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Nuclear Energy Carbon Emissions Lowest Among Electricity Sources, UN Reports

by Olivia Lai Europe Nov 24th 20213 mins
Nuclear Energy Carbon Emissions Lowest Among Electricity Sources, UN Reports

A new UN report found that nuclear energy carbon emissions are lower compared to all other electricity sources as countries including France and the UK look to invest in new nuclear projects to help achieve net zero goals. 

What is Happening?

Nuclear power generates less carbon dioxide emissions over its lifecycle than any other electricity source, including wind, solar, gas and coal,  according to a new report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

In examining the lifecycle across different technologies and electricity sources, the study found that nuclear energy has the lowest carbon footprint, producing within the range of 5.1-6.4g of carbon dioxide equivalent per kWh of generation. In comparison, wind power produces 7.8-2g of carbon dioxide equivalent per kWh while coal generates 753-1095g. 

The report also says that nuclear has the lowest lifecycle land use, the lowest lifecycle mineral and metal requirements. Though the authors of the study highlighted that while both nuclear and renewable energy are all zero-carbon during the generation, all electricity sources generate some carbon emissions during various stages such as construction, operation and decommissioning.

The UN agency also supported the findings from a separate report looking into the lifecycle emissions of the newest nuclear power projects, Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C, in the UK. Both plants were found to have a lifecycle impact of 5.5g CO2 per kWh, echoing similar results from the first report. 

The findings would help UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in making his case for funding new nuclear power projects as part of his national decarbonation plan and goal to achieve net zero carbon emission by 2050. 

You might also like: Nuclear & the Rest: Which is the Safest Energy Source?

There’s been renewed interest in nuclear energy as more countries aim to reach carbon neutrality by the middle of the century. In October, 10 EU countries submitted an open letter urging the European Commission to label nuclear power as a green energy source and to be included in the EU’s sustainable finance rules. While nations including Germany continue to close down its  nuclear reactors, France is moving the opposite way and announced plans to invest in new “innovative small-scale nuclear reactors”. 

In response to the new UN report, Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association Tom Greatrex said: “Here we have a detailed, scientific assessment confirming nuclear as a green and sustainable technology, that uses less carbon, less land, and less material than any other.

“If we are serious about cutting emissions and meeting net zero targets, we must act on the science and build new nuclear alongside other low carbon sources of energy.”

However, critics remain skeptical about nuclear power and argue that the environmental impacts of resulting radioactive waste as well as potential devastating accidents should continue to act as deterrence against expanding the sector. 

Radioactive waste from uranium fuel can remain at dangerous levels for anywhere from a few decades to 10,000 years, while heavy metals from nuclear waste could contaminate nearby agricultural land, fishing waters or freshwater sources. 


About the Author

Olivia Lai

Olivia is a journalist and editor based in Hong Kong with previous experience covering politics, art and culture. She is passionate about wildlife and ocean conservation, with a keen interest in climate diplomacy. She’s also a graduate of University of Edinburgh in International Relations with a Master’s degree from The University of Hong Kong in Journalism. Olivia was the former Managing Editor at Earth.Org.

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