Analysis: Does nuclear have a future?

Has Germany’s anti-nuclear protests driven up carbon emissions?

By Anders Lorenzen

In the past week Guardian columnist George Monbiot and green party MP Caroline Lucas have made compelling cases for and against nuclear energy. There is no doubt that each case has not been made on an economic basis, but on what is best for the climate.

It’s important to familiarise yourself with the different issues being discussed in the nuclear debate; that of existing nuclear and new nuclear. Anti-nuclear campaigners have most progressively been arguing for abandoning new nuclear and instead using the resources to build renewables, but also to phase out existing nuclear faster than was originally planned. This has happened in the wake of the Japanese Fukishima nuclear disaster in 2011, first in Japan but also subsequently in Germany, which has driven up carbon emissions in both Japan and Germany because of an increase in coal usage.

Caroline Lucas makes a strong case that the reason it has driven up carbon emissions is due to a failing EU carbon price which has made coal cheaper than gas. This is true and would most likely be the same for Japan, who doesn’t yet have a carbon pricing scheme. But what she is leaving out here, is that even though the decommissioned nuclear plants would have been replaced with gas, emissions would still have risen, though not as rapidly. George Monbiot is right to argue that, in terms of emissions, nuclear is the lesser of evils. As we know coal is the most potent greenhouse gas emitter followed by oil, gas and then nuclear in that order.

Any nuclear that gets decommissioned, before time, would in effect cause a rise in emissions even if it’s replaced with renewables – as those renewables would instead have replaced fossil fuels and in effect would have reduced emissions more than replacing nuclear which is already a low carbon source of energy.

When the issue comes to building new nuclear, the odds are stacked very differently. The nuclear industry has struggled to reduce the cost in building nuclear, unlike renewables where the cost is coming down rapidly. In some countries, they even have or are close to reaching grid parity.  With nuclear you also have the added cost of where to put nuclear waste. Building new nuclear power plants is a long process that after it’s commission can take between 10-15 years. This mean that governments who are choosing to go down that route are playing a risky game in investing in something that they will not reap the benefits of in years to come, and it’s hard to predict what the energy market will look like in ten years. That’s why most countries are backing away from nuclear with UK the only EU country planning new nuclear projects.

The renewable energy sector is growing substantially and yesterday the milestones of 100 GW of solar capacity and 282 GW of wind power capacity globally were announced. To return to Caroline Lucas’s point, yes it is possible to deal with climate change without nuclear, but the question is when? If all the worlds nuclear power stations were decommissioned tomorrow, whichever way you look at it, this would have catastrophic consequences for the world’s climate. But what is very possible, is that all new energy deployments that are being built are renewables.

Subedited by Charlotte Paton

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