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The Great Sustainability Debates - Nuclear Energy

As part of our commitment to 'Communicating existing and emerging concepts to a contemporary audience, raising awareness and understanding about sustainability issues', The Natural Edge Project secretariat seeks to provide information on key public debates and provide the key arguments from each side with further reading resources to help you make up your own mind. The first debate in this new TNEP series is the very topical 'Nuclear Energy Debate'.


Pros and Cons of the Nuclear Energy Debate

Over the last two years there has been renewed debate about nuclear energy. To help you make up your mind on this complex issue firstly we present below the key points of both the Pro-Nuclear Case and the Anti-Nuclear Case followed by further information from TNEP that synthesise TNEP secretariat's findings to date on this important debate along with a shortlist of additional reading. These opinion pieces by TNEP secretariat are the result of detailed consideration of both sides of the argument.

The Pro-Nuclear Case

Those arguing for expanding the global nuclear energy industry argue that it is needed in order to address three things: 1) the risks of climate change, 2) increasing base load energy demand, and 3) the need for an energy source to produce transport fuels once the world reaches peak oil production. More specifically, those proposing an expansion of the nuclear industry argue that:

  1. We are about to witness a nuclear renaissance of both nuclear fission and fusion.
  2. Since addressing climate change requires large (60% or more) reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear energy is going to be a key part of the solution to preventing climate change.
  3. An expansion of nuclear power is vital to meet growing energy demand. International Energy Agency forecasts that, 'if policies remain unchanged, world energy demand is projected to increase by over 50% between now and 2030'.
  4. Other options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as renewable energy, do not provide reliable base load power. The position is that only nuclear and the burning of fossil fuels provides reliable base load power and hence, unless geo-sequestration rapidly becomes technically and economically possible, we have no choice but to build nuclear power plants in the future to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
  5. The world's oil production will peak soon and to address this nuclear power plants are a potential way to provide energy to create transport fuels such as biofuels, methanol and hydrogen fuels. Also nuclear power can help supply electricity to battery powered cars in the future.
  6. Nuclear energy costs less than renewables.
  7. The technology of nuclear power has moved on significantly in the last couple of decades and a reactor like Chernobyl would never be built today.
  8. Nuclear programs like those of Sweden and France have been very safe and delivered a lower carbon footprint than countries like Australia which have burnt coal for most of our electricity.
  9. Nuclear power is a green solution.


The Anti-Nuclear Case

Those arguing against expanding nuclear power point argue that nuclear power is too expensive, too risky, too slow to build enough capacity, and too dangerous in this age of terrorism. More specifically they argue that:

  1. There is little evidence to support the notion that there is a nuclear renaissance underway. Rather over the coming decades most forecast a decline of nuclear energy as a percentage of global energy supply. They point out that as of 2003 distributed renewable energy generation provided more energy globally than the world's supply from nuclear energy.
  2. Nuclear power is never going to be the answer to climate change. Only 32% of the US 's, and 35% of Australia 's greenhouse emissions come from electricity generation, whereas in countries like Brazil and India over 50% of their greenhouse emissions come from Non-CO 2 sources. A nuclear power station cannot reduce Non-CO 2 emissions. Hence those who argue against nuclear energy point out that it is impossible for nuclear power to be the one big techno fix for climate change as well as the fact that building nuclear plants takes many years.
  3. Scientists now argue that humanity has to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly to ensure that dangerous climate change is avoided. Nuclear power plants take a significant amount of time to build. Energy efficiency and other forms of renewable energy - geo-thermal, wind, solar, tidal, cogeneration, micro-hydro, biomass, wavepower - can be implemented today. Forty three companies and over fifteen cities have already achieved significant greenhouse gas reductions without using nuclear energy.
  4. Policies have, are, and will continue to change, and have the potential to dramatically reduce energy demand both for peak and base load energy. Regulations have been created that provide new incentives, and reward energy utilities for selling less energy, which have been shown to dramatically reduce demand for more energy. Thus there is still significant potential to reduce energy demand cost effectively by implementing energy efficiency through all sectors throughout the global economy.
  5. Renewable energy sources can indeed provide base load electricity either directly or by also utilising energy storage. Energy from renewable sources now accounts for a quarter of the installed capacity of California , a third of Sweden 's energy, half of Norway 's and three-quarters of Iceland 's. Six fully costed modelling studies already show that deep cuts to greenhouse emissions can be achieved without needing nuclear power.
  6. Nations can reduce oil dependency profitably without needing any nuclear power, as demonstrated by the RMI Winning the Oil End Game Report, co-funded by the Pentagon.
  7. Renewables are less expensive than Nuclear Power. On the 17th of June 2003 the Economist magazine , wrote that Nuclear energy does not merit any more investment because it is too expense compared to alternatives including wind and solar energy sources. RMI's Small is Profitable publication demonstrates that once all the 207 benefits of distributed energy generation are taken into account, distributed renewable energy is more profitable than nuclear power. Historically, nuclear power plants have been not only expensive, they're also financially extremely risky because of their long lead times, cost overruns, and open-ended liabilities. If the same money were invested in efficiency or renewables it would have a greater impact on the emissions of the greenhouse gases.
  8. While it is true that the technology has moved on, and if the best technologies were applied to any new reactor it would have less risks than Chernobyl , there are new risks, including indirect risk from terrorism.
  9. Nuclear waste has half lives that last 10,000s of years. No civilization has ever lasted that long. Is it ethical to be creating a form of waste that will require careful storage for a timeframe longer than any civilization has lasted? Also managing the waste is expensive. There are expensive ways to dispose of long-lived radioactive waste. Sweden , for instance, has spent $14 Billion and rising to manage its radioactive waste and is now decommissioning its reactors.
  10. Nuclear power is not green due to all the points made above and also due to the following additional facts; namely that nuclear power plants use a great deal of water, uranium is a non-renewable resource and there is significant energy and resources needed to build nuclear plants.

Further information from TNEP

Sections 4 and 5 of TNEP's publication The Natural Advantage of Nations shows how deep cuts to greenhouse emissions can be achieved without needing nuclear energy. Specifically this is covered in:

Chapter 17: Profitable Greenhouse Solutions led by TNEP's Michael Smith with Adjunct Professor Alan Pears.
Chapter 18: Greening the Built Environment led by TNEP's Cheryl Paten with Adjunct Professor Alan Pears and Dr Janis Birkeland
Chapter 19: Sustainable Urban Transport by Professor Jeff Kenworthy, Robert Murray-Leach and Dr Craig Townsend.
Chapter 21: Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Consumption and Cleaner Production by Professor Chris Ryan.

These chapters bring together the latest case studies, technologies available and economic modelling showing that it is possible to achieve deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions without using nuclear energy.


Read an Executive Summary on The Nuclear Energy Debate by TNEP

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TNEP Patron Professor Ian Lowe 's National Press Club Address 'Is Nuclear Energy Part of Australia's Global Warming Solutions'.

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On May the 19th, 2006 ABC Triple J's Hack compare Steve Cannane interviewed Michael Smith, Content Co-ordinator for The Natural Edge Project on the nuclear debate.

Listen to the Show | View Website


Additional Further Reading

Lovins, A. and Lovins, H. (1982) Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security, Brick House Publishing, MA (re-released in 2001) ISBN 093179028X (Available Online in PDF)

Lovins, A. (1977) Soft Energy Paths: Towards a Durable Peace , Ballinger Publishing Company, NY. ISBN 0060906537

Referencing this article;

Smith, M., Hargroves, K., Palousis, P., and Paten, C. (2006) Pros and Cons of the Nuclear Energy Debate. Retrieved 13 July 2006 from: