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To give a sense of the scale of a nuclear power plant, this image shows a worker climbing a lattice of steel rods at one of the original Hanford Site nuclear reactors.

Nuclear plants use fission to split atomic nuclei and release the energy that binds protons and neutrons together. It is the most complex process ever invented to boil water, which powers steam turbines that generate electricity. Greenhouse gas emissions are calculated to be ten to a hundred times higher for coal-fired plants than for nuclear.

Currently, 29 countries have operative nuclear plants; they produce about 11 percent of the world’s electricity. Nuclear is expensive, and the highly regulated industry is often over-budget and slow. While the cost of virtually every other form of energy has gone down over time, nuclear is four to eight times higher than it was four decades ago.

With nuclear power, there is a climate dilemma: Is an increase in the number of nuclear power plants, with all their flaws and inherent risks, worth the gamble? Or, as some proponents insist, will there be a total meltdown of climate by limiting their use?

At Project Drawdown, we consider nuclear a regrets solution. It has potential to avoid emissions, but there are many reasons for concern: deadly meltdowns, tritium releases, abandoned uranium mines, mine-tailings pollution, radioactive waste, illicit plutonium trafficking, and thefts of missile material, among them.


Greenhouse gases…coal [vs.] nuclear: Schlömer S., T., Bruckner, L. Fulton, E. Hertwich, A. McKinnon, D. Perczyk, J. Roy, R. Schaeffer, R. Sims, P. Smith, and R. Wiser. “Technology-Specific Cost and Performance Parameters.” In Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014; Warner, Ethan S., and Garvin A. Heath. “Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Electricity Generation.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 16, no. S1 (2012): S73-S92.

percent of…electricity and…energy supply: IEA. Key World Energy Statistics. Paris: International Energy Agency, 2016.

operating nuclear reactors: IAEA-PRIS. “Operational & Long-Term Shutdown Reactors.”

reactors…under construction: IAEA-PRIS. “Under Construction Reactors.”

France…[percent of] supply: IAEA-PRIS. “Country Statistics: France.”

Generation 3 reactors…in operation:  IEA and OECD-NEA. Technology Roadmap: Nuclear Energy. Paris and Issy-les-Moulineaux: International Energy Agency and OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, 2015.

[cost of] advanced nuclear: EIA. Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2016. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2016.; Lazard. Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis 9.0. New York: Lazard. 2015.

coal-fired plants…[in] Asia: Goldenberg, Suzanne. “Plans for Coal-Fired Power in Asia Are ‘Disaster for Planet’ Warns World Bank.” The Guardian. May 5, 2016; Shearer, Christine, Nicole Ghio, Lauri Myllyvirta, Aiqun Yu, and Ted Nace. Boom and Bust 2016: Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipeline. CoalSwarm, Greenpeace, and Sierra Club, 2016.

China…plants operative and…under construction: IAEA-PRIS. “Country Statistics: China.”

peak carbon dioxide in 2030: Tollefson, Jeff. “China’s Carbon Emissions Could Peak Sooner Than Forecast.” Nature 531, no. 7595 (2016): 425-426.

Amory Lovins [on nuclear]: Lovins, Amory B. Soft Energy Paths for the 21st Century. Boulder: Rocky Mountain Institute, 2011.

James Hansen [on nuclear]: “Top Climate Change Scientists’ Letter to Policy Influencers.” CNN. November 3, 2013.

115 reactors per year: Hansen, James, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira, and Tom Wigley. “Nuclear Power Paves the Only Viable Path Forward on Climate Change.” The Guardian. December 3, 2015.

Joseph Romm [on nuclear]: Romm, Joe. “Why James Hansen Is Wrong About Nuclear Power.” ThinkProgress. January 7, 2016.

IEA’s estimation…[growth] by 2050: IEA and OECD-NEA, Nuclear Energy.

Olkiluoto reactor in Finland: Stothard, Michael. “Tale of Woe in French Nuclear Sector.” Financial Times. October 13, 2015.

Normandy…pressurized-water reactor: Stothard, “Tale.”

Generation 4 reactors: Eaves, Elisabeth. “Can North America’s Advanced Nuclear Reactor Companies Help Save the Planet?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 73, no. 1 (2017): 27-37; Locatelli, Giorgio, Mauro Mancini, and Nicola Todeschini. “Generation IV Nuclear Reactors: Current Status and Future Prospects.” Energy Policy 61 (2013): 1503-1520.

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p. 20

Correction: Romm summarizes the perspective of the International Energy Agency (IEA): nuclear can play “an important but limited role.”

Correction: China [...] is committing to a combined wind and solar capacity of 320 gigawatts by 2020.

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