Stretching our Carbon Budget with Nuclear Power

By John Gorman
Originally published by MediaPlanet, December 17, 2019

Nuclear power is a practical and inexpensive technology, and it’s essential to avoiding the worst effects of climate change in the coming decades.

Modelling our climate is complex, but the big picture is simple: to keep global warming under 1.5°C, as proposed under the Paris Agreement, there’s only so much carbon we can pour into the atmosphere – about 580 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.

Humanity is burning about 37 gigatonnes per year, which means that the time left to stave off catastrophic change is short. By the time we burn through the budget, we’ll have to be taking out as much as we put in.

Limited national progress

Through the Paris Agreement, countries around the world committed to target limits on their total carbon emissions. If kept, these should keep us within the carbon budget.

But they aren’t. Many countries are not even coming close to their targets, partly because of increased demand for power and rapid industrialization. Germany, for example, has had to increase its fossil-fuel use because of the closure of nuclear power plants. And China is massively increasing coal-fired electricity generation. Even Canada is not on track to meeting its target of reducing carbon emissions by 30% from 2005 to 2030. According to the International Energy Agency, greenhouse-gas pollution has risen worldwide for two consecutive years.

Green alternatives

There have been hopeful signs. Prices of low-carbon renewable energy, such as wind and solar, have dropped substantially in recent years, and there’s been a corresponding increase in use. In 2017, solar power reached a global capacity of 398 GW. And carbon capture and sequestration, the only technology proven to remove carbon from industrial operations, has been demonstrated in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. We can expect these technologies to continue to advance. But can this be done in the decade or so we have left in the carbon budget?

Nuclear power: clean and affordable

Given how short our timeline is, nuclear power offers a practical way ahead, and it’s already doing a lot to keep carbon out of our atmosphere.

The lifecycle carbon emissions of nuclear power are comparable to wind and even lower than for solar. According to the World Nuclear Association, the world’s 445 reactors are saving 2.5 gigatonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions every year. This is why Ontario, which generates almost 60% of its electricity through nuclear, has seen a steady drop in air pollution since 2003. It’s why countries such as Sweden and France have been able to decarbonize their economies. It’s also why provinces such as New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, and many countries around the world, are taking a closer look at what we call the “new nuclear” – small modular reactors that can power industrial activities and remote communities.

Environmentalists look to a future powered by renewables, but there is also increasing recognition of nuclear power as part of that future, or at least a bridge to it. This is partly because the transformation of our energy sector is going to be expensive, while nuclear power delivers electricity at competitive prices. This, along with the increasing capacity of nuclear technologies to support variable sources of electricity like wind and solar, makes nuclear an attractive option for decarbonizing our electricity grids.

As our climate crisis deepens, and our needs for clean electricity increase, nuclear power is emerging as our most practical, clean technology choice.

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