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Nuclear power, lauded as a solution for a cleaner world, hits a snag

Tepco and Kajima workers pose for portraits at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Feb. 23, 2016. (Getty Images)

There’s a growing push for nuclear-power generation as a choice for countries trying to wean themselves off fossil fuels and reduce their carbon footprint. But new research suggests there are potential downsides.

For many scientists — and Bill Gates — nuclear energy is part of the answer to the world’s climate-change problem.

The market for nuclear power could triple by 2050 across the world, according to a recent study by Third Way, a U.S.-based think tank. There are more than 60 advanced reactor designs in development in the U.S., the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank, said in a paper

However, a recent study published in Nature Energy provides a different view. Scientists who conducted the study collected data from 123 countries over a 25-year period, examining how the introduction of either nuclear-power or renewable-energy sources affects each country’s levels of carbon emissions.

The results show that a larger-scale national investment in nuclear-power plants not only fails to yield a significant reduction in carbon emissions, it actually causes higher emissions in poorer countries that implemented this strategy.

For renewables, the opposite is true — in certain large country samples, the relationship between renewable energy and reduction in CO2-emissions is up to seven times stronger than the corresponding relationship for nuclear power. It is interesting how consistent the results are across different time frames and country sets.

The evidence clearly points to nuclear being the least effective of the two broad carbon-emissions-abatement strategies.

— Benjamin K. Sovacool, professor of energy policy, University of Sussex Business School

The study also found that trying to use both nuclear and renewable energy actually reduces the effectiveness of both, and that the “do everything” approach isn’t the most effective way to reduce a country’s carbon footprint.

The reason for this is that both energy sources require significant enhancements of electric-grid structures, as well as regulatory adaptations that later make it difficult for a country to switch to a different model.

A heavily centralized nuclear option that requires significant initial investment is vastly different from small-scale distribution patterns and investment requirements that characterize renewables. Implementation of one over the other locks the country in a certain pattern that pushes out the alternative or makes it comparatively harder for it to take root.

As a comment on the research, Benjamin K. Sovacool, professor of energy policy in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “The evidence clearly points to nuclear being the least effective of the two broad carbon emissions abatement strategies, and coupled with its tendency not to co-exist well with its renewable alternative, this raises serious doubts about the wisdom of prioritizing investment in nuclear over renewable energy. Countries planning large-scale investments in new nuclear power are risking suppression of greater climate benefits from alternative renewable energy investments.”

While this seems to be a key moment for renewable-energy supporters, and a strong indication that we need to re-evaluate clean-energy postulates, it’s important to note that the study covers only the period between 1990 and 2014. A lot has happened in the past six years in terms of upgrades in design and efficiency of nuclear plants.

Also, not all surveyed power plants had received the same level of maintenance — as a result, their efficiency may have been affected. Finally, scientists said that what they found was a correlation rather than direct causation.

In short, more data are required before we can say for certain that nuclear energy needs to take a back seat in countries that prioritize carbon neutrality over energy efficiency.

What’s your take? Does the study surprise you? Let me know in the comment section below.

Read More: Nuclear power, lauded as a solution for a cleaner world, hits a snag

2020-10-30 07:20:00

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