a new study spearheaded by the UK’s University of Sussex (UoS) for the scientific journal Nature Energy, shows that nuclear might not even be that great for lowering carbon emissions.

In fact, the study found that renewables are “up to seven times more effective at reducing carbon emissions than nuclear power.” As summarized by PV Magazine, the study “concluded nuclear could no longer be considered an effective low carbon energy technology, and suggests that countries aiming to rapidly and cost-effectively reduce their energy emissions should prioritize renewables.”

The study by UoS is based on the testing of three central hypotheses: “Firstly, that emissions decline the more a country adopts nuclear; secondly, that emissions decline the more a country adopts renewables; and thirdly, that nuclear and renewables are ‘mutually exclusive’ options that tend to crowd each other out at an energy system level.” The three hypotheses were tested against a data set consisting of “25 years’worth of electricity-production and emissions data from 123 countries.”

This likely comes as a huge surprise to nuclear energy advocates who have been touting nuclear as our best bet to combat catastrophic climate change for years. However, the writing has been on the wall for a while now. As NewScientist reported this week, while nuclear and renewables have been seen as two different and valid approaches to decarbonization, across the board, countries that focused their decarbonization efforts on renewables have had more success in lowering their carbon footprints than those who focused on nuclear energy. “Nations that embraced renewable energy have significantly cut their carbon emissions, but those pursuing nuclear power failed to do so,” NewScientist reports.

In fact, some nations even saw an increase in carbon dioxide emissions correlated with the increased use of nuclear energy. According to the UoS study, there was a breakdown upon economic lines, with richer countries being able to effectively use nuclear to lower their carbon footprints, but poor countries and regions (those with a lower gross domestic product) actually saw their carbon footprint expand when nuclear production increased.

This study comes at an essential moment in which nations around the world are designing economic stimulus packages to overcome the recession being ushered in by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Countries that have included nuclear in their green stimulus plans may want to rethink their strategy–even if it’s in concert with investment in renewables. Another report by Science Daily this week shows that trying to adopt a hybrid approach that includes both nuclear and renewables is even less effective. At a time when the world is reckoning with and engineering a “new energy order” and a “great reset, such findings have never been so important, and governments around the world would do well to read the reports.

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