Nuclear Power & Climate Change

The concern for climate change has made many environmental researchers advocates of nuclear power. Photo: iStock

Key part of the climate package

Nuclear power is integral in the fight against climate change, where each step to the right direction is necessary.

“The Paris Agreement requires major greenhouse gas emission cuts globally. Nuclear power is an important means of cutting the emissions,” says energy expert Pia Oesch.

The greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced quickly: according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), the CO2 content of the atmosphere is now 44% higher than before the start of industrialization. Meanwhile, the contents of the other greenhouse gases have also increased. At present, there are more gases in the atmosphere that heat it up than there has been in the past 800,000 years at least.

People have started to realize that we are in a hurry here. The Paris Agreement was a vital, but inadequate step in the reduction of the emissions.  For example, the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland analyzed, before the Paris Climate Change Agreement was signed in November 2015, that the climate promises made by 159 countries will not be enough to limit the warming of the climate by two degrees Celsius.

The concern for climate change has made many environmental researchers advocates of nuclear power. A couple of years ago, 65 environmental researchers signed an appeal requesting that the environmental movement reconsider its attitude towards nuclear power. Leading climate researchers had already before that signed an open letter to the decision-makers of the world, stating that nuclear power is a necessary part of the energy mix of the future.

Nuclear power and wind power have the best performance

One of the most comprehensive studies on the environmental impact of different forms of energy was made by Australian researchers Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw. They determined the benefits and disadvantages of seven forms of energy. The performance of nuclear power and wind power were clearly the best.

In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, the researchers considered land use and the utilization of water systems. All forms of energy have their own cons. Not even hydropower, which is commonly considered a zero emission form of energy, is without its problems: around 60% of all the rivers in the world have been harnessed. There are more than 40,000 large dams in the world.

Nuclear power’s pro-con ratio was so high that Brook and Bradshaw came to the conclusion that excluding nuclear power from the list of feasible alternatives would be dangerously shortsighted.

A couple of years ago, researchers of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) even gave a wild estimate according to which the use of nuclear energy instead of fossil fuels has saved almost two million lives in the past few decades.

Many researchers in Finland think along the same lines.

“For nuclear power, the combined negative impact per one unit of electricity produced is one-tenth, and partly even one-hundredth, of the negative impact of traditional forms of energy,” says Esa Vakkilainen, a professor of energy technology at the Lappeenranta University of Technology.

According to Vakkilainen, Germany’s decision to close down its nuclear power plants while retaining its coal-fired power plants for employment reasons is especially disquieting.

“Now they are selling renewable energy to their neighbors, but their own CO2 emissions have not changed.”

The United Arab Emirates, which is currently building four nuclear power plants, and Saudi-Arabia, which is planning to build 17 nuclear power plants, have chosen a completely different policy despite the fact that they have both oil and sun to use.

Cooperation assists on the road towards zero emissions

Around 80 per cent of the world’s energy production is based on fossil sources. The world has been built on oil and coal for the past hundred years, which means that a new leaf cannot be turned over in a couple of years, not even in Finland and especially not globally.

According to an estimate by Finnish Energy, 40–45% of the electricity produced in Finland will be nuclear electricity in 2030, and an equal amount will be based on renewable sources, such as hydropower, wind power, and bioenergy. The share of fossil energy sources and peat is some 10–15% in this scenario.

This would mean an increase of 5–10 percentage units for nuclear power and a reduction of an equal size for fossil fuels.

That would be a major change in the electricity production structure, however, as the scenario also includes replacing some of the import of electricity with own production.  At the same time, the share of electricity in the energy consumption of traffic is expected to significantly increase. This would be a major step, as traffic generates around half of the CO2 emissions for the reduction of which the Finnish Government is responsible at the national level.

“The coefficient of performance of an electric motor is clearly superior to that that of an internal combustion engine. Therefore, electrification of society means a major increase in energy-efficiency,” Pia Oesch says.

That is why increasing the share of electric cars is a one of the key parts of the Finnish energy and climate strategy.


More smart energy solutions

In addition to the production of energy, the comprehensive strategy on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions takes into account consumption, as does the Finnish energy and climate strategy. Digital solutions have a key role in the promotion of smart consumption.

Smart energy solutions will be especially important in the future, as the share of energy production with varying output, such as wind and solar power, will increase. The large share of such energy production is a challenge at present, because wind power cannot be stored for windless days, for example. That is one of the reasons why base load power, such as nuclear energy – a stable and reliable source of energy – is needed.

Smart energy solutions will enable automatic shutdown of heating systems in households during the peak consumption period for a short period of time, for example. It has been estimated that shutting down heating systems in the entire country for one minute would save an amount of energy corresponding to 1.5 large power plants.

A host of similar solutions are to be expected. The batteries of electric cars could be used to store energy, remote management of electrical equipment would allow for a decrease in the consumption of electricity, and a heating system that reacts to the number of people in the room could save a significant amount of energy.

In any case, smart consumption of energy, new business models, and production methods that produce little greenhouse gases – such as nuclear power – will be key elements in the battle against climate change.

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