The idea that nuclear energy is carbon neutral goes uncontested in the media and general public. What can we make of this collective denial?

The following article was written in New Internationalist Magazine (382). It shows that the construction and decommissioning of a nuclear power station and is far more carbon intensive than coal or gas.

Is nuclear power really a solution to climate change? Nuclear power plants may not directly emit climate-damaging carbon dioxide, but if you look at the whole lifecycle of a nuclear power station its environmental credentials are pretty shaky.

The nuclear process employs energy-intensive industries dependent on vast quantities of fossil fuels. Uranium mining, enrichment and transport across the globe; the construction and decommissioning of facilities; and the processing, transport and storage of radioactive wastes. All these consume huge amounts of carbon-based energy such as oil and coal. Nuclear power simply can’t hold a candle to renewable energy technologies such as windmills and photovoltaic panels with their minimal reliance on fossil fuel use.

The Oko Institut in Germany released a 10-year study back in 1997 that found that in a full lifecycle comparison of various energy technologies, nuclear had nearly twice the carbon dioxide equivalent of wind power – even factoring-in the phenomenal difference in power output (kilowatts per hour). A more recent study factored-in the declining ratio of uranium to mined ore in rapidly dwindling uranium sources and found emissions increase as more mining, refining and transport is needed to compensate for poorer quality ore. The report concludes that overall emissions needed for nuclear power are five times higher than even the Oko Institut estimate. Every new nuclear power station creates a further demand for uranium and its attendant infrastructure, which in turn spirals energy demand upwards.

For the sake of argument, let’s look at nuclear power plants per se and ignore the lifecycle analysis (though nuclear power plants themselves release unknown quantities of greenhouse gases more powerful than carbon dioxide – such as the ozone-depleting chloro- and hydro-fluorocarbons as well as sulphur hexafluoride). How many new nuclear plants would we need to stop the worst excesses of climate change?

Renewables can meet Britain’s energy needs

Microrenewables – renewable energy technology suitable for home use – are demonstrating enormous potential for individuals literally to take power into their own hands. The New Economics Foundation reports that if a third of electricity customers installed just 2 kilowatts of microrenewables (either wind or solar), it would match the capacity of the British nuclear programme.1 Furthermore, community-owned and managed renewable energy initiatives are on the rise, with Scotland taking the lead.

Simon Johnson
- e-mail: virtual3(at)

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