To understand the role that nuclear energy needs to play in our energy future, one must grasp the magnitude of the climate crisis. World energy consumption is projected to grow by nearly 50% by 2050, with most of this growth coming from emerging economies. These projections are likely understated, as they assume that development will continue at current rates.
What happens, however, to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when countries such as India achieve full access to modern energy for their populations? India’s energy use per capita is 9% that of the U.S.; comparative numbers are similar for other fast-growing economies like Nigeria (11%) and Indonesia (11%).
Despite unprecedented growth in renewable power, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year warned that climate change was “widespread, rapid and intensifying.” This immense challenge underscores the need for reliable, clean, and scalable technologies that can produce both electricity and heat. Nuclear energy fits all of these criteria.
In 2021, the EU’s scientific body concluded that nuclear energy has as little or less impact on the environment as wind and solar. In addition, many analyses of energy markets have shown that the least-cost and most reliable path to deep decarbonization of our economy features a balanced portfolio of clean-energy technologies like nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, and even fossil fuels with carbon capture and sequestration. However, here we focus on the unique benefits of nuclear, as they are often overlooked in public discussions of clean energy.
Electricity Generation Responsible for Just 25% of GHG
While most of the focus has been on electricity generation, the sector is only responsible for 25% of global GHG emissions; the other 75% is attributed to industry, transportation, buildings, and agriculture. These sectors are hard to abate.
For example, the steel industry (responsible for around 7% of the world’s GHG emissions) is not cheaply decarbonized through electrification. Similarly, marine shipping and heavy trucking sectors cannot be fully electrified and, to achieve deep decarbonization, will need solutions like conversion to new alternative fuel sources (e.g., clean ammonia and clean hydrogen).
Nuclear energy —and especially advanced reactors, which operate at higher temperatures— is the only clean energy source that can generate directly the heat required for efficient zero-carbon hydrogen and ammonia production, district heating and cooling, process heat and desalination.
Nuclear Is a Reliable Source of Energy
Nuclear energy is also the most reliable source of clean energy. In 2020, the capacity factor (an index of energy supply reliability) of nuclear power plants in the U.S. was 92.5%, compared to 41.5% for hydro, 35.4% for wind, 24.9% for solar photovoltaic (PV), and 20.5% for thermal solar.
That means to match 1 GW of nuclear, we need 2.8 GW of wind and 4.0-4.9 GW of solar, plus all the battery storage and energy transmission infrastructure required to ensure that the energy is delivered when and where it is needed. The combined cost of all that extra generation, storage, and transmission equipment vastly exceeds the cost of nuclear energy.
Opponents of nuclear tend to ignore these significant deployment, system integration, and grid management/reliability challenges that will come with a deep penetration of renewables. Many of these challenges are already playing out in places like Ireland and Germany.
Going beyond climate concerns, nuclear energy also has one of the smallest footprints compared to other clean energy sources—1.3% of the land area required for solar photovoltaic and 0.3% of the land area required for wind.
That allows nuclear to scale to meet the immense energy needs required for decarbonization, while also avoiding deforestation. Building nuclear plants also requires less than 10% of the construction materials (concrete, steel) per unit energy generated than other zero-carbon alternatives.
Those who are focused on opposing nuclear a priori, instead of finding pragmatic solutions to thwart the climate catastrophe, will point out that nuclear is expensive and takes too long to deploy. That is only true if one cherry-picks examples and ignores the global picture.
While large nuclear projects in the U.S. and Europe have suffered cost overruns and schedule delays, much of this can be attributed to deployment of first-of-a-kind technology in countries that have not built nuclear power plants in decades and lost much of their nuclear construction experience.
In contrast, countries such as South Korea, China, and Russia that did not suffer a gap in nuclear power deployment have been able to bring tens of gigawatts of nuclear online at costs competitive with renewable energy.
Advanced Reactors Are Cost-Effective, Scalable
Advanced reactors—with factory-fabricated and easily transportable modules—could make nuclear energy even more cost-effective and scalable. Smaller also means more flexible: Advanced reactors can be deployed to meet rising demand and provide the balance to renewables, especially as the share of renewable generation increases.
In fact, many countries are considering nuclear-renewable hybrid energy systems to decarbonize both electric grids and industry. The modularity of advanced reactors also allows for deployment of nuclear in locations with smaller grids; the smallest reactors are also well suited for off-grid applications.
Because of the immensity of the looming crisis, no single energy source can be the climate silver bullet. A growing number of academics, from economists to energy systems modelers, have concluded that nuclear energy needs to play a significant role in any realistic decarbonization pathway. When the world is already falling behind on targets and timelines to mitigate climate change, we do not have the luxury to ignore this promising and proven pathway.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
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Elina Teplinsky is a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP focused on international nuclear energy matters. She is deputy leader of the firm’s Energy Industry Group and is a leading member of the firm’s International Nuclear Projects and Hydrogen teams.
Jacopo Buongiorno is the TEPCO Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also serves as director of Science and Technology for the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory and director of the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems (CANES).
Jessica Lovering is the co-founder and executive director of the Good Energy Collective. She is also a fellow with the Energy for Growth Hub and a senior fellow with the Fastest Path to Zero Initiative at the University of Michigan.