So we have this existential crisis, this looming climate disruption which threatens the habitability of Earth for humans and our fellow species.
We also need to expand access to modern energy supplies across the world to end energy poverty and promote prosperity.
So it’s fortunate we have various alternatives to fossil fuels that don’t emit greenhouse gases when we use them — zero carbon, if you like.
But calling any sort of nuclear energy zero carbon will invariably attract a protest. Mining, milling, fuel fabrication, enrichment, reactor construction, decommissioning and waste management¹ are all listed off as aspects of the full lifecycle which consume energy, often from fossil fuels (mining equipment, grid electricity, etc).
Obviously, many if not most of these aspects apply to all energy sources. It’s the mark of a legitimate commentator to make this observation clearly.
And while this illustrates average or median estimates, utilities have assessed the footprints of specific nuclear power stations. For example, Vattenfall conducted this sort of life cycle assessment on their Swedish power stations.
“According to the LCA results the total emission of greenhouse gases is about 3 gCO₂-equivalents per generated kWh.”
Are you ready for the twist? Australia’s dominant energy/climate planning work is currently being led by the market operator, AEMO. The Integrated System Plan is mapping out pathways for the orderly replacement of legacy emissions-intensive generators. All of the modelling work uses assumptions such as the below for assessing greenhouse gas trajectories.
Consequently, if modern nuclear capacity was allowed by environmental legislation and included as has been convincingly argued, consistent with these assumptions, it would be counted as zero carbon.
“In reality, the only CO₂-free link in the chain is the reactor’s operation.”
Oscar Archer holds a PhD in chemistry and has been analysing energy issues for over 15 years, focusing on nuclear technology for six, with a background in manufacturing and QA. He helps out at Adelaide-based Bright New World as Senior Advisor (we want your support!)and writes for The Fourth Generation. Find him @OskaArcher on Twitter.