Don’t Ignore the Nuclear Option
It may be controversial. It’s also a reliable source of clean power that can replace fossil fuels.
With billions of workers at home and factories idle, early April saw daily carbon emissions fall 17% compared to 2019 averages, according to a study by a team of international scientists published this month. That’s great. Unfortunately, it only takes us back to 2006 levels, and it’s temporary.
For an even more painful reminder of the scale of the climate task, consider that for 2020 overall the same researchers from the University of East Anglia and Stanford estimate coronavirus lockdowns will amount to an emission reduction of about 4% to 7% — the sort of decline we need every year to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the boldest global target. The challenge is clear. So why are we leaving a major existing source of low-carbon power out of green stimulus discussions, as the European Union appeared to do last week?
Nuclear energy is hugely polarizing, geopolitically sensitive and not without risk. It’s also a reliable source of clean power that can displace fossil fuels and effectively work in tandem with renewable energy. True, new plants have proven slow and costly. By managing projects (a lot) better and tinkering with the models less, that can change. We can certainly keep existing reactors alive reasonably cheaply. Small, modular plants, already in the pipeline, may make a difference, too. Leaving nuclear off the agenda in the debate on a post-pandemic, carbon-light recovery is a mistake we will rue.
Simply, it’s about emissions. We have to make electricity production greener, so it can in turn become a low-carbon energy source for transport, heating and more. Atomic energy does generate emissions during parts of its lifecycle, like uranium mining. Still, globally, it avoided 63 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide from 1971 to 2018, according to the International Energy Agency. Without it, emissions from electricity generation would have been 20% higher. Yet rather than increasing when we want cleaner power, it’s fading fast in the West as aging plants close, and is often replaced with cheap gas. Nuclear generation did rise by 2.4% in 2018, its fastest growth since 2010 — but only thanks to China.