Lucas Davis and Catherine Hausman
Long before the current enthusiasm about solar photovoltaics and other renewables, a seemingly magical technology turned yellow dust into electricity. In 1942, on an abandoned squash court at the University of Chicago, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi demonstrated that electricity could be generated using a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. In the early decades, it was expected that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter”—a cleaner, modern alternative to the fossil fuels of the day.
Fast-forward 75 years, and nuclear power has indeed grown to play a central role in global electricity supply. Last year nuclear power provided a whopping 2.4 petawatt hours of electricity, enough to meet 10 percent of total worldwide demand. And unlike fossil fuel plants, nuclear power plants emit no carbon dioxide, the primary driver of climate change.
Worldwide, over 400 reactors are operating on five continents. The regions with the largest nuclear fleets are western Europe (led by France) and North America (led by the United States), but Asia also has a significant number of plants—largely in China, Japan, and Korea. Overall, 31 countries are home to an operating reactor.
At the same time, nuclear power has not been everything it was expected to be. Fermi’s original nuclear experiments were financed on a shoestring budget, but it has proved remarkably difficult to scale up this technology cheaply enough to compete with fossil fuels. And, today, there is great uncertainty about the future prospects for nuclear power. While some countries, notably China, are expanding their fleet, public pressure has led Germany to phase out its reactors.
Understanding the economic and regulatory forces at work in this evolving outlook has never been more important. The nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, highlighted the inherent risks of nuclear power. Still, with the approaching climate negotiations in Paris, it is particularly timely to consider the future role of nuclear energy.
It makes sense that many nuclear supporters see a key role for nuclear power in addressing climate change. A single pound of uranium produces as much electricity as 16,000 pounds of coal. And while nuclear power is virtually emission free, burning coal and other fossil fuels generates carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury.
How much carbon dioxide are we talking about? Consider the following. If all currently operating nuclear plants were replaced with fossil fuels, carbon dioxide emissions would increase by 2 billion metric tons a year. This is slightly less than the total carbon dioxide emissions of Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom combined. While wind and solar energy are increasing around the world, they do not provide the reliable capacity required to fill this gap.