Summary: Nuclear Power & Climate Change

There are three main problems with the nuclear “solution” to climate change — it is a blunt instrument, a dangerous one, and it is unnecessary.

First, nuclear power could at most make a modest contribution to climate change abatement. The main limitation is that it is used almost exclusively for electricity generation, which accounts for about 25% of global greenhouse emissions (estimates vary from 16-40%).

The 2006 Switkowski report found that even a major nuclear power program in Australia – 25 reactors by mid-century – would reduce emissions by a modest 17% compared to business-as-usual (assuming nuclear displaces black coal). A more modest (and realistic) program of six power reactors would reduce Australia’s overall emissions by just 4% if they displaced coal or 2% if they displaced gas.

Compared to most renewable energy sources, nuclear power produces more greenhouse emissions per unit of power generated. For example, the 2006 Switkowski report states that nuclear power is three times more greenhouse intensive than wind power. Nuclear power is far more greenhouse intensive than many energy efficiency measures.

Therefore displacing renewables and energy conservation with nuclear power will worsen climate change, as explained by US physicist Amory Lovins: “If climate is a problem, we need the most solution per dollar and the most solution per year. We can get two to 10 times more coal displaced per dollar buying stuff other than nuclear. Every time I spend a dollar on an expensive solution I forgo a lot more that I could have bought of a cheaper solution.”

Nuclear power and nuclear weapons

The second big problem with the nuclear “solution” to climate change is that all nuclear power concepts (including “next generation” concepts) fail to resolve the greatest problem with nuclear power — its repeatedly demonstrated connection to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).  Not just any old WMDs, but nuclear weapons — the most destructive, indiscriminate and immoral of all weapons.

These risks are not hypothetical – there is already an alarming history of ‘peaceful’ nuclear programs providing the expertise, facilities and materials for nuclear weapons programs. Supposedly ‘peaceful’ nuclear programs have facilitated many nuclear weapons research and production programs. Of the 10 nations to have produced nuclear weapons, five did so under cover of a supposedly peaceful nuclear program – India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and North Korea. Over 20 countries have used their ‘peaceful’ nuclear facilities for nuclear weapons research.

The greenhouse benefits of a global doubling nuclear power output would be small but the same cannot be said of the proliferation risks. Doubling nuclear output by the middle of the century would require the construction of 800-900 reactors to replace most of the existing cohort of reactors and to build as many again. These reactors would produce over one million tonnes of nuclear waste (in the form of spent fuel) containing enough plutonium to build over one million nuclear weapons.

Nuclear power plants have already produced enough plutonium to build over 160,000 nuclear weapons. Safeguarding this material is the responsibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Yet the outgoing Director General of the IAEA, Dr. Mohamed El Baradei, has noted that the IAEA’s basic rights of inspection are “fairly limited”, that the safeguards system suffers from “vulnerabilities” and it “clearly needs reinforcement”, that efforts to improve the system have been “half-hearted”, and that the safeguards system operates on a “shoestring budget … comparable to that of a local police department “.

UNSW academic Dr Mark Diesendorf argues: “On top of the perennial challenges of global poverty and injustice, the two biggest threats facing human civilisation in the 21st century are climate change and nuclear war. It would be absurd to respond to one by increasing the risks of the other. Yet that is what nuclear power does.”

Likewise, former US Vice President Al Gore has summarised the problem: “For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal … then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”

Running the proliferation risk off the reasonability scale brings us back to climate change — a connection explained by Alan Robock in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “As recent work … has shown, we now understand that the atmospheric effects of a nuclear war would last for at least a decade — more than proving the nuclear winter theory of the 1980s correct. By our calculations, a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan using less than 0.3% of the current global arsenal would produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history and global ozone depletion equal in size to the current hole in the ozone, only spread out globally.”


Nuclear power and climate change

Energy expert Mycle Schneider notes that countries and regions with a high reliance on nuclear power also tend to have high greenhouse emissions:

“The largest generators of nuclear power also have energy sectors with the highest CO2 emissions. Western Europe and the United States produce about two-thirds of the nuclear electricity in the world [yet] their energy sectors also produce 39% of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions.

“The same analysis applies to overall CO2 emissions per country or region. There is an interesting correlation between nuclear generation and CO2 emissions. The United States alone, [with] less than 5% of the world’s population, accounts for 25% of the world’s total CO2 emissions and generates 29.4% of the world’s nuclear electricity. Western Europe, with only 6.5% of the world’s population accounts for about 15% of global CO2 emissions and 34% of the nuclear power production.

“China is the counter example. With 21.5% of the world’s population, the country emits 13.5% of global CO2 and generates 0.6% of the world’s nuclear power.  The example of China illustrates well the potential role of energy efficiency in greenhouse gas abatement. Analysis of developments between 1980 and 1997 shows that while the country reduced its CO2 emissions through penetration of “carbon-free fuel” by hardly more than 10 million tonnes of carbon, the reduction due to energy efficiency measures delivered savings of more than 430 million tonnes of carbon over the same period.”

Mycle Schneider, April 2000, “Climate Change and Nuclear Power”, < change/fullnuclearreprotwwf.pdf>.

Similar points can be made in relation to India. Leonard Weiss, a former staff director of the US Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Nuclear Proliferation, noted in the May/June 2006 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that a concerted program of improved energy efficiency could substitute for all the future power output from nuclear reactors currently being planned in India between 2006 and 2020.

Clean energy solutions

A significant and growing body of scientific literature demonstrates how the systematic deployment of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency policies and technologies can generate major reductions in greenhouse emissions without recourse to nuclear power.

For Australia, a starting point is the study by the Clean Energy Future Group (CEFG). The CEFG proposes an electricity supply scenario which would reduce greenhouse emissions from the electricity sector by 78% by 2040, comprising solar (5%); hydro (7%); coal/petroleum (10%); wind (20%); bioenergy − mostly from crop residues so it is not competing with other land uses (28%); and gas (30%).

The CEFG study is conservative in that it makes no allowance for technological advancement in important areas like solar-with-storage or geothermal power, even over a timeframe of several decades. Recently, Mark Diesendorf, who contributed to the CEFG study, has proposed a more ambitious scenario: “By 2030 it will be technically possible to replace all conventional coal power with the following mixes: wind, bioelectricity and solar thermal each 20 to 30%; solar photovoltaic 10-20%; geothermal 10-20%; and marine (wave, ocean current) 10%. Natural gas too, provided it hasn’t all been sold to China, could be fuelling cogeneration of electricity and heat, trigeneration (electricity, heating and cooling), combined-cycle power stations and back-up for solar hot water, solar thermal electricity and wind power. There is an embarrassment of riches in the non-nuclear alternatives to coal.”

It is a myth that all renewable energy sources are incapable of providing reliable base-load electricity (see briefing paper #16 on the issue of baseload power posted at

* Geothermal ‘hot rocks’ can provide baseload power.

* Bioenergy can provide base-load power.

* Depending on the water source, hydro can provide base-load, intermediate-load or peak-load power.

* Dispersed wind farms with a small amount of back-up (e.g. from gas) can provide base-load power.

* Solar with storage can provide baseload – this is an expensive option at the moment, but an Australian government-funded Cooperative Research Centre reported in 2006 that solar thermal technology “is poised to play a significant role in baseload generation for Australia” and will be cost-competitive with coal within seven years. Solar water heating can reduce demand for baseload supply.

* Energy efficiency and conservation measures can reduce demand for base-, intermediate- and peak-load power.

As Dr Diesendorf notes: “The producers and consumers of fossil fuels, and their supporters among public officials, the Federal Government and CSIRO, are well aware that we already have the technologies to commence a rapid transition to an energy future based on renewable energy and efficient energy, with gas playing the role as an important transitional fuel. The barriers to this transition are not primarily technological or economic, but rather are the immense political power of vested interests.”

More information on the nuclear/greenhouse debate:

  • See the links page.
  • WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor, 25 June 2016, ‘Nuclear power: No solution to climate change’: