Nuclear power is a topic that evokes strong emotions. This is equally true in discussions of climate change mitigation, where the debate around nuclear power as a clean energy source brings a range of voices to the table. Is nuclear energy renewable, and can investing in it help us achieve global climate goals? Here is a look at that complex question.

Advocates

Proponents of nuclear power as a clean energy source often point to France, where nuclear energy accounts for approximately three-quarters of the country’s electricity-generating needs, compared to the global average of around 10%.

France emits less than one-tenth of the world’s average carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour, much less than its neighbor Germany, despite the latter’s greater penetration of renewables like solar and wind power. France also enjoys cheaper electricity than Germany.

In addition, solar and wind are variable renewables whose capacity can fluctuate with the weather. Nuclear power is more akin to hydropower, as it produces a constant energy current for the grid. The uranium used in nuclear reactors is also relatively abundant, and US nuclear reactors are predicted to last for up to 80 years.

Even as global carbon emissions from fossil fuels slow, they hit a record high last year.

Skeptics

Detractors argue that the high costs of building nuclear power plants are a major barrier to new construction. It is perhaps no coincidence that Électricité de France, the country’s primary electricity generation company, is largely government-funded. Standardizing nuclear power plant designs can bring down costs, along with the economies of scale that come with building many plants. Even so, ensuring compliance with safety regulations entails further substantial costs.

Especially compared to cheaper wind and solar, others claim the huge cost and resources involved in building nuclear power plants en masse could be counterproductive from a climate change perspective in the short term.

Fear and safety concerns are another theme in the arguments against nuclear power as a clean energy source. While it could be argued that coal-fired power stations have killed far more people with their pollution over the years, nuclear disasters at Chernobyl, Fukushima, and elsewhere have taken a formidable toll.

Nuclear waste is a separate point of contention, as it takes tens of thousands of years to decompose.

The Upshot

Even as global carbon emissions from fossil fuels slow, they hit a record high last year—and the world is not on track to meet Paris Agreement goals. Given the urgency of the problems posed by global warming, rejecting any one solution outright may not be an option. As the author of a 2019 Atlantic article on the Green New Deal put it, there is no “silver bullet” for climate change.

Some suggest the possibility of nuclear power playing a role alongside other sources of renewable energy and mitigation strategies. In part, this is because electricity only accounts for a portion of the demands on the energy system; more generally, it is also because of the complexity of long- and short-term factors that have to be weighed in making progress.

Want to learn more about the renewable energy transition? Read:

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