Nuclear power and climate change

Nuclear power and climate change

There are many connections between nuclear power and climate change. Public perception of nuclear power has a very important and powerful impact on its current use and potential future development.

Quick bibliography: Reviews/recent articles on nuclear power and climate change.

Classic review:

*Poumadère, M., Bertoldo, R., & Samadi, J. (2011). Public perceptions and governance of controversial technologies to tackle climate change: nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, wind, and geoengineering. WIREs Climate Change, 2 (5), 712-727. [Cited by]

“In recent years, as concerns over the threats of climate change (CC) have become more acute, four technologies have notably risen to the forefront of academic and public discourse: nuclear power, carbon capture and storage (CCS), wind power, and geoengineering. The particular interest of these four approaches lies in the fact that they reflect both energy production and climate control technologies, are often socially controversial, and present complex challenges of governance.”

Recent reviews/articles:

*Adler, D.B., Akshaya, J., & Severnini, E. (2020). Considering the nuclear option: Hidden benefits and social costs of nuclear power in the U.S. since 1970. Resource and Energy Economics, 59, 101127. [Cited by] **New**

Although burning fossil fuels has environmental consequences, many countries have switched away from nuclear power in favor of fossil-fuel fired electricity production after incidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. This study estimates the substitution between nuclear and fossil-fuel fired electricity generation in the United States. Using an event-study framework, we leverage nuclear plant openings from 1970 to 1995 and forced nuclear plant outages from 1999 to 2014. Plant openings (nuclear outages) reduce (increase) monthly net coal-fired generation by approximately 200 GWh, implying a considerable reduction (increase) in emissions. We find that the substitution between nuclear and coal is not one-to-one, as has been assumed in prior literature. After establishing these stylized facts, we explore the potential underlying forces driving the observed substitution between coal and nuclear.

1 GWh of nuclear generation results in a roughly 0.8 GWh decrease in coal-fired generation. Solely by displacing coal-fired electricity generation, the average nuclear plant opening results in nearly 2 million metric tons less CO2 emissions, 5,200 metric tons less SO2, and 2,200 metric tons less NOx within the first year.

There are risks attributable to nuclear generation that are not applicable to other generation sources, such as the risk of a reactor accident or spent fuel concerns. These risks are almost surely perceived to be large, given that nuclear and coal have similar operating costs and the external costs of coal-fired production are large. Combined with the high capital costs of nuclear power driven in part by TMI, this explains why no new nuclear power plants have been built that were not previously under construction at the time of the TMI reactor accident almost 40 years ago. It also suggests that utilities are unlikely to invest more in nuclear generation given current environmental and nuclear policy moving forward. Put another way, a substantial amount of regulatory pressure on fossil fuels (in the form of an emissions tax, regional emissions standards, etc.) would be needed to incentivize utilities to shift towards increased nuclear generation.

*Jenkins, L. M., Alvarez, R., & Jordaan, S. M. (2020). Unmanaged climate risks to spent fuel from U.S. nuclear power plants: The case of sea-level rise.Energy Policy, 137, 1. **New**

Climate change and its accompanying sea-level rise is set to create risks to the United States’ stockpile of spent nuclear fuel, which results largely from nuclear power. Coastal spent fuel management facilities are vulnerable to unanticipated environmental events, as evidenced by the 2011 tsunami-related flooding at the Fukushima plant in Japan. We examine how policy-makers can manage climate risks posed to the coastal storage of radioactive materials, and identify the coastal spent fuel storage sites that will be most vulnerable to sea-level rise. A geospatial analysis of coastal sites shows that with six feet of sea-level rise, seven spent fuel sites will be juxtaposed by seawater. Of those, three will be near or completely surrounded by water, and should be considered a priority for mitigation: Humboldt Bay (California), Turkey Point (Florida), and Crystal River (Florida). To ensure policy-makers manage such climate risks, a risk management approach is proposed. Further, we recommend that policy-makers 1) transfer overdue spent fuel from cooling pools to dry casks, particularly where located in high risk sites; 2) develop a long-term and comprehensive storage plan that is less vulnerable to climate change; and 3) encourage international nuclear treaties and standards to take climate change into account.”

*Morgan, M.G., Abdulla, A., Ford, M.J., & Rath, M. (2018).  US nuclear power: The vanishing low-carbon wedge. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115 (28), 7184-7189. [PDF] [Cited by]

It should be a source of profound concern for all who care about climate change that, for entirely predictable and resolvable reasons, the United States appears set to virtually lose nuclear power, and thus a wedge of reliable and low-carbon energy, over the next few decades.”

*Prăvălie, R., Bandoc, G. (2018).  Nuclear energy: Between global electricity demand, worldwide decarbonisation imperativeness, and planetary environmental implications. Journal of Environmental Management,  209, 81-92.  [Cited by]

“For decades, nuclear energy has been considered an important option for ensuring global energy security, and it has recently started being promoted as a solution for climate change mitigation. However, nuclear power remains highly controversial due to its associated risks – nuclear accidents and problematic radioactive waste management.”

*Ramana, M.V. (2018). Technical and social problems of nuclear waste. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment, 7 (4), e289.  [Cited by]

Despite decades of effort, the nuclear industry does not yet have a working solution for managing spent fuel and high level waste, the most radioactive products generated by nuclear power plants.”

*Siqueira, D.S., da Silva, R.J., de Almeida Meystre, J., Hilário, M.Q., Menon, G.J., & Rocha, D.H.D. (2019). Current perspectives on nuclear energy as a global climate change mitigation option.  Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 24 (5), 749-77. [Cited by]

“The primary source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are fossil fuels with about 66% share of global electricity generation. Despite the challenges it faces today, nuclear energy is considered an effective technology that can be used in mitigating climate change …”

*Suman, S. (2018). Hybrid nuclear-renewable energy systems: A review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 181, 166-177. [Cited by]

“It may be speculated that integrating nuclear energy and renewable energy into a single hybrid energy system, coupled through informatics linkages, would enable them to overcome the demerits present when they operate individually.”

*Vossen, M. (2020). Nuclear Energy in the Context of Climate Change: A Frame Analysis of the Dutch Print Media. Journalism Studies, published online: 13 May 2020. **New**

The media play an important role in the way the public and policymakers come to understand the issue of nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is a low-carbon energy source that could contribute to the lowering of CO2 emissions. However, there are significant safety and environmental risks attached to the technology. This paper investigates how the media frame nuclear energy in the context of climate change. An inductive analysis based on previous research by Gamson and Modigliani reveals nine frames in the communications on nuclear energy. Their frequency is measured in articles in the Dutch print media in 2018. Two new frames were found in relation to climate change and the search for low-carbon energy options: ecomodernism and trade-off. However, the conclusion is that nuclear energy is infrequently framed in the context of climate change. The media coverage is still fueled by old frames that dominate the coverage after serious accidents. Opinions and perceptions are influenced by historical memories of disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima and the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. The tone in the media reporting was predominantly disapproving of nuclear energy, and the coverage was mainly driven by frames that highlighted the dangers and the lack of public accountability. This study argues that the framing process is mediated by cultural and societal factors that may encourage journalists to cover the issues with familiar narratives instead of new frames.”

For additional research about nuclear energy and climate change, please see the Science Primary Literature Database.

Questions?  Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).

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