(The following analysis is available for use for any purpose with attribution to the Climate Coalition.)
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“Nuclear or Renewables” is a false dichotomy when 83.1% of the world’s primary energy comes from fossil combustion.1 Our first concern for climate mitigation should be the carbon intensity of each energy resource, and how we may use them optimally for decarbonizing the global economy. Nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal all have very low-life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, the term “renewables” itself is incoherent, misleading, and discriminatory. Not all renewables have low climate, ecological, human health impacts; and some deemed non-renewables have said desirable attributes.
In this brief, we will only compare the attributes of nuclear energy to solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power, which are the two modern renewables presently available for large scale deployment. In the public discourse, the fundamental technical and functional differences between wind, PV, and nuclear energy are being ignored. Nuclear, even if seen as equally valuable in decarbonization efforts, is then further discriminated against by exaggerating concerns about waste and safety. The resulting policy decisions lead to a sub-optimal mix of energy resources, putting the ultimate goal of decarbonization further out of reach: technically, logistically, financially, and politically.
Notice that electricity generation accounts for only 17.3% of global primary energy consumption. Decarbonizing transportation, building heating and cooling, and industrial processes is a much larger and harder task. While a portion of these sectors can be electrified (e.g. EVs, heat pumps), some cannot (e.g. steelmaking, aviation). Solar and wind produce only electricity whereas nuclear energy can serve as a high-heat source directly, skipping lossy conversion processes.
In addition, even with huge efficiency gains, global energy consumption will need to rise by 50% or more by 2050 to enable prosperity for all. Beyond reaching net-zero, we need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to avoid continued warming for centuries. All these factors underline the scale and pace
of the clean energy challenge.
1) We need existing nuclear capacity to stay online to allow renewables to displace fossil electricity generation in the near-term.
2) Since nuclear technologies are necessary for economy-wide deep decarbonization, we need to accelerate development and deployment of an array of advanced reactor designs.
Solar and wind have a role to play now because the industry is mature and can deliver at scale. This is particularly relevant in early stages of decarbonization where intermittent output can replace large portions of fossil generation without curtailment, storage, and large transmission upgrades. However, there are political and logistical limits to the deployment of wind and solar energy, and the technical challenges rise exponentially as their share of generation increases.2 Cost-optimized energy system modeling shows wind and solar capacity rising first for moderate carbon emission reductions, and nuclear ramping up significantly as emissions approach zero. Today’s policies need to reflect this understanding and start multi-decadal plans to achieve reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy systems.