Nuclear power is frequently promoted as a necessary solution to global warming, and a key means to achieve emissions goals. This is a major mistake, according to a new report published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung‒New York City. The report ‒ "Nuclear Power and Climate Action: An Assessment for the Future" ‒ presents an industrial analysis of nuclear energy to assess its viability as a climate solution. From real and practical evidence, the report concludes that nuclear power is not a viable tool in the climate solutions toolbox, and that nuclear-free paths to phasing out greenhouse gas emissions are necessary, feasible, and cost-effective.
The report evaluates the technology from all sides: the potential for building new reactors, the prospects for continuing to operate existing reactors, and the commercialization of so-called "advanced reactor designs" in the mid-century timeframe. Analysis shows that nuclear power may not be available in any meaningful capacity by 2050. Existing reactor fleets in most of the world are already reaching the end of their mechanical lives and will mostly phase out within the critical climate timeframe, and strategies to reduce gas reduction must take this into account.
"Those who argue that nuclear power is necessary to reduce GHG emissions are gravely mistaken," said author of the report Tim Judson, Executive Director of the Nuclear and Information and Resource Service (NIRS). "The practical realities about nuclear energy show that it is a failed technology, which is on its way out. We have many more effective and promising tools in the climate action toolbox," continued Judson. "We must not waste time and money on trying to preserve a role for nuclear power, and align energy policies and investments with rapidly transitioning to renewables, efficiency, and carbon-free, nuclear-free climate solutions."
With the immense threats of climate change, it is tempting to overlook other environmental hazards in the effort to address it. That is a mistake with nuclear power especially, because its environmental impacts are so severe and long-lasting and so many of them intersect with and compound impacts of global warming as well as issues of climate justice. At every stage of its production ‒ from uranium mining to the production of radioactive wastes ‒ nuclear power pollutes the environment with some of the most dangerous, long-lived contaminants in the world and places undue stress on water resources.
Because fossil fuels make up 86% of global energy, decarbonization will require a total transformation of energy systems in most parts of the world. Renewable energies have proven to be the most promising option ‒ complemented by investments in energy efficiency, development of complementary technologies, and integrated reliably and resiliently. Evidence from places like Germany and California shows that nuclear power does not integrate well with renewables and phasing it out is likely to create greater opportunities to accelerate the phaseout of fossil fuels and the transformation of the energy system.
The report includes case studies showing that promotion of nuclear power entails significant climate opportunity costs, wasting time and financial investments that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonize energy systems much more rapidly and cost-effectively. For instance, in the United States, the Summer 2 and 3 reactors were cancelled after major cost overruns and construction delays bankrupted their manufacturer, after US$9 billion had already been spent. Had utilities invested in energy efficiency and renewables, the report finds, the utilities would have made substantial reductions in emissions and reduced electricity costs for their consumers.
Similarly, the state of New York in the US decided in 2016 to subsidize four aging, uneconomical reactors, at a projected cost of $7.6 billion by 2029 ‒ three times as much as will be spent to achieve 50% renewable energy standard in 2030. Had New York invested in energy efficiency instead of nuclear, it could achieve greater emissions reductions in 2030, at a cost reduction of $10.6 billion.
"The pursuit of nuclear power in South Africa would have permanently locked us into complicity in putting our country as a radioactive waste zone for centuries," said Makoma Lekalakala, Director, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, and 2018 awardee of the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa. "By challenging the secret $76 billion agreement between South Africa and Rosatom, we exposed the role of corruption at the highest level of our government. The agreement would have forced South Africans to pay all the costs of a nuclear disaster, contaminated our environment and water with radioactive waste, and made electricity unaffordable for generations," continued Lekalakala. "We have all of the clean, affordable wind and solar energy we need in South Africa, and overturning the nuclear agreement has put us back on track for a healthy, sustainable future, free of fossil fuels."
"The imperatives of rapidly eliminating greenhouse gas emissions demand greater ambition in the implementation of the Paris Agreement," said Kerstin Rudek of Bürgerinitiative Umweltschutz Lüchow-Dannenberg of Germany, on behalf of the international Don't Nuke the Climate Coalition (a global network working to keep nuclear out of the climate agreements ‒ www.dont-nuke-the-climate.org). "Nuclear power has proved too expensive, too slow, and too unreliable to rapidly reduce emissions, and the vast majority of reactors around the world are likely to retire before 2050. A carbon-free, nuclear-free world is possible, but we can't get there by wasting time, money, and political will on failed technologies and false solutions like nuclear power."
The report concludes that the primary obstacles to rapidly phasing out fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions are political, not technological or economic. In particular, deceptive interventions by corporations invested in fossil fuels and nuclear energy have engendered inertia and confused the debate by, alternately, denying the reality of global warming and by presenting false solutions. Mitigating the economic and social impacts of climate action by ensuring a just transition for workers and impacted communities is key to charting a clear vision and building and sustaining the political will to accelerate emissions reductions and the phase-out of greenhouse gas emissions.
The report is online: Tim Judson, Nov 2018, 'Nuclear Power and Climate Action: An Assessment for the Future', Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: New York, www.rosalux-nyc.org/wp-content/files_mf/judson_eng.pdf