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Quantifying the Environmental Benefits of Nuclear Energy

One factor that has led many environmentalists to reconsider nuclear energy is the fact that it releases no CO2 into the environment. With fossil fuel prices rising, states being required to meet clean air standards and low production costs, nuclear energy has become a viable option.

Here are some numbers to think about:

There are 103 operating nuclear power plants in the United States. In 2004, they avoided approximately 697 million metric tons of CO2, 3.4 million tons of SO2 and 1.1 million tons of NOx (click here for the graph). Without nuclear power, emissions would be about 30 percent higher.

Here are some more numbers to think about:

Since 1973, 97 nuclear power plants which had been ordered were cancelled. 68 of those were cancelled after the Three Mile Island accident. If all the plants had been built, nuclear would avoid twice as much the emissions it does today.

According to the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. would be required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent from the 1990 emissions level over the commitment period of 2008-2012.

In 1990, total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States were 5,932 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. 7 percent of this is only 415 million metric tons of CO2. If the additional nuclear plants were built, they would easily prevent more than the 7 percent reduction target.

However, in 2003, CO2 emissions were 17 percent higher than the 1990 emissions levels. This growth in emissions in the U.S. since 1990 would not be overcome by the additional 97 nuclear plants. We would not be at the Kyoto Protocol target, but we would be about half way there.

Here is one more item to consider:

Coal power plants contribute about 80 percent of total CO2 emissions. There are around 1,500 coal plants which provide 50 percent of the electricity in the U.S. Nuclear has only 103 plants which provide 20 percent of the electricity in the U.S. If nuclear had half as many plants as there are coal (about 750), nuclear would provide more than enough electricity for the entire U.S. and solve the emissions problem at the same time.

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Matthew66 said…
If the USA generated all it's electricity from nuclear reactors, during the off-peak periods the plants could desalinate water, or produce hydrogen. Nuclear desalination could provide the water much of the west needs, and may even enable the dismantling of dams, which are an environmental issue of their own. Imagine that, lots of electricity, clean air, free flowing rivers, and a small amount of easily contained waste.
Norris McDonald said…

You are exactly right. And for additional information on hybrid uses of nuclear power, go to our Nuclear-Hydrogen-Desalination webpage:
Rod Adams said…
I like your vision. However, imagine the effect that such a system would have on the coal and natural gas industry.
Don't get me wrong - I think it would be great if we did not burn any fossil fuels to generate electricity. My point is that nukes often blame "environmentalists" for their difficulties in the market, when a more logical explanation is that the coal, oil and gas interests worked diligently to scare people away from a formidable competitor.
Sure, there are vocal people that claim to speak for "environmentalism" that have fought nuclear power for years, but when it comes to battles over enormous sums of money, nukes should recognize that people do not always reveal their true motives or their true sources of support. In other words, they LIE.
Matthew66 said…

With the greatest respect, I am not that naive. When Bob Carr (NSW Premier, Australia) recommended a revived debate on the environmental impact of nuclear generated electricity, the first (and least surprising) opponent was the Construction Forrestry Mining and Energy Union (, whose state secretary, Andrew Ferguson, noted that "We believe the community resolved this issue decades ago. A lot of people are concerned about the environment, and nuclear energy is not consistent with their concerns." As if environtmental science has not made any progress in "decades". Methinks Mr. Ferguson is more interested in the employment prospects of his coal miner members. He needn't worry,
Australia will export every kilogram of coal that it doesn't burn for electricity - at least in the medium term - by which time Mr. Ferguson will have a nice safe seat in either the state or federal parliament.

Mr. Ferguson seems to neglect his construction members, who will greatly benefit from construction of NPPs, and indeed his colleagues in the ship building unions, who will, no doubt, be employed by Westinghouse, GE, AREVA, Hitachi, Mitsubishi or whoever, to build the components of a generation of NSW nuclear power stations.
Rod Adams said…

Though unions are vocal anti-nuclear opposition, they are not the people that make the real money from the market conditions that result when nuclear power is handicapped.

The real money is made by the capitalists that own the coal, oil and gas extraction rights.

When nuclear is allowed to prosper, it has a dramatic effect on the supply-demand balance in fossil fuels. That market tends to be quite responsive to very small changes in the balance. When supply is bigger than demand by even a percent or two, inventories build rapidly and prices fall rather dramatically.

People that own oil wells, coal mines, and gas fields feel the pinch quickly. They also reap BILLIONS when the supply is just a tad short of the demand and prices increase by a factor of two or three over the span of a year or so - as has happened recently.

Look at the annual reports for major fossil fuel suppliers - don't pay too much attention to the union position. Union members may get to keep their reasonably well paying but rather difficult jobs a bit longer, but they do not get rich beyond human imagination like those that own Aramaco, Exxon, Total-Fina, Petro China and dozens of others.

Eric McErlain said…
We should make one thing clear: though the union Matthew sites in his post may be against nuclear energy is Australia, the industry enjoys very good relations with a number of unions here in the U.S. Just look at our links on the right margin and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about.
Matthew66 said…
In Australia, one of the major political parties the Australian Labor Party (ALP) is inextricably linked to the union movement, so much so that to join the ALP one has to be a member of an affiliated union. A senior position in a union is frequently a stepping stone to a seat in Parliament and ministerial position in an ALP government. Union leaders are instrumental in setting ALP policy, and have been solidly anti-nuclear for three decades, irrespective of the positions of their international affiliations. I believe that this is to try to capture the suburban "green" vote. I am particularly surprised at the CFMEU's position because it, theoretically, should also represent the interests of uranium miners, construction workers who would build nuclear power stations, and energy workers who would work in nuclear power stations. I believe that the union's anti-nuclear stance is more about supporting current ALP policy, and the union leadership's parliamentary aspirations, than about promoting the interests of its members.

The Australian coal industry itself doesn't seem to have voiced a position on nuclear power, this could be because BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto are the biggest players and both have significant uranium mining intersests, so they will win no matter what. They probably also realize that the market for coal isn't going to disappear any time soon, even if Australia goes nuclear.

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