Climate protection through nuclear power plants? Hardly via The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


From a systemic perspective, nuclear power plants are by no means free of carbon dioxide emissions. Today, they produce up to one third of the greenhouse gases that large modern gas power plants produce. Carbon dioxide emissions connected to production of nuclear energy amounts to (depending on where the uranium used in a reactor is mined and enriched) between 7 and 126 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour, according to an analysis by International Institute for Sustainability Analysis and Strategy co-founder Uwe Fritsche. For a typical nuclear power plant in Germany, the specific emission estimate of 28 grams has been calculated. An initial estimate of global carbon dioxide emissions through the generation of nuclear electricity in 2014 registered at about 110,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent—or roughly as much as the carbon dioxide emissions of a country like the Czech Republic. And this data does not even include the emissions caused by storage of nuclear waste.

In the coming decades, indirect carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power plants will increase considerably, because high-grade resources of uranium are exhausted and much more fossil energy will have to be used to mine uranium. In view of this trend, nuclear power plants will no longer have an emissions advantage over modern gas-fired power plants, let alone in comparison to the advantages offered by increased energy efficiency or greater use of renewable energies.

Nuclear power plants may also contribute to climate change by emitting radioactive isotopes such as tritium or carbon 14 and the radioactive noble gas krypton 85. Krypton 85 is produced in nuclear power plants and released on a massive scale in the reprocessing of spent fuel. The concentration of krypton 85 in Earth’s atmosphere has soared over the last few years as a result of nuclear fission, reaching a new record. Krypton 85 increases the natural, radiation-induced ionization of the air. Thus the electrical balance of the Earth’s atmosphere changes, which poses a significant threat to weather patterns and climate. Even though krypton 85 is “one of the most toxic agents for climate,” according to German physicist and political figure Klaus Buchner, these emissions have not received any attention in international climate-protection negotiations down to the present.

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