World Nuclear Association Blog

Finding focus on electricity and the environment

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Can debates over radioactive emissions from coal and nuclear or greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear and renewables distract from the real environmental impacts of electricity generation?

A lot of good discussion takes place on WNA's facebook page. If you use facebook, we'd be happy if you "liked" our page and join in.

On one particular exchange the debate was taking place in the light of the recent EU Energy and Climate Change plan, which creates more scope for nuclear energy to play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. Understandably, the debate focussed on the different forms of environmental impacts caused by different generation sources.

It was suggested that nuclear proponents repeatedly claim that radiation exposure in the vicinity of coal fired power plants is much higher than for nuclear plants. WNA's own take on this is that this claim is often not correct, as generally the pollutants from coal fired power stations that contain the naturally occurring radioactive materials are retained - see our info paper on NORMs for more. However, other sources suggest it may be true that in some cases, for example this US Environmental Protection Agency self-assessment form suggests radiation exposure from living near coal power plants is more than three times higher than living near nuclear plants.

But this debate is a distraction. Radiation exposure levels from either coal or nuclear generation are at levels that are not harmful. Focussing on radiation exposure completely misses the point in terms of the most harmful environmental and health effects of electricity generation.

Debates of this kind are similar to those over whether wind, solar or nuclear have higher greenhouse gas emissions. Study after study has shown that, aside from exceptional cases, greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear and renewables are very low, and more importantly are much lower than for fossil fuels, as shown in a review of LCA studies WNA published a couple of years ago. It's like arguing whether an apple or an orange has more fat in it when the point is that you are having fruit instead of a packet of crisps.

Not that it is just greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels that can be harmful. In China alone, the smog-like pollution from coal power plants is thought to be responsible for a quarter of a million deaths a year This is on top of any long term CO2 impacts. If you happen to be one of those who doubts the case for climate change then there are plenty of other reasons to still support a move away from fossil fuels, particularly coal.

No one should underestimate the effort required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the levels required. No single technology - be it nuclear, solar, wind or energy efficiency - is going to be enough. All will be needed, and for that reason no one low carbon technology should hamper the potential for growth of any other.

What is needed is a practical approach with an emphasis on energy diversity among low carbon options. Countries like Sweden and France have already shown that you can have a very secure low carbon generation sector with different mixes of renewables and nuclear. In contrast, Germany seems to be showing that cutting one option - nuclear - out of the mix means greater fossil fuel use.