How Green is Nuclear Power?
The colour palette for energy generation ranges from green to black – theoretically. Warming each other through body heat or standing in the sunlight is deep green. So is going outside to cool off. Riding a bike is more of a fern or moss green because the bikes have to be manufactured. Electric cars are in the sage to laurel range, with hybrids tending toward artichoke, tan and smoke grey. Anything running on fossil fuels is in the brown, grey and black range, as are just about all other products and features of our modern lifestyles. Let’s face it, we’re the only terrestrial species that isn’t green by nature, so how do we survive in the long term? Answer: We make the best choices available, we pay for green offsets, and we keep developing our knowledge.
Nuclear power is a good example. In the context of climate change and GHG emissions, nuclear power is not the deep forest green we’d like to see, but neither is it the black of coal, oil or gas-fired generating stations. Full life-cycle analysis is the basis of determining the green aspect of any method of generating electrical power. It includes the climate cost of extracting raw materials (uranium fuel, iron for steel, petroleum for plastics, etc), as well as constructing, maintaining, and operating the power plants, and distributing the power to communities. Not only that, but we need to include the historical development leading up to the current technologies, and the decommissioning GHG costs when our nuclear facilities reach end of life..
All electrical utilities share the same grid, so they all own a portion of that GHG cost (except the small scale off-grid systems such as wind, solar, and hydro-electric). Iron ore had to be mined, towers and wires had to be fabricated, transported, and installed, and workers had to get from their homes to their places of work. Lots of CO2 and other GHGs created for that combined effort.
Specific to nuclear power, we developed our knowledge and expertise over a long time period. There have been setbacks, spills, airborne releases, and explosions. How much CO2 was produced over the last 60 years to clean up our mistakes and develop new methods? And let’s not forget that nuclear power was born out of the development of nuclear weapons, so what is the GHG contribution of the nuclear arms race of the mid-20th century? Although nuclear explosions do not themselves generate significant amounts of CO2, again, the full lifecycle cost of weapons development needs to be accounted for.
And what about final decommissioning and the ongoing challenge of dealing with radioactive spent nuclear fuel. Vast underground structures are being proposed to dispose of radioactive waste, and those won’t be made with just hand tools and electric machinery. What is the GHG and climate change impact of that effort?
You can see where this is going. How do we determine GHG emissions related to specific types of technology when everything is connected over time, space, and in our daily lives? It’s possible to figure it out, but it is extremely complex and we haven’t spent the effort yet to model our ecosphere impact in planetary, historical, and future contexts. We need to engage in that effort so we can make the best decisions, but until we do, let’s just accept that there are no pure green choices. It comes down to making the best guesses, hopefully educated ones, with the information we have, and restoring ecosystems wherever we can. When making energy choices, nuclear power is less brown than coal, oil or gas. It’s comparable to solar and wind at the moment, but those technologies will improve and most likely end up greener than nuclear in the long term.
There’s no single answer that solves our problems. There is no pure green energy solution except in comic books and movies. However, nuclear is a reasonable choice at present as long as we keep pushing the development of renewables, keep exploring options for reducing energy needs, and start restoring the natural ecosystems that can heal our climate.