Nuclear Energy Versus Fossil Fuels

Nuclear power is garnering an increasing amount of attention as a climate-friendly energy alternative to fossil fuels which are greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive energy sources.  Emissions-free nuclear energy is both safe and clean and as such it is a logical alternative to fossil fuels. Nuclear also generates a million times more energy per atom than the combustion of fossil fuels.

Most of our serious and worsening environmental problems are related to the burning of fossil fuels. So it is not overly facile to suggest that ending fossil fuels is the answer,  A total of 70 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere today are attributable to energy derived from fossil fuels. Every year millions of people are killed by dirty energy and as the leading driver of climate change, fossil fuels are an existential threat to human civilization

Despite these dire realities we continue to rely on oil, coal, and gas. Eighty percent of all the energy we consume is derived from fossil fuels. According to the recently released Renewables 2022 Global Status Report, the world is using more fossil fuels than ever.  To make matters worse, many nations are seeking to increase oil and gas extraction which UN Secretary-General Guterres recently described as “delusional”.

Transitioning away from fossil fuels is central to efforts to curtail climate change, clean up the air, and slow biodiversity loss. A side-by-side comparison reveals that nuclear power is far better than fossil fuels. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, coal plants generate around 2,200 lbs of carbon pollution per megawatt-hour (MWh), natural gas generates 1,100 lbs of CO2 per MWh while nuclear does not generate any.  The overwhelming logic of nuclear power is impossible to ignore. 

Nuclear energy has averted millions of tons of carbon pollution. This is energy that would otherwise have been generated by fossil fuels.  Each year more than 470 million metric tons of CO2 emissions are avoided by nuclear power in the U.S. alone. That is equivalent to taking nearly 100 million combustion engines off the road.  According to the World Nuclear Association, the 445 reactors on the planet prevent 2.5 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 emissions from going into the atmosphere every year and UNECE reports that nuclear power has avoided about 74Gt of CO2 over the last half-century.  By 2050 nuclear power and other clean sources of energy could eliminate carbon and other air pollutants. 

Nuclear energy is a central part of our efforts to transition away from fossil fuels. As reported by Real Clear Energy,, “we have more and more member states recognizing that, in order to achieve the decarbonization goals, we need nuclear in the mix,” an EU industry representative was quoted as saying. Speaking about the energy crisis caused by Russia’s war, the same representative also said, “I think more and more people are starting to recognize the risk of depending on imports”.  Russia’s war of choice in Ukraine adds to the rationale for supporting nuclear power. As reported by the Economist, the effort to transition away from Russian fossil fuels is making nuclear energy increasingly attractive.

Poland is responding to the need to transition away from dependence on Russian fossil fuels by building 6 nuclear power stations to replace coal-fired power plants. Ukraine, the target of Russia’s aggressive war, has fifteen nuclear reactors which supply more than half of the country’s electricity needs.

Russia’s nuclear dominance and global tritium shortages 

As much of the world moves away from Russian fossil fuels we are receiving warnings about Russia’s dominant role as a purveyor of both nuclear fuel and nuclear technology. Russian technology makes up a fifth (18.22%) of the world’s nuclear reactors and the country currently produces 40 percent of the global supply of enriched uranium for civilian nuclear energy. Russia is the only commercial supplier of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU).

Drawing on a paper from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, a CNBC article by Catherine Clifford reviewed Russia’s dominance in the global supply chains of nuclear technology. The report by Paul Dabbar, a former undersecretary of Energy for Science at the Department of Energy, and Matthew Bowen, a research scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy, indicates that 38 of the 439 reactors in the world were made in Russia, an additional 42 were made with Russian nuclear reactor technology, and 15 more under construction employ Russian technology.  The paper also stated that Russia owns 40 percent of the total uranium conversion infrastructure in the world and 46 percent of the total uranium enrichment capacity.

The demand for HALEU is expected to increase as a fuel for advanced reactors and it is currently only available on a commercial scale from Russia.  HALEU fuel is enriched 5-20 percent compared to 3-5 percent for most traditional reactors. To provide a domestic supply line, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is supporting TRISO-X, LLC Fuel Fabrication Facility (TF3) which is the first HALEU fuel fabrication facility in the U.S. 

As reported by CNN, to wean the U.S. off of Russian uranium imports, the Biden administration is pushing lawmakers to support a $4.3 billion plan to buy enriched uranium directly from domestic producers. Westinghouse recently signed a major agreement with Energoatom to supply nuclear fuel to Ukrainian power plants.  

Image credit: Science

Another nuclear fuel shortage may be equally troubling. We are already seeing shortages of tritium and these shortages are expected to become seriously problematic if we realize the dream of fusion energy (tritium is the key fuel source for fusion reactors). 

As reported by Wired, even though fusion is not yet a commercial reality, we are already seeing supply shortages. According to some estimates, tritium is the most expensive substance on Earth costing $30,000 per gram. Tritium is created by heavy-water moderated reactors, mostly in Canada, but these are reaching the end of their working life. India has plans to build more of these specialized reactors, however, there are concerns that demand will grossly exceed supply. Nuclear fusion reactors can breed tritium, but testing has been reduced due to costs. Efforts are also underway to find alternatives to tritium. One example comes from California-based TAE Technologies which is attempting to build a fusion reactor that uses hydrogen and boron.

The insanity of shutting down nuclear power plants and replacing them with fossil fuels 

Interest in nuclear power is growing as an emissions-free alternative to fossil fuels. Finland is one of many countries that are relying on nuclear energy to eliminate coal power. The country currently gets 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and NATO’s newest member will soon double its installed capacity.

While countries like Finland are moving forward, some have imposed a moratorium on new nuclear energy, and others are moving backward replacing nuclear plants with fossil fuels. This is irrational as decades of research demonstrate that nuclear energy is far safer and cleaner than fossil fuels. Recently released Japanese research compared the life cycles of power production and found that nuclear energy releases far less GHGs and uses far fewer natural resources than fossil fuels  According to the Wall Street Journal, GHG emissions from nuclear energy are 1/400th those of gas and 1/700th those of coal. Nonetheless, public misinformation has caused many countries to move away from nuclear power in recent years.

The production of nuclear energy has slowed since its peak in the 1990s. According to Rethink Energy, nuclear’s share of the world’s electricity production fell from 17.5 percent in 1996 to 10.1 percent in 2020. Many countries replaced decommissioned nuclear power plants with fossil fuels. In wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2012, Japan vowed to reduce its reliance on nuclear energy. According to Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics, replacing nuclear facilities with fossil fuels is expected to increase Japan’s annual CO2 emissions by 60 million tonnes, or more than 5 percent.

Canada shut down the Gentilly reactor in Quebec in 2012, there are now only two provinces (Ontario and New Brunswick) generating energy from nuclear power plants. No additional nuclear plants are planned in Canada. The rates of power production from nuclear energy in Canada are expected to decline from 98 TWh in 2014 to 77 TWh in 2040.

Germany is also in the process of replacing its nuclear plants with coal-fired plants. Early in 2022, Germany shut down half its six remaining nuclear reactors and the rest will stop producing electricity by the end of this year.  

Replacing decommissioned nuclear plants with fossil fuels has been shown to significantly increase GHG emissions. In 2019, Germany emitted 350 grams of carbon dioxide for every KWh generated while France emitted 56 grams. Despite significant upfront costs, once the plant is built electricity from nuclear power is one of the least expensive energy options. Nuclear energy has proven to be far less expensive to consumers. In France the cost of energy is half as expensive as it is in Germany, it is also six times cleaner

In the U.S. support for nuclear has been slowed by politicians and activists who oppose nuclear energy. Ten years ago Joe Lieberman called for a freeze on permitting new US nuclear power plants in the U.S.In the last decade, 12 commercial nuclear power plants have closed in the U.S. before their licenses expired. In the regions where these plants were shuttered, we have seen a rise in emissions and diminished air quality. Seven more nuclear plants are slated to be closed in the U.S. by 2025.

Protestors succeeded in pressuring politicians to close the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in New York State last year which resulted in a 30 percent increase in gas usage.  California has been shutting down nuclear plants in recent years and it aims to shut down the two remaining nuclear reactors by 2025.  In both New York and California, the energy shortfall is being made up by increasing reliance on natural gas.  Since 1960, the United States has retired 40 nuclear generators, and 2021 was a record-setting year for nuclear plant shutdowns according to the EIA.

Leading environmental organizations have traditionally supported efforts to close nuclear power plants. The Natural Resources Defense Council was behind the closures of plants in both New York and California. Countries like Germany and states like California and New York pander to the well-intentioned albeit woefully misinformed anti-nuclear environmental lobby.  

Recently, members of the European parliament voted to exclude nuclear power as an environmentally sustainable source of energy and all over the world green advocates have staked out notoriously anti-nuclear positions.  As Elon Musk said recently, “it’s crazy to shut down nuclear power plants”. Even though nuclear energy has proven to be both clean and safe, fearmongering continues to curtail nuclear power and this promotes fossil fuel use.

A new understanding of nuclear energy is emerging 

People have been swayed by unwarranted hysteria about the dangers of nuclear energy, however, this is changing. As pointed out by Catherine Clifford in a CNBC article, “despite its fraught origin story and the psychological effect of high-profile accidents, nuclear energy is getting a second look.” 

As B. David Zarley pointed out in a recent Freethink article, the public’s perception of nuclear energy is the biggest obstacle preventing its uptake. But as Trevor English argues in an Interesting Engineering article, the tides are turning as “Nuclear power is beginning to make a stronger and stronger case for itself in the global energy market.”

While environmental protesters have commonly railed against nuclear energy, a new breed of environmentalist is emerging. This includes people like Finish environmental activist Iida Ruishalme. While she strongly supports renewable energy, she is also calling for more nuclear energy.  Ruishalme is a member of Mothers for Nuclear and like a growing number of others, she has concluded that nuclear power is a smart energy choice. Pro-nuclear environmental activism is spreading as evidenced by the 2021 UN climate change conference in Glasgow (COP 26). A large number of activists in Glasgow sported blue shirts that read, “Let’s Talk About Nuclear” with the self-explanatory hashtag #NetZeroNeedsNuclear.

COP 26 was the first climate talks that welcomed discussions about nuclear energy as part of the drive towards net zero.  According to PitchBook, COP26 set the stage for private investors to “fully commit to investing trillions of dollars into clean [nuclear] technologies over the next 30 years”  During the conference, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm repeatedly described nuclear energy as the “holy grail” of climate solutions and Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared nuclear energy now has a “seat at the table”. 

We are seeing tangible illustrations of this changing mood.  Through The Nuclear Futures Package, the U.S. State Department is partnering with Poland, Kenya, Ukraine, Brazil, Indonesia, and other countries to support the expansion of nuclear power.

As explained by Esam Hussein, the dean of engineering and applied science at the University of Regina, new nuclear technologies are the key to climate action. Chief among these new nuclear technologies are small modular reactors (SMR) and nuclear fusion which have the potential to generate 8 million times more energy than oil,  Just 1 gram of fuel can generate the equivalent energy of eight tons of oil.

It is clear that we must end our reliance on fossil fuels. As explained by Bernard Bigot, the late director-general of ITER, nuclear energy is the only power source that is capable of replacing fossil fuels in a timely manner. France is a model for the world generating 78 percent of its energy needs with Nuclear and 19 percent with renewables. Fossil fuels account for only 3 percent of France’s energy mix.  

The fear of nuclear power is being transformed by a sober review of the facts.  The urgent need for climate action is enabling us to look at nuclear energy through a different lens. A new understanding of the energy-climate nexus is emerging and it is becoming increasingly clear that nuclear power is the best hope we have of replacing fossil fuels within the limited timeframes we have. 

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