Nuclear power plants generate electricity in almost the same way as traditional fossil fuel-based power plants. Both heat water into steam, which powers a generator that produces energy from charged electrons. It is the method of heating the water that is the major difference. Fossil fuel plants burn coal, oil or gas to make heat, while nuclear plants use nuclear fission, which is where one atom splits into two, releasing heat in the process.
Because nothing is burnt in nuclear fission, the process does not emit carbon dioxide. However, the life-cycle of nuclear power still involves greenhouse gases from mining, transport and construction. Nevertheless, the total emissions are much lower than for fossil fuel plants with the same net energy production. That means that nuclear power contributes far less to global warming than coal or oil.
While major disasters come to mind when we think about nuclear power, in reality nuclear technology has developed greatly in the last couple of decades. The Chernobyl disaster is much less likely to happen in modern plants, but there nonetheless remains a minor risk of major disaster, as the Fukushima catastrophe reminded us.
Because of this risk, and other environmental and social issues around nuclear power, there is major debate over whether nuclear has a role in combating the climate crisis, even if it does have low carbon emissions.
Supporters of nuclear power argue that other renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power do not have the capacity to provide reliable ‘base load power’, which is the minimum energy needs of society. Fossil-fuel energy can provide base load power, but it is the primary contributor to global warming. Sequestration of the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels is not yet possible, leaving nuclear power as the only option.
However, opponents to nuclear power refute some of these claims and raise other concerns. They claim that base-load power demands can change, and government regulations and economic incentives are needed to reduce consumption of energy. By lowering consumption patters, renewables can indeed produce base-load power.
Nuclear plants also takes at least 10 years to build, yet we need to make deep cuts to greenhouse emissions today in order to prevent rapid climate change. On the other hand, energy efficiency measures and renewable energy systems can be constructed in as little as 6 months.
Nuclear power also produces radioactive waste that must be stored safely for hundreds of thousands of years. Yet after nearly 50 years of research, there is still no place on Earth that can safely store nuclear waste. Many argue that it is irresponsible for us to use nuclear power when we have nowhere to place this dangerous waste.
Environmentalists are also concerned that nuclear power requires vast amounts of water to cool the reactive material. Finally, uranium deposits are not a renewable resource, but could be completely depleted within 40 years.
For these reasons, and the fact that renewable energy technologies are less expensive and quicker to build, nuclear energy alone is unlikely to solve global warming. Nevertheless, it offers lower emissions that traditional fossil fuel technology, and ongoing research may lead to solutions to some of its flaws.
Babs McHugh, ‘Renewables vs nuclear CO2 emissions’, ABC Rural News, 31 August 2008, http://www.abc.net.au/rural/content/2008/s2672323.htm
Robin Williams, ‘Nuclear power plants – now safer and cheaper’, The Science Show, ABC Radio National, 18 July 2008,http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/stories/2009/2629053.htm
Fred Pearce, ‘Greenwash: Why ‘clean coal’ is the ultimate climate change oxymoron’, The Guardian, 26 February 2009,http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/feb/26/greenwash-clean-coal
Noelle Straub and Peter Behr, ‘Energy Regulatory Chief Says New Coal, Nuclear Plants May Be Unnecessary’, The New York Times, 22 April 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2009/04/22/22greenwire-no-need-to-build-new-us-coal-or-nuclear-plants-10630.html
Greenpeace, ‘Climate Change – Nuclear not the answer’, p. 2, http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/briefing-nuclear-not-answer-apr07.pdf
Greenpeace, ‘Climate Change – Nuclear not the answer’, p. 1, http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/briefing-nuclear-not-answer-apr07.pdf