Expert Commentary

Nuclear may be critical for meeting Paris climate goals

Environmental campaigners are split on the role nuclear power can play in cleaning up the planet. New research suggests that closing nuclear plants increases carbon emissions.

nuclear plant

Environmental campaigners agree that current greenhouse gas emissions are unsustainable. Yet they diverge on the role that nuclear power — a low-carbon energy source — should play in helping cut emissions. In many advanced economies, public pressure to close nuclear plants is rising, especially since the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

But without nuclear power it may be impossible to meet the Paris climate deal “to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.”

A forthcoming paper in Energy Policy looks at the economic and environmental costs of replacing Sweden’s nuclear power plants — which generated 43 percent of the country’s electricity in 2014 — with solar and wind farms.

One of nuclear’s advantages is its predictability. The sun and wind, by contrast, are intermittent — think cloudy, breeze-less days. On some days these renewable sources could produce too much power. Since storage technology is still in its infancy, and transmission lines to other parts of Europe are unviable, the authors see a trade-off: Either spend a lot more money building renewables that will not always be used to capacity, or burn natural gas when the weather is not cooperating. Their findings:

  • All nuclear alternatives require Sweden to construct facilities that can produce more power than the replaced nuclear plants. This would increase annual spending on electricity generation between two and five times.
  • An alternative is to create electricity by burning more natural gas, increasing carbon emissions up to four times. In the authors’ models of future wetter years, when more hydropower is available, the need for gas falls, but it never disappears. (In 2014, Sweden produced almost as much electricity from hydropower as it did from its nuclear plants.)
  • Overall, either emissions increase four-fold or costs increase five-fold compared to today.
  • “It is clear that replacing nuclear with […] renewables is neither economically viable nor environmentally friendly.”

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