Background Information: The Nuclear Power Debate

Stalking Chernobyl
Photo courtesy of Vlad Vozniuk/URBEX.

The Chernobyl explosion remains one of the worst nuclear disasters in history and is often used as a warning about the potential dangers of nuclear power. However, in recent years, the debate about nuclear power has taken on new life as some advocates hold it up as a form of energy that can help in the battle against global climate change. These advocates consider nuclear power a low-carbon energy source, because it uses uranium instead of burning fossil fuels. Since nuclear plants are not running on coal or oil, they argue, they should be considered climate-friendly. Critics counter that once you take into account things like the mining of uranium and the disposal of the waste, nuclear actually has a much bigger carbon footprint than many people realize.

Below, you will find a few of the most common arguments for and against nuclear power that are shaping the current debate about its use.

  • PRO: Nuclear plants offer low-carbon energy. The argument for nuclear power, articulated by Vox journalist and prominent climate writer David Roberts, says that nuclear is an important energy source because it is a low-carbon alternative to coal. Even if you don't support building new nuclear plants, he writes, you should oppose shutting down existing plants, which are often replaced with natural gas and coal:
    "You do not have to like nuclear power, or ever want to build another nuclear power plant, to believe that existing sources of carbon-free power should be kept running as long as practicably possible. You only have to like carbon-free power or dislike climate change.


    "When an operating nuclear plant shuts down, a big chunk of carbon-free energy is lost. A big chunk. There’s just no way to spin that as a good thing. The five nuclear plants shut down between 2013 and 2016 alone produced as much electricity as all US solar put together. Carbon-wise, that means the next doubling of US solar will mostly be spent trying to make up for nuclear losses."

    Source: Vox

  • CON: "Nuclear energy has no place in a safe, clean, sustainable future." According to Greenpeace, nuclear power is "inadequate, unnecessary, as well as dangerous." While nuclear is a lower-carbon alternative to coal, it is also a "hugely expensive distraction from work to limit the impacts of climate change." Greenpeace also argues against the idea that nuclear should be one of a handful of energy sources:
    "The problem with including nuclear power as part of a diversified energy system is that it could undermine the solutions that can deliver energy and emissions cuts quicker and cheaper.

    "New nuclear will lock us into the same old inflexible, inefficient, and outdated energy system we’ve had for years. Such a system, with nuclear at its heart, has almost no room for effective, cutting edge and flexible technologies like wind power and CHP."

    Additionally, nuclear power creates waste "at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining and enrichment, to reactor operation and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Much of this nuclear waste will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years." Activities at other stages of the cycle put the lie to the idea that nuclear power is actually "carbon-free," and in fact show that its carbon footprint may be substantial.

    Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, outlined a general argument against nuclear power in an interview in 2014:

    Sources: Greenpeace UK and Greenpeace USA

  • Nuclear power needs to be safer. The Union of Concerned Scientists takes a middle-ground position. While acknowledging the complexities of the debate, it has focused on advocating for greater safety regulations and promoting energy efficiency.
    "Swiftly decarbonizing the electric sector, one of the largest sources of US carbon emissions, is among the most cost-effective steps for limiting heat-trapping gas emissions. Renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency measures can help dramatically cut the sector’s emissions, and are safe, cost-effective, and commercially available today.

    "Yet limiting the worst effects of climate change may also require other low- or no-carbon energy solutions, including nuclear power.

    "Nuclear power produces very few lifecycle carbon emissions. It also faces substantial economic challenges, and carries significant human health and environmental risks. UCS strongly supports policies and measures to strengthen the safety and security of nuclear power."

    In terms of promoting public safety, UCS argues:

    "The Fukushima disaster of 2011 showed what can happen when a nuclear power plant's safety systems fail. The US nuclear industry responded with familiar reassurances that it can't happen here.

    "We know better. Nuclear accidents can happen here—but they don't have to.

    "Enforcing fire and earthquake regulations, addressing flood risks, and safer storage for nuclear waste are just a few of the ways we can help prevent nuclear accidents."

    Source: Union of Concerned Scientists