Nuclear Energy: Way More than Carbon Neutral

by Jarret Adams

Antinuclear activists lately have been trotting out that old chestnut that nuclear energy is not really CO2-free and that this claim is some type of deception. Here’s the short version: nuclear power plants do not produce CO2 while they are producing electricity. For each new AREVA EPR™ reactor that we build, we can avoid 10 million tons of CO2 emissions per year compared to a coal-fired plant.

Chart courtesy NEI.

Chart courtesy NEI.

Here’s the longer version: all power sources, including nuclear energy, renewables, fossil fuels and everything else, produce CO2 at various points during their respective lifecycles. There are emissions during the construction of new facilities, manufacturing of components, obtaining and refining the fuel, transportation to and from the facility, and so on. On the basis of lifecycle emissions, there is no energy source that does not produce some CO2 emissions when one includes full lifecycle and all related activities.

Nevertheless, even when one considers the lifecycle emissions of nuclear energy and renewables, they are very comparable. Reputable studies confirm this. A 2002 University of Wisconsin study showed that nuclear energy had 17 tons of CO2 emissions per Gigawatt-hour (GWh) of electricity compared with 14 tons of CO2 emissions per GWh for wind. For comparison, coal had 1,041 tons of CO2 emissions per GWh.

Several other studies, including 2008 study by the International Energy Agency (OECD), and a 2006 study by the U.K. Government, offer similar conclusions: nuclear energy lifecycle emissions are similar to wind and lower than solar photovoltaic. Here also is a great article from a UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) publication that lays it out well.

This should take nothing away from renewables – AREVA supports renewables. We are currently installing our M5000 offshore wind turbines off the coast of Germany and recently announced an agreement to build 80 more. These 5 MW turbines are the world’s biggest, and we hope to build hundreds of them around the world, including here in North America.

The point is that nuclear energy and renewables are complementary and are key elements in helping us move toward a low-carbon future. Anti-nukes seem to believe that a dollar spent on nuclear energy is a dollar taken away from renewables. This is not true. We need to begin investing more in both if we are serious about addressing our energy and climate change goals.

  • This is excellent information and should put to rest the myth that a nuclear plant’s life cycle CO2 emissions are equal to that of a gas plant.