Nuclear Power Versus Renewable Energy

While renewables are widely touted as the future of energy, nuclear power is increasingly being discussed as a necessary part of the mix.  To combat climate change we must replace greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive fossil fuels with emissions-free energy. Although both nuclear and renewables are clean sources of energy, renewables (hydroelectric, solar, wind, and biogas) account for nearly 29 percent of the energy mix, while nuclear is only around 10 percent.  A breakdonwn of low carbon energy reveals that 11.4 percent comes from renewables; and only 4.3 percent comes from nuclear

A growing chorus is calling for emissions reduction with many countries signing on to the UN’s Net  Zero commitment, In the US and elsewhere polls indicate that people want to reduce carbon. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted at the beginning of this year, a clear majority of Americans (69%) favor taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2050. While 72 percent want more solar and wind, only slightly more than a third want more nuclear power.  While both renewables and nuclear are emissions-free, many are bullish on renewables, but reticent when it comes to nuclear.  

Cost comparison of nuclear energy and renewables 

Due to construction costs, nuclear power is more expensive than renewable sources of energy.  In terms of construction and installation nuclear is the most costly form of energy, while renewables are the least expensive.  Many are hoping that fusion could reduce costs, but as reported in Nature, even if advanced fusion reactors are deployed commercially, they will not be able to compete with wind, solar and geothermal in terms of pricing.  

David Suzuki claimed the energy from nuclear power costs 10 times that of wind and solar, while the US Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2022 indicates that the cost of electricity from advanced nuclear power stations is double the cost of solar farms. An analysis of the levelized costs of energy {LCOE) by Lazard investment bank indicates that wind and solar energy are five times cheaper than nuclear. The report also concluded that renewables remain less expensive even when we include storage and network costs. The declining costs of battery technology are also contributing to ongoing wind and solar price declines. 

As the cost of renewables is decreasing, the cost of nuclear power is increasing.  Between 2009 and 2021, renewables like wind and solar have declined by 90 percent, while nuclear power has increased by 33 percent. The average five-year compound annual declines of utility-scale solar are 8 percent and offshore wind is 4 percent.  Solar is increasingly less expensive than fossil fuels and price declines are expected to continue as the technology scales.  

While renewables offer a compelling value proposition, there are also solid arguments in support of nuclear. When we evaluate the economic and environmental costs of different types of energy generation, we should also factor in the lifespan of the technology  Nuclear power plants can operate for 40 years (some advanced nuclear designs may last 60 years) while solar panels last a maximum of 30 years, and wind turbines last an average of 25 years.  There is evidence to suggest that nuclear power lowers the cost of energy for consumers as illustrated by the costs of energy in France and Germany. France, which gets 70 percent of its energy from nuclear, is far cheaper than Germany which has effectively removed nuclear from the mix. 

Advantages of nulclear energy compared to renewables

Nuclear energy has advantages over renewables in terms of reliability, GHG emissions, land use and waste. Nuclear is far more reliable (dispatchable) than renewables like wind and solar. Nuclear plants keep churning out energy even when the wind is not blowing, and the sun is not shining. 

Nuclear is also one of the cleanest sources of energy. Recent research published in the Journal of Cleaner Production found that the emission of GHGs and natural resource use associated with nuclear power generation was similar to that of renewable energy.  An analysis by the European Commission indicates that in terms of full-cycle production, the emissions from nuclear are around the same as wind.  Other studies have concluded that nuclear may be even cleaner than solar. Orano claims that nuclear power generates four times fewer GHGs than solar. 

Nuclear also requires substantially less land than wind and solar.  According to some assessments, nuclear requires 1/2,000th as much land as wind and 1/400th as much land as solar.  US government data indicates that a 1,000-megawatt wind farm requires 360 times more land than a similar-capacity nuclear facility, while a solar plant requires 75 times more area.  

While there are valid concerns about nuclear waste, there are also legitimate issues with renewable waste.  Wind and solar generate a litany of chemical wastes including toxic heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, chromium, and lead. While nuclear waste can remain radioactive for thousands of years, waste metals associated with renewables remain dangerous forever. Perhaps most importantly, the volume of nuclear waste is a tiny fraction of renewable waste. Nuclear waste is 1/10,000th of the waste generated by solar and 1/500th of the waste generated by wind.

Perceptions of nuclear vs. renewables

Despite hyperbolic headlines, nuclear energy is both clean and safe.  Some people inaccurately portray nuclear energy as a panacea but most do not share this optimistic assessment.  Many environmentalists and well-meaning renewable energy advocates have been swayed by misinformation about the dangers of nuclear energy

Even science-based environmentalists like David Suzuki oppose nuclear. Suzuki excludes nuclear and emphasizes renewables as the answer to our energy issues. “New nuclear doesn’t make practical or economic sense,” Suzuki wrote. Many supporters of renewable energy share this view and oppose nuclear power. 

In 2021, academics and other researchers signed a public declaration calling us to fight climate change by transitioning entirely to renewable energy. Stanford University professor Mark Z. Jacobson, is one of the signatories of the declaration and he is stridently anti-nuclear.  He wrote, “investing in new nuclear power is the surest way to climate disaster”.

Tim Judson, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and Linda Pentz Gunter the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear are concerned that support for nuclear power detracts from renewable energy. “Subsidizing nuclear power siphons funds from real solutions, like renewables, just when these are needed most urgently, thereby making climate change worse.” Ben Wealer, who researches nuclear power economics at the Technical University of Berlin, succinctly said, “[nuclear] blocks the cash we need for renewables.”

Fossil fuel use 

We are nowhere near where we need to be and we are moving in the wrong direction.  Oil, coal and gas make up 84.4 percent of global primary energy consumption. According to theauthoritative Renewables 2022 Global Status Report, the world is using more fossil fuels than ever and the transition to green energy has stalled.  The growth of renewables is being eclipsed by the growth in demand for energy. The net result is a 2 billion tonne net increase in carbon emissions.  

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, clearly stated that we are not doing enough to mitigate the climate crisis. According to another recent study, the current decarbonization scenarios will not result in the required drawdowns of carbon.  

Almost two-thirds of countries do not have economy-wide targets for renewables and national support for renewables is being undermined by the war in Ukraine. Germany is among a handful of countries that have abandoned zero carbon pledges in the wake of the energy crisis.

Rather than resist nuclear, renewable energy advocates may be better served by going after fossil fuel subsidies. Subsidies to fossil fuels are growing. As explained by  Rana Adib, the executive director of REN21 we are subsidizing fossil fuels at the rate of $11m per minute. in 2020 this amounted to 7 percent of the global GDP.  “This obviously creates a system which is unbalanced, because even though renewable energy is an economic alternative to fossil fuels, it’s not playing in a fair market,” Adib said.  That is why many are working to end fossil fuel subsidies and redirect them towards renewables.

Efforts to reduce GHGs

Despite the undeniable importance of renewables, we have to face the fact that wind and solar energy has not been able to slow let alone stop emissions from fossil fuels.  In 2019 only 16 percent of global primary energy came from low carbon sources (11.4% comes from renewables; and 4.3% comes from nuclear). Even if we were to cut subsidies to fossil fuels, renewables are nowhere near where they need to be to counter climate change. Esam Hussein, the dean of engineering and applied science at the University of Regina explained that renewables cannot yet solve the energy emissions problem on their own. Even the most optimistic assessments suggest it could take more than 30 years to transition to renewable energy. The problem is we do not have 30 years. 

There has been very little movement in the distribution of the energy mix.  “The share of renewable energy has moved in the last decade from 10.6% to 11.7%, but fossil fuels, all coal,  and gas have moved from 80.1% to 79.6%. So, it’s stagnating,” said Adib, adding that since energy demand is rising, we are actually using more fossil fuels than we ever have. 

There is no question that emissions-free renewables are critical sources of energy but even though wind and solar have been growing at a prodigious rate, To meet our emissions reduction goals renewables will need to be massively scaled. 

We have yet to come close to investing in renewables at the required scale. As reported by the BBC, UN Secretary-General Guterres recently called for a dramatic increase in spending on renewables, saying  “Had we invested massively in renewable energy in the past, we would not be so dramatically at the mercy of the instability of fossil fuel markets.” 

The fact is that we have not made the required investments in renewables, nor are we on the cusp of doing so. While renewables have experienced prodigious growth, they are not growing anywhere near fast enough to slow fossil fuels. The fact is that renewables have not made a dent in fossil fuel use.  It is hard to envision a pathway in which adequate solar and wind infrastructure will be built within the timeframes we have.

We have to face the hard reality that it is unlikely to build out enough renewable energy to allow us to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels within the window of time we have available. Germany is a good example, despite the national obsession with wind and solar the country still gets most of its energy from coal. Last October the International Energy Agency’s (EIA) World Energy Outlook bluntly stated the world is not transitioning to clean energy fast enough to zero out emissions by the middle of the century. Efficiency is part of the solution but we also need more clean power to meet the massive surge in demand associated with decarbonization through electrification.

We cannot afford to overlook nuclear power’s capacity to massively increase our production of emissions-free electricity. Nuclear fuel is by far the longest-lasting source of energy on the planet and among the most abundant.  Soil commonly contains an average of around 6 parts per million (ppm) of thorium and the uranium and thorium concentrations in seawater range from 1.80 to 4.1 and 0.14 to 0.88 microg/L, respectively.  The longevity of nuclear fuel can even be compared to solar power Astronomers estimate that the sun has about 7 billion to 8 billion years left, while the half-life of thorium- 232 is about 14 billion years. 

Nuclear energy and the question of time 

As we consider the important question of energy supply we must remember that the clock is ticking.  We need to reevaluate the claims of those who say “nuclear power has no business case and could make climate change worse“. While renewables can be built much more rapidly than nuclear power plants, they have not been able to replace fossil fuels and they are unlikely to do so in the time we have. 

Time is of the essence as indicated by a 2021 UNECE policy brief which warned that,  “time is running out to rapidly transform the global energy system,”

 As explained in The Hill, “the consequences of inaction exponentially increase as time marches on. If we have any hope of turning back the clock on the climate crisis, we need to ensure nuclear energy remains a vital part of our carbon-free energy mix with collaboration from every level of government.”

Foreign Affairs headline in 2021 read “Nuclear Energy Will Not Be the Solution to Climate Change There Is Not Enough Time for Nuclear Innovation to Save the Planet” In a CNN article, Ben Wealer, who researches nuclear power economics at the Technical University of Berlin, is quoted as saying we don’t have time to wait for new nuclear plants. “Looking at the time frames, it cannot be a huge help in combating climate change,” Weaver said. Jacobson also argues that we do not have the time to build nuclear power plants. Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who published a report that harshly criticized nuclear power called it ‘magical thinking’ to expect that advanced designs will be able to prove themselves within the limited timeframes we have. 

If we assess these claims from the ten-year timeframes required to build conventional nuclear energy facilities, we will not be able to deploy enough of these plants to meet 2030 emissions reduction targets. If these timelines are intractable nuclear energy is n ot a viable short-term option. But even if you accept the veracity of these timelines, nuclear remains our best hope for fully decarbonizing the energy sector by 2050. 

There are signs that we may be moving in this direction. Capital investments in nuclear increased dramatically in 2021. Around 60 GW of nuclear capacity was under construction at the start of last year, and more than 100 GW of planned reactor projects after 2030

Innovative nuclear power technologies may prove to be a game changer. According to the IEA nuclear technologies like small modular reactors (SMRs) have shorter construction and approval times,  SMRs can be manufactured quickly and installed just about anywhere. Conventional wisdom says it takes five years to build an SMR, however, China, Russia, and Korea have demonstrated that it is possible to build nuclear reactors in less than five years. China is working on a nuclear plant in Jiangsu province that will take only 2 years to construct. So there is still time to build out nuclear reactors to help us to achieve the 2030 carbon reduction goals.  As explained in World Nuclear News, “it is possible that some additional reactors that start construction before 2025 could be completed by 2030”. Microreactors can generate between 1 and 20 microwatts of power and they can be installed almost anywhere including large factories, residential building complexes, charging stations for electrical vehicles, data centers, desalination plants, and commercial shipping.

Which is better renewables or nuclear?

Jacobson argues that we should choose renewables over nuclear power, however, this is a false choice.  According to Dan Byers, vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, nuclear power is part of the clean energy mix. “[W]hile the case for nuclear power has always been strong, growing political support from governments, businesses, and environmental interests alike is making it stronger,” Byers said, adding, “To reach our ambitious global climate objectives, we need every tool in the toolbox to reduce emissions, and including nuclear energy needs to be a priority.”

Rather than being an either-or proposition, nuclear energy should be understood as an ideal partner for renewables like solar and wind.  George Bilicic, the vice-chair and global head of Lazard’s Power, Energy & Infrastructure Group explained that to slash emissions we need the full array of clean energy technologies: “[T]he transition [away from fossil fuels] will not be dominated by any one [energy] solution — rather a new ‘all of the above approach.” Bilicic said.

We are faced with a climate emergency that requires us to deploy every tool at our disposal to end our reliance on fossil fuels. As Spanish Vice  President Riberta explained the transition away from fossil fuels is, “our lifeline”. If we are to make this transition we must massively build out clean sources of energy and we cannot ignore the potential contribution of nuclear power. As EU climate chief Frans Timmermans stated, “nuclear being zero emissions is very important to reduce emissions.”  Climate scientist James Hansen explained his support for nuclear saying, “We need renewables to be complemented by a reliable, 24/7 energy source.”

Innovative nuclear power could revolutionize the energy mix. We are closer than we have ever been to realizing the dream of fusion energy so it is very possible that this new form of energy could be “an 11th-hour hero” Even if we do not realize this dream in the short term, increasing existing nuclear technologies could go a long way toward helping us to achieve our longer-term clean energy goals. 

The scale of the challenge we are facing is daunting. Even if we build out clean energy infrastructure at an expedited pace, we will still need to massively deploy carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies including the full range of natural climate solutions (NCS), direct air capture and other carbon capture, and sequestration technologies.

To achieve carbon neutrality we must deploy the full array of clean technologies. Without economy-wide clean energy, we will not be able to halve emissions by 2030 and eradicate them by 2050. Energy is central to efforts to combat the climate crisis, so we need all the sources of emissions-free power we have at our disposal. The mix of renewables and nuclear energy may be the best hope we have of zeroing out carbon by the middle of the century.

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