Nuclear Power, Part I: Versus Fossils

Hinkley Point C. It was all over the news a few weeks ago after the EDF board of directors approved a final investment decision. The UK government later decided review the contract, once again putting the project on hold.

I know a lot of these environmental organisations seem to be against nuclear. Personally however, have no objection to the construction of a new nuclear power plant here in the UK. True there are reasons for and reasons against nuclear power. I’ve gathered some facts and figures so you can see for yourself. In Part I I’ve made some comparisons between nuclear power and fossil fuels.

Nuclear vs Fossil Fuels

Nuclear power quite clearly has some potential to mitigate climate change. Improvements in air quality and reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions are a couple of reasons nuclear is preferable to using more fossil fuels.

Premature Deaths

A lot of people die as a result of poor air quality. In 2012 there were an estimated 3.7 million premature deaths caused by ambient air pollution according to the World Health Organisation.

Some 80% of outdoor air pollution-related premature deaths were due to ischaemic heart disease and strokes, while 14% of deaths were due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or acute lower respiratory infections; and 6% of deaths were due to lung cancer. -WHO

A 2013 study assessed the prevented mortality from nuclear power. They calculated that global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and could save up to 7.04 million more by mid-century. What’s more, they predicted that the expansion of natural gas would fail to mitigate climate change and would continue to cause more deaths. If you needed it to be any clearer, this table shows a comparison of total deaths per TWh in Europe for each primary energy source, according to a 2007 paper.

Energy Source Deaths per TWh
Coal 24.62
Oil 18.43
Gas 2.821
Nuclear 0.074

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Emission of greenhouse gasses are of course closely related to air quality. Luckily it doesn’t really need much explanation – burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gasses. Simple.

Now for another table from the aforementioned 2013 paper, showing that nuclear triumphs over fossil fuels.

Energy Source Tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per GWh
Coal 1045
Gas 602
Nuclear 65

For nuclear, this represents a 94% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with coal and an 89% reduction compared with gas.

Nuclear Takes the Lead

The generation of electricity by fossil fuels is getting increasingly difficult to rationalise. It is detrimental to human health which is a huge moral issue, and the damage to the environment is regrettable. Throw in the ambitious targets set by the Paris Agreement and there is little reason to choose fossil fuels over nuclear. But one question still remains: how does it stack up against renewables? Find out in Part II.

Featured Image: 04790182 by IAEA Imagebank (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Jack Nokes Written by:

Environmentalist and engineering student.