CO2 Implications of Electricity Generation

Updated November 2016

  • Life-cycle analysis, focused on energy, is useful for comparing net energy yields from different methods of electricity generation.
  • The amount and kinds of energy inputs to the nuclear fuel cycle has implications for carbon dioxide emissions.
  • In any scenario nuclear power has negligible emissions.

The economics of electricity generation are important. If the financial cost of building and operating the plant cannot profitably be recouped by selling the electricity, it is not economically viable. But as energy itself is sometimes seen as a more fundamental unit of accounting than money, it is useful to know which generating systems produce the best return on the energy invested in them. This is part of life-cycle analysis (LCA). A subset of this addresses CO2 or similar implications.

In recent years some utilities generating electricity have undertaken LCA studies as part of their social accountability. Also mining companies have been publishing their energy use as part of broader environmental or social responsibility disclosure – part of product stewardship – and this feeds into broader LCA figures. Both kinds of results have been audited and published.

As well as energy costs, there are external costs to be considered – those environmental and health consequences of energy production which are quantifiable but do not appear in the financial accounts. Beyond these, and less readily quantifiable in the same way, are the costs involved with climate change accelerated by human influence. Where emissions trading schemes put a direct cost on carbon dioxide emissions, that can be added in too.

The principal focus of LCA for energy systems today is their contribution to global warming. There is an obvious linkage between energy inputs to any life cycle and carbon dioxide emissions, depending on what fuels those inputs. LCA includes mining, fuel preparation, plant construction, transport, decommissioning and managing wastes.

External costs and greenhouse gases

The principal concern of life-cycle analysis for energy systems today is their likely contribution to global warming. This is a major external cost, though not the only one.

The ExternE study (1995) attempted to provide an expert assessment of life-cycle external costs for Europe including greenhouse gases, other pollution and accident potential. The European Commission launched the project in 1991 in collaboration with the US Department of Energy (which subsequently dropped out), and it was the first research project of its kind "to put plausible financial figures against damage resulting from different forms of electricity production for the entire EU." A further report, focusing on coal and nuclear, was released in 2001.

The external costs are defined as those actually incurred in relation to health and the environment and quantifiable but not built into the cost of the electricity to the consumer, and therefore which are borne by society at large. They include particularly the effects of air pollution on human health, crop yields and buildings, as well as occupational disease and accidents. In ExternE they exclude effects on ecosystems and the impact of global warming, which could not adequately be quantified and evaluated economically.

The methodology measures emissions, their dispersion and ultimate impact. With nuclear energy the low risk of accidents is factored in along with high estimates of radiological impacts from mine tailings (since shown to be exaggerated) and carbon-14 emissions from reprocessing (waste management and decommissioning being already within the cost to the consumer).

The report shows that in clear cash terms nuclear energy incurs about one-tenth of the costs of coal. Also, the external costs for coal-fired power were a very high proportion (50-70%) of the internal costs, while the external costs for nuclear energy were a very small proportion of internal costs, even after factoring in hypothetical nuclear catastrophes. This is because all waste costs in the nuclear fuel cycle are already internalised, which reduces the competitiveness of nuclear power when only internal costs are considered. The external costs of nuclear energy averages 0.4 euro cents/kWh, much the same as hydro, coal is over 4.0 cents (4.1-7.3 cent/kWh averages in different countries), gas ranges 1.3-2.3 cents/kWh and only wind shows up better than nuclear, at 0.1-0.2 cents/kWh average.

The EU cost of electricity generation without these external costs averages about 4 cents/kWh. If these external costs were in fact included, the EU price of electricity from coal would double and that from gas would increase by 30%. These particular estimates are without attempting to include possible impacts of fossil fuels on global warming.


Turning to carbon dioxide, if all energy inputs are assumed to be from coal-fired plants, at about one kilogram of carbon dioxide per kWh, it is possible to derive a greenhouse contribution from the energy input percentage of output. However, as data for Forsmark shows, many energy inputs are not fossil fuel, giving it a very low CO2 emissions figure of 3.1 g/kWh. The 2005 environmental product declaration for British Energy's Torness 1250 MWe power station shows 5.05 g/kWh (reference year 2002).

In 2014 the US National Renewable Energy laboratory (NREL) published LCA figures for nuclear power based on 1980-2010 data which had been harmonised for greater consistency. The median life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions for PWR and BWR power plants were 12 and 13 g/kWh respectively. (This compared with coal on the same basis at 1000 g/kWh overall, but IGCC at about 900 and supercritical coal at about 800.)

In France to about 2010, despite energy-inefficient enrichment plants which were run by nuclear power, the greenhouse contribution from any nuclear reactor using French-enriched uranium was similar to a reactor elsewhere using centrifuge-enriched uranium – less than 20 g/kWh overall. That would now be no greater, as centrifuges have taken over in France.

Figures published in 2006 for Japan show 13 g/kWh, with prospects of this halving in future.

The UK Sustainable Development Commission report in March 2006 gave a figure of 16 g/kWh for nuclear, compared with 891 g/kWh for coal and 356 g/kWh for gas.

Older figures published from Japan's Central Research Institute of the Electric Power Industry give life-cycle carbon dioxide emission figures for various generation technologies. Vattenfall (1999) published a popular account of life-cycle studies based on the previous few years' experience and its certified environmental product declarations (EPDs) for Forsmark and Ringhals nuclear power stations in Sweden, and Kivisto in 2000 reports a similar exercise for Finland. They show the following CO2 emissions:

g/kWh CO2 Japan Sweden Finland
coal 975 980 894
gas thermal 608 1170 (peak-load, reserve) --
gas combined cycle 519 450 472
solar photovoltaic 53 50 95
wind 29 5.5 14
nuclear 22 6 10 - 26
hydro 11 3 --

The Japanese gas figures include shipping LNG from overseas, and the nuclear figure is for boiling water reactors, with enrichment 70% in USA, 30% France & Japan, and one-third of the fuel to be MOX. The Finnish nuclear figures are for centrifuge and diffusion enrichment respectively, the Swedish one is for 80% centrifuge.

Other published figures are consistent with the above for nuclear power, showing it to have around 1-2% of the carbon dioxide emissions of coal-fired power (i.e. under 20 g/kWh). If extremely low-grade ores are envisaged, the figure would rise by a further 1% in line with the energy inputs, making it about 3% of coal (i.e. about 30 g/kWh) or perhaps 6% of gas – still a very substantial margin where carbon constraints are increasingly needed.


Ralph E.H. Sims, Hans-Holger Rogner and Ken Gregory, Carbon emission and mitigation cost comparisons between fossil fuel, nuclear and renewable energy resources for electricity generation, Energy Policy 31, p1315-1326 (2003)

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