The Climate Challenge
Climate change represents one of the largest, most pressing problems of the 21st century. On a global scale, it has the potential to harm vulnerable populations and ecosystems, while stressing increasingly interconnected economic systems. Some analyses indicate that these effects are already being felt via increased intensity of storms, drought, and wildfires, which may be more likely due to climate change and are expected to increase with further warming.
Under some scenarios, climate change is expected to bring humanitarian and ecological disruption and displacement on a scale that humankind has never experienced. A World Bank report projects that on our current path, over 143 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could be compelled to migrate within their countries by 2050. The Fourth National Climate Assessment estimates that if climate change continues at its current pace, the annual costs to the U.S. economy could reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of this century.
Climate change is also a threat multiplier that can be expected to increase conflict in areas predisposed to it. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review states:
"The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
At the same time, economic development is driving significant energy demand growth in emerging economies. Global coal use remains stubbornly high and global emissions have yet to decisively peak.
Nuclear Power for Decarbonization
As an energy source that does not emit greenhouse gases or other air pollutants during operation, nuclear energy has positive impacts on clean air. Nuclear power is one of the largest sources of carbon-free clean energy in the world. In the United States, nuclear energy produces more than half of all clean electricity generation.
One NASA study estimated that between 1971 and 2009, nuclear power mitigated more than 64 gigatons of greenhouse gasses, almost two full years at the current emissions rate. Further, by preventing air pollution, the study found nuclear energy prevented around 1.8 million deaths in the same time period and could save 4-7 million more air pollution-related deaths by 2050.
Although conventional nuclear power has played a central role in providing clean energy, the existing U.S. fleet will need to be replaced by mid-century. The loss of conventional nuclear power occurs at the same time that climate change mitigation requires global decarbonization. By 2050, the U.S. needs to reduce its emissions by 80% or more. Established and emerging economies alike are looking at nuclear power as a valuable source of zero-carbon energy. Further, many rapidly growing countries face more serious air pollution issues, which is a primary reason China, India, and other emerging economies are looking to nuclear power.
Advanced nuclear power can address the dual challenges of energy access and clean energy for the 21st century.
By providing affordable, clean energy, advanced nuclear power can meet climate, clean air, and economic goals. Studies have shown deep decarbonization can be more feasible and more affordable when nuclear energy is part of the power mix. Compared to other alternatives, nuclear offers a resilient, baseload resource. With integrated storage technologies, advanced nuclear can work with variable renewable energy technologies to fully decarbonize electric grids at the lowest cost.
Several retrospective analyses of nuclear deployment rates have shown that nuclear power has scaled as fast as renewables, or faster, suggesting that both nuclear and renewable technologies could be scaled up quickly to address climate change.
Critically, while nuclear can be a key role in decarbonized electrification, it can also provide zero-carbon energy for heating, for hydrogen production, and for marine propulsion.
Beyond carbon-free energy, advanced technologies offer many prospective environmental benefits:
Air pollution. Fossil fuels and other dirty fuels are estimated to cause more than 7 million deaths annually from local and indoor air pollution. As an emissions free source of energy, advanced nuclear can reduce global mortality from energy production.
Lower water withdrawals and consumption. Many advanced reactor designs do not require the same level of water withdrawals or consumption as existing nuclear facilities or fossil fueled power plants. They can thus reduce electric sector demands on water resources while being resilient to climate-induced water stress.
Reduced land use. Renewable energy requires significant land use and mining to support its growth; it is already causing land use conflicts in many regions. Nuclear energy’s density leads to a much smaller land use footprint, which advanced nuclear can further shrink through reduced fuel needs and waste impacts.
Conventional nuclear energy has long provided the United States and the world with important clean energy, and advanced nuclear has the potential to be a critical contributor in addressing climate change.