In effect, nuclear power plants boil water. Nuclear fission splits atomic nuclei and releases the energy that binds the protons and neutrons together. The energy released by radioactivity is used to heat water, which in turn is used to power turbines. It is the most complex process ever invented to create steam. However, nuclear power has a low carbon footprint, which is why it is seen by some people to be a critical global warming solution; many others believe that it is not now, nor will it ever be, cost-effective compared with other low-carbon options. The almost-universal method used to power steam turbines is gas- or coal-fired power. Greenhouse gases emitted to generate electricity are calculated to be ten to a hundred times higher for coal than for nuclear.


… Generation 2 distinguishes itself from its predecessor by the user of water (as opposed to graphite) to slow down nuclear chain reactions and the use of enriched, as opposed to natural, uranium for fuel. The generation 3 reactors, five of which are in operation worldwide and several more under construction, along with Generation 4 reactors, which are currently being researched, constitute what is called “advanced nuclear.” In theory, advanced nuclear has standardized designs that reduce construction time and achieve longer operating lifetimes, improved safety features, greater fuel efficiency, and less waste.

What makes the future of nuclear energy difficult to predict is its cost. While the cost of virtually every other form of energy has gone down over time, a nuclear power plant’s is four to either times higher than it was four decades ago. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, advanced nuclear is the most expensive form of energy besides conventional gas turbines, which are comparatively inefficient. Onshore wind is a quarter of the cost of nuclear power.
For those who argue against nuclear because of cost, timing, and safety reasons, the counterargument at one time was the unremitting pace of new coal-fired plant construction. Hundreds of coal-fired plants were being build or planned, primarily in south and east Asia, with three-fourths of them slated to be build by China, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia. If the coal boom is not stopped, global warming will increase far beyond any reasonable limit. This is why climate reporting focuses primarily on energy, and it is why proponents of nuclear are frustrated at the sluggish pace of new plant construction. Licensing, permitting, and financing have brought nuclear plants to a near standstill in the United States, while Germany is shutting its plants down and decommissioning. On the other hand, China


… Yet even where nuclear seems to be “working,” there is a dramatic shift to renewables. China currently leads the world in installed renewable energy capacity, has canceled plans for dozens of coal-fired plants, and is committing to a combined wind and solar capacity of 400 gigawatts by 2020.


IMPACT: Nuclear’s complicated dynamics around safety and public acceptance will influence its future direction—of expansion or contraction. We assume its share of global electricity generation will grow to 13.6 percent by 2030, but slowly decline to 12 percent by 2050. With a longer lifetime than fossil fuel plants resulting in fewer facilities overall, installation of nuclear power plants could cost an additional $900 million, despite the high implementation cost of $4,457 per kilowatt. Net operating savings over thirty years could reach $1.7 trillion. This scenario could result in 16.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions avoided.

EDITOR’S NOTE: One hundred solutions are featured in Drawdown. Of those, almost all are no-regrets solution’s society would want to pursue regardless of their carbon impact because they have many beneficial social, environmental, and economic effects. Nuclear is a regrets solution, and regrets have already occurred at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Rocky Flats, Kyshtym, Browns Ferry, Idaho Falls, Mihama, Lucens, Fukushima Daiichi, Tokaimura, Marcoule, Windscale, Bohunice, Church Rock. Regrets include tritium releases, abandoned uranium mines, mine-tailings pollution, spent nuclear waste disposal, illicit plutonium trafficking, thefts of fissile material, destruction of aquatic organisms sucked into cooling systems, and the need to heavily guard nuclear waste for hundred of thousands of years.

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