Do we need nuclear power to combat the climate crisis? A pros and cons

At the turn of the year, the Philippsburg 2 nuclear power plant near Karlsruhe went offline. This means that only six miles are still running in Germany, but all of them should also be shut down by the end 2022. At the same time, an intense debate is currently emerging as to whether nuclear power will not remain indispensable for overcoming the climate crisis for the next few decades. You can read the arguments of both sides in this pros and cons.

PRO: Nuclear energy has a small ecological footprint and is sustainable

Nuclear energy is climate-friendly. According to the IPCC, it causes extremely low greenhouse emissions over its entire life cycle, comparable to wind energy and even less than solar energy.

Nuclear energy also has a small one ecological footprint and is sustainable, even when compared to renewable energies.

It requires little land, consumes little raw material due to the high energy density of uranium and, contrary to prevailing prejudice, causes little and manageable waste. Finland is currently establishing a repository with the consent of local residents.

Amardeo Sarma.

Amardeo Sarma. Photo: Evelin Frerk

There is enough raw material: That Unused uranium contained in the “garbage” can continue to be used in rapid reactors, and uranium can also be extracted from sea water. So the uranium reserves would last for thousands of years. In France and Sweden, emissions from the expansion of nuclear energy dropped quickly.

Nuclear energy is safe and inexpensive

Nuclear energy is overall very safe. Historically, it has cost much less human life per unit of energy than fossil energy over the entire life cycle, possibly even less than solar and wind energy.

After the biggest reactor accident in Fukushima this century, evacuations have done much more damage than they did prevent. The nuclear phase-out advanced in Germany has already caused and will result in premature deaths from preventable air pollution due to the prolonged use of fossil fuels 4600 result in a total of 1.2 billion tons more CO2 emissions. At least that's the result of model calculations. This example also shows that fear of radiation is usually far more dangerous than radiation itself.

Nuclear energy is inexpensive. Where the share of nuclear energy in the electricity mix is ​​high – for example in France, Sweden, Switzerland and the Canadian province of Ontario – emissions per unit of energy are much lower than in Germany and the costs for electricity are low.

The costs of new reactors can be further reduced by gaining experience and using standardized, mass-produced models, for example in small modular reactors (SMRs).

Energy system models show that an emission-free overall system is more likely to be achieved at reasonable costs if nuclear energy is also used as a non-variable source. The need for energy storage, network expansion and backup power plants with high outsourced costs and additional CO2 emissions from gas power plants is then lower.

Nuclear energy should be part of the future energy mix

Not only does the supposed nuclear power lobby see it this way: leading climate scientists like that Pioneer of climate research, James Hansen, see nuclear energy as an essential component of energy supply in terms of the climate. A position that Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has already represented 1979. More and more people are coming to the same view.

The UN's sustainability goals call for affordable energy for almost ten billion people. To do this, we need all low-carbon energy sources to achieve our climate goals at the same time. Nuclear energy, but also future technology such as the separation and storage of carbon dioxide in combustion power plants, are part of it.

Amardeo Sarma is an electrical engineer and founding member of Ökomoderne eV as well as co-founder and Chairman of the GWUP eV

Assistance: Simon Friederich, Chairman, Ökomoderne eV

Con: Nuclear power plants have no place in a climate-neutral energy supply

Hans-Martin Henning.

Hans-Martin Henning. Photo: Fraunhofer ISE

Neither for Germany, even globally, offers nuclear energy a promising perspective for a climate-friendly – in the goal climate-neutral – energy supply.

There are a number of important reasons for this, including the known issues of safe operation, particularly in the case of natural disasters, such as earthquakes or terrorist attacks, and the unresolved issue of the final disposal of radioactive waste. In addition, the high costs and the lack of system compatibility with fluctuating renewable energies such as wind and solar energy are worth mentioning.

The cost of electricity for renewable energies has dropped dramatically and will continue to do so. In many places, even in Germany, electricity from wind energy and photovoltaics is cheaper today than from almost all conventional power plants.

New nuclear power plants are becoming more and more expensive

The total systemic costs are higher than those of pure production. But prices for electrical storage are also falling rapidly. We are still at the very beginning when it comes to the production of hydrogen and other synthetic energy sources that enable long-term storage. Here too, massively falling costs due to scaling effects and developments in the field of technologies can be expected.

This is offset by rising costs for new nuclear power plants. The examples of Hinkley Point in Great Britain or Olkiluoto in Finland show that. Only through long-term, state-guaranteed high feed-in tariffs can Hinkley Point be financed at all.

There is no question that stronger electrification in all Areas of use will be a core element of a climate-compatible energy system. This requires a sector coupling with the use of electricity in the areas of mobility, heating for buildings and industry.

This can be done in direct form or indirectly through the use of synthetic energy sources produced using clean electricity. In order to generate this electricity with low CO2 emissions, the cheapest energy sources, sun and wind, will play a rapidly growing role. Almost all important studies come to this result.

Nuclear power plants in their current design do not match renewable energies

Nuclear power plants in their current design are base load power plants that are not very good with harmonize with these highly dynamic renewable energies. And they are characterized by very high initial investments and comparatively low operating costs.

This means that the highest possible number of operating hours is required for refinancing. In this respect, inexpensive, dynamically operated gas power plants fit much better with the rapidly growing, fluctuating renewable energies.

And the plants operated today with fossil natural gas could in the future be operated with a steadily increasing proportion of renewable synthetic energy sources.

The interaction of the described techniques – Renewable energies, sector coupling, storage, synthetic energy sources, highly flexible power plants – enables the construction of an energy system that meets the energy triangle of objectives.

This consists of security of supply, environmental and climate compatibility as well as competitiveness. This is particularly evident when the external costs that have been passed on to the public and future generations for fossil and nuclear energies are taken into account.

Hans-Martin Henning is the head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg and teaches at the university there.

Related Articles