The Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 was a death knell for nuclear power. Rising fear and anxiety about nuclear power plants prompted many countries to phase out this form of clean energy completely.
But with climate disasters on the rise, and geopolitical tensions making fuel supplies unreliable, nuclear power is seeing a comeback. Nuclear power generation is now increasing again around the world. And even environmentalists have had a change in heart.
Two new studies now present a strong case for nuclear. Air pollution would increase if nuclear plants in the U.S. are shut down, as coal and natural gas plants would step up to fill the gap, according to one study published in Nature Energy. This would result in an additional 5,200 deaths in just one year. The other study, in Scientific Reports, finds that nuclear is the winner in terms of land use and related environmental impact compared to other carbon-free energy sources.
There are about 440 nuclear reactors around the world today providing 10 percent of the world’s electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association. In the U.S. that share is 20 percent. France, meanwhile, relies on nuclear for almost 70 percent of its electricity, and others like Belgium and Slovakia get about half from nuclear.
While it faces contention in many countries, nuclear is still the second-largest source of carbon-free electricity after hydropower. And even though solar and wind are racing to replace fossil fuels, nuclear power plants are easier to tie into the power grid.
Accidents at nuclear power plants, howeverm have raised valid safety and environmental concerns. But the closures of nuclear power plants, at least in Germany and the U.S. have led to increased use of fossil fuels to fill the gap in energy production.
So an MIT team decided to study the impacts of all nuclear power plants in the U.S. being shut down. They developed a grid dispatch model to estimate emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide from each coal and natural gas plant that would substitute for nuclear power at any given time. Then they fed these emissions into a chemical transport model to calculate the effects on ozone and fine particulate matter.
The increased pollution led to thousands of additional deaths in a single year. African American communities were exposed to the highest levels of pollution. Even more availability of wind and solar would still increase air pollution slightly in some parts of the country, they found, resulting in 260 extra pollution-related deaths over one year.
“We need to be thoughtful about how we’re retiring nuclear power plants if we are trying to think about them as part of an energy system,” said lead author Lyssa Freese in a press release.
Producing energy from any source, of course, requires land, which can impact surrounding ecosystems. To find out just how big that footprint is, researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology analyzed 870 power plants worldwide, including solar, onshore and offshore wind, hydropower, nuclear, geothermal, and wave power. They calculated the energy produced by area, and also the land or sea area requirements to power the world.
Bioenergy was the worst, they found, needing almost 900 square kilometers of space to generate one terawatt-hours (TWh) of energy, enough or just over a quarter of New York City’s needs. Hydropower was the most energy-dense renewable resource, producing up to 1.67 TWh/km2. It was more energy-dense than solar, contrary to popular belief, needing less land to produce the same power.
Nuclear, which has a small material footprint comparable to renewables, was the clear winner here. It could supply the entire world with zero-emission energy from an area half the size of the state of Vermont.
“Just like the three crises—climate, nature and energy—arise together, they also need to be resolved together,” writes the paper’s lead author Jonas Kristiansen Nøland. “For many years, the focus has been on climate-smart solutions, while environmentally smart solutions have remained a little under the radar. Nuclear power is a clear winner in such a race.”
- Jonas Kristiansen Nøland et al, Spatial energy density of large-scale electricity generation from power sources worldwide, Scientific Reports, 2022.
- Lyssa Freese et al. Nuclear power generation phase-outs redistribute US air quality and climate-related mortality risk, Nature Energy, 2023.
Image by Wolfgang Stemme from Pixabay