Can going nuclear combat climate change?
To mitigate climate change, the proportion of low-carbon electricity generation must increase from today's 36% to 85% by 2040, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says. IEA and other advocates argue that nuclear power could help fill this gap. However, barriers to a nuclear energy renaissance include safety concerns, aging reactors and high costs for new ones, according to an article in Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society.
Globally, nuclear power's contribution to electricity generation has dropped from a peak of about 18% in the mid-1990s to 10% today, according to IEA. Without worldwide government intervention, the downward spiral will likely continue, the agency predicts. Like other low-carbon electricity sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind, nuclear reactors can generate energy with low greenhouse gas emissions. However, several hurdles must be overcome before nuclear power can reverse its decline, freelance contributor Jeff Johnson writes.
Many of the nuclear reactors in the U.S., the European Union and Russia are more than 35 years old, approaching their designed lifetimes of 40 years. Building new plants requires lots of money and long construction times, making it difficult for the technology to compete against cheaper energy sources, such as natural gas, wind and solar. Currently, the potential for nuclear expansion is greatest in developing nations with state-controlled economies, including China, India and Russia. Repairing existing reactors is expensive and raises safety concerns, although IEA claims that the process would be comparably priced and involve fewer delays than siting and building a new solar field or wind farm. Ultimately, the future of nuclear power will depend on whether the efficiencies of competing low-carbon technologies can improve to meet the world's growing energy needs in a sustainable way, Johnson writes.