Nuclear Power & Climate Change?

The book Climate Change: Biological & Human Aspects (Cambridge U. Press) covers many aspects of 'global warming' including energy options. One such option is nuclear power. Climate Change: Biological & Human Aspects covers nuclear's climate dimension in a number of places.

The below is a single extract (p448-9) from Climate Change: Biological & Human Aspects: just one of the book's number of references to a range of energy strategy options as well as information on the nuclear contribution past and possible future.

In part because of the above economics, and in part because it is a low- (though not entirely zero-) fossil-carbon resource, nuclear fission is likely to become increasingly more attractive in future. Although there are, and will likely continue to be, concerns over radioactive waste and potential nuclear proliferation, it is difficult not to see many countries adopting nuclear power, or increasing their existing nuclear-generating capability by the middle of the century. The scale of fission development (and its nature, such as developing or not fast-breeder reactors) will influence the rate at which high-grade uranium ore reserves are depleted. At some stage (somewhere from the middle of the century, but it is unclear when), as high-grade uranium ore deposits are depleted, the cost of fission will rise. Increased fission costs would be bearable if cheaper fossil fuel ran out and/or if fossil fuel combined with carbon capture was at least as expensive. This would enable lower-grade uranium ore be extracted and processed.

      Ore extraction and processing currently has a carbon cost in that oil is used to transport the ore and energy is used to process it as well as to isotopically enrich the fuel. This processing and enrichment energy in our high-fossil-using present day currently necessitates some fossil-carbon consumption (although nuclear power still offsets more carbon than it consumes; see Chapter 7). However, in a potentially low-fossil (with high use of nuclear or renewable energy) future this nuclear-fuel manufacturing energy could conceivably come from renewable energy and nuclear power itself: such are the complexities that make energy futures difficult to predict. Currently part of this carbon cost is offset by nuclear electricity generation displacing electricity generation that would otherwise have been undertaken by fossil fuels. However, if lower-grade uranium ore is mined, then more oil is used in its transportation and more energy for processing and enrichment. Of course, if we were by then in a largely renewable- and alternative-energy future then conceivably fossil carbon would not be required to contribute to a nuclear infrastructure.

      Increased future (beyond the mid twenty-first century) fission and fossil costs are likely to make fusion economically attractive: assuming, of course, that the current International Experimental Thermonuclear Reactor (ITER) project demonstrates fusion viability. It is unlikely to be cheap, hence there are fossil-carbon-release implications, but if fusion does prove technically viable, and economic in a more energy-expensive end-of-twenty-first century, then fusion combined with a hydrogen economy could be a long-term, climate-friendly hope. There would, though, still be a cost in the form of radioactive waste and we would still have to live with the climate impacts already in train and also likely due from whatever carbon emissions are to come. Finally, like fission, fusion, with its fast-neutron flow, also has nuclear-proliferation consequences for any nation with sufficiently advanced technology.


Climate Change: Biological & Human Aspects is available from Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK and its offices overseas including in New York (US), Melbourne (Australia), Madrid (Spain), Cape Town (South Africa) and elsewhere. ISBN 978-0-521-87399-4 (hardback) and ISBN 978-0-521-6919-7 (paperback). See also details at CUP.   It is illustrated with around 70 diagrams and a score or so of tables. It is fully referenced and has a number of explanatory appendices. Aimed at those with differing expertise, it is an introductory text but, at around 500 pages, comprehensively covers a wide range of climate-related issues.

Climate Change: Biological & Human Aspects 2nd edition (2013).

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