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Robert Rapier

Robert Rapier

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Nuclear Power Could Cut Global Emissions By Half

  • While renewable energy is growing, it still accounts for a small portion of overall energy consumption.
  • Nuclear energy is a scalable power source that produces no carbon emissions while generating electricity.
  • A new report says nuclear power could cut global carbon emissions by half.
Nuclear Power

In the previous article Renewable Energy Grew At A Blistering Pace In 2021, I highlighted the inability of renewable energy to keep up with overall energy demand:

“But here is the challenge the world faces. Against the backdrop of the 5.1 exajoule global increase in renewable energy consumption, global energy demand increased by 31.3 exajoules in 2021 — over six times as much.” The renewable energy growth rate has been far greater than that of any other energy category, but renewables are still a relatively small portion of our overall energy consumption. Thus, those huge growth rates aren’t yet translating into enough energy consumption to even stall global fossil fuel consumption growth. That poses a serious challenge when global carbon dioxide emissions continue to climb.

Nuclear power is unique among energy sources. It can be scaled up to very large plants, it is firm power (available upon demand), and it produces no carbon dioxide while generating electricity.

A 2017 paper from the University of Texas identified nuclear and wind power as the power sources with the lowest levelized carbon dioxide emissions (link). The levelized carbon intensity is calculated by dividing a power plants’ emissions over its lifetime by the overall expected electricity output.

Nuclear and wind were respectively 12 and 14 grams of CO2-eq (grams of CO2 equivalent) per kWh of electricity. By contrast, power produced from coal — which is still the world’s largest source of electricity — produces more than 70 times as much CO2-eq per kWh of electricity.

Based on the coal consumption statistics in the lastest BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2022, global coal consumption is responsible for about half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Replacing the world’s coal-fired power plants with nuclear plants could reduce carbon dioxide emissions back to levels last seen in the 1970s.

It seems like a no-brainer. So, why aren’t we doing it?

You have to wonder where things would stand today if not for the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The world’s appetite for nuclear power had been rising rapidly, right up until that accident dramatically changed the growth trajectory.

Chernobyl substantially impacted the global growth rate of nuclear power, but it was still growing at a respectable rate following Chernobyl. For the next 25 years nuclear power would continue to grow around the world, but it would finally take a significant step back following the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Those two incidents are the difference between a world that has rapidly phased out coal, and one that hasn’t. They contributed to public distrust of nuclear power. It’s understandable. If you see nuclear accidents that cause people to have to permanently abandon their homes on a moment’s notice, of course, people are going to distrust nuclear power. The general public has a fear of radiation that in many cases is irrational.

Related: Californians Urged Not To Charge Their EVs During Heatwave

Although we can’t change the past, we can work to improve the public’s attitude toward nuclear power. It is possible to build, design, and operate nuclear power plants that can’t suffer the kinds of consequences seen in Chernobyl and Fukushima. It is naturally going to take some time to convince a skeptical public of this.

But the stakes are too high. We have to devote energy and resources to doing this. Otherwise, taking a serious bite out of global carbon emissions may be an insurmountable challenge. I say this based on the overall demand growth for energy, and the inability of renewables to even keep up with demand growth.

The lowest-hanging fruit is in the Asia Pacific region, which is already the source of the bulk of the world’s carbon emissions. We need to do everything in our power to help countries like China and India move from coal to nuclear power.


Don’t get me wrong. These countries are building nuclear power plants. But they need to build more, faster. In the next article, I will cover which countries are growing nuclear power, and how the U.S. can help them grow even faster.

By Robert Rapier

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  • DoRight Deikins on September 01 2022 said:
    «But the stakes are too high.» Truth!

    But the fallacy behind your statement still exists. The consequences of Chernobyl and Fukushima still exist and will for 100s of years. Do you know how long Strontium isotopes last in the pasture land and grain producing areas around Chernobyl? Much of the grain and grass that was produced there was fed to milk cows. Strontium 90 displaces calcium in milk. That milk is fed to the most vulnerable of the population - to developing babies and young children - and is incorporated into bones and teeth. How many years does it take to start seeing the cancerous effects in increased bone and other cancers (generally 30 years).

    Do you know how long cesium 137 stays in seawater? It is very water soluble and gets incorporated into many types of body tissue including muscle. I know many who still won't eat fish from the northern Pacific - especially long living, top of the food chain fish (like that delicious Pacific salmon you enjoy). Predator fish eat smaller, lower food chain fish which keeps accumulating the radioisotopes in the predator (the salmon, swordfish, or tuna). So if you want your Omega 3 from seafood, better choose sardines (as long as you don't eat too many).

    And maybe the worst is iodine 131. It accumulates in the thyroid gland and in milk products, but only has a half life of 8 days, while the other two have half lives in the multiple decades. Let's see, the Pripyat River runs past Chernobyl and eventually hits the Dneiper River which then empties into the Black Sea. But no one eats Black Sea caviar anymore, do they? (Or could that explain Chairman Putin's erratic behaviour?)

    Now, have you ever sat with someone who has had recurring cancer due to excessive radiation? I have.

    Sure it hasn't killed them - yet. But sooner or later it will, as it continues to destroy their body and their organs. It is not a pretty way to die. And it is usually attributed to other causes like pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, or leukemia.

    Many years ago, radiation was the solution to everything. It was the wonder drug. It was even used to treat acne. Yet since that time, they have even found elevated cases of cancer due to naturally occurring radon gas in the Appalachians (especially in those houses where people spent considerable time in their basements). And you want to increase the amount of radiation, perhaps catastrophically?

    Count me out.

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