Study shows pro-nuclear countries make slower progress on climate change goals

Energize Weekly, August 24, 2016

As New York State embarks on an innovative new subsidy program to benefit struggling nuclear plants in the name of combating climate change, a new study has seemingly undercut the program’s basic premise: that rewarding nuclear generation will result in fewer overall carbon emissions.

According to researchers at the University of Sussex and the Vienna School of International Studies, a strong national commitment to nuclear energy does not correlate with a strong performance in reaching national climate policy goals.

The study, which focused on European countries, found that countries without nuclear power or plans to reduce it showed the most progress toward reducing their carbon emissions and implementing more renewable energy sources, as set out in the European Union’s (EU) 2020 Strategy.  Conversely, countries which have actively pursued nuclear energy have been slower to curb emissions or implement more wind, solar, and hydropower technologies.

“Looked at on its own, nuclear power is sometimes noisily propounded as an attractive response to climate change,” said Andy Stirling, Professor of Science and Technology at the University of Sussex. “Yet if alternative options are rigorously compared, questions are raised about cost-effectiveness, timeliness, safety and security.”

The study divided EU countries into three groups, those without nuclear energy (such as Denmark, Ireland, and Norway), those with existing nuclear commitments but with plans to decommission (such as Germany and Sweden), and those with plans to maintain or expand nuclear capacity (such as Hungary and the UK).  The study then compared each group in terms of how much their carbon emissions decreased or increased since 2005, as well as their pace of implementing renewables.

The study found those countries without nuclear energy had reduced their emissions by an average of six percent since 2005, while increasing adoption of renewable sources by 26 percent.  Countries with plans to reduce their nuclear portfolios reduced carbon emissions even more, by 11 percent, and increased renewables by 19 percent.

However, countries with plans to maintain or expand nuclear capacity fared the worst, increasing adoption of renewables by a modest 16 percent, while managing to produce more carbon emissions by an average of three percent since 2005.  The UK was able to reduce their carbon emissions by 16 percent, bucking the trend of countries seeking to expand nuclear.  However, only five percent of the UK’s energy is produced from renewables, which is among the lowest in Europe.

Report authors suggested that the massive expenditures to maintain nuclear power (the proposed Hinkley nuclear plant on England’s southwest coast is estimated to cost $23 billion) can create a culture of dependency on nuclear, at the expense of other energy sources.

“The analysis shows that nuclear power is not like other energy systems. It has a unique set of risks, political, technical and otherwise, that must be perpetually managed,” said Benjamin Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy and Director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex.

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