·Clean-air electricity sources—nuclear, hydropower, geothermal, wind and solar—are important to America’s energy mix, because they do not produce greenhouse gases. Nuclear energy is the largest of these sources generating 64 percent of America’s clean-air electricity.
·Nuclear energy facilities generate electricity with steam-driven turbines using fission instead of combustion to create heat. A nuclear power plant’s byproduct consists of used uranium fuel rods safely stored in pools or concrete containers rather than CO2 or air pollution associated with acid rain or urban smog.
·By using nuclear energy to produce electricity, America prevents the emission of 570 million metric tons of CO2 per year. That’s the same as preventing the emissions produced by 110 million cars—the vast majority of U.S. cars on the road today.
·The desire to improve our air quality has helped drive the expansion of nuclear energy. When Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, nuclear energy facilities generated one percent of America’s electricity. Today, 100 reactors in 31 states provide nearly 20 percent of our electricity. Five new reactors are under construction—all in the Southeast.
·Some processes used to build and maintain power plants produce greenhouse gases, and this is true even for nuclear, solar and wind. A nuclear energy facility’s “life cycle” produces just 17 tons of CO2 per gigawatt-hour of electricity generated, compared with 1,000 tons of CO2 for a coal plant and 600 tons for a natural gas plant. Nuclear energy’s life-cycle emissions of CO2 are equivalent to those of geothermal (15 tons of CO2 per GWh) and wind (14 tons per GWh).
Q&A on Nuclear Energy’s Clean Air Benefits
What role do you think nuclear energy should play in America’s energy mix?
There is broad agreement that the United States needs a comprehensive energy strategy, using all fuels and technologies, if it is to meet the 28 percent increase in electricity demand by 2040 forecast by the U.S. Department of Energy. As important as renewables are, the electrical grid will continue to need baseload power that is available day and night. Nuclear energy facilities generate 19 percent of U.S. electricity overall, but when looking solely at generation from clean-air sources, nuclear energy accounts for 64 percent (based on a 2012 study by Energy Information Associates).
How can expanding our use of nuclear energy help reduce carbon dioxide emissions?
Nuclear energy facilities already keep CO2 emissions from the electric sector significantly lower than they otherwise would be. If electricity wasn’t generated by nuclear energy, it would have to come from something else—most likely natural gas or coal-fired power plants. Renewables are growing fast, but they are nowhere close to producing the 770 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity that America’s nuclear energy facilities generated in 2012.
Nuclear energy facilities play a significant role in electric companies complying with the Clean Air Act. The desire to improve America’s air quality remains a significant factor in determining what types of electric generating facilities are needed in a given region. Nuclear power plants emit essentially no CO2 while operating, and their life-cycle emissions are equivalent to those of hydroelectric and geothermal plants.
How do environmental groups view nuclear energy?
Given nuclear energy’s clean-air benefits, more and more environmentalists are supporting the expanded use of nuclear energy. When we look at the dual goals of substantially reducing CO2 emissions and meeting a projected 28 percent increase in electricity demand by 2040, there is realistically no way we can get there without nuclear energy. All analysis of climate change legislation considered by Congress in recent years demonstrate that significant increases in nuclear energy are needed to meet even modest reductions in greenhouse gases. A 2013 study by climate scientist James Hansen of Columbia University’s Earth Institute found that the use of nuclear energy globally has saved 1.8 million lives since 1971 by displacing polluting fossil-fueled facilities and holds the potential to save up to 7 million additional lives by the middle of the century. The 2013 Robert Stone documentary “Pandora’s Promise” offers another environmentalist’s perspective on nuclear energy.