Is nuclear the answer to climate change?

SOURCE: International Atomic Energy Agency

France relies on nuclear power more than any other country and is held up by advocates of nuclear power as a model for how to generate enough cheap and reliable electricity to sell surpluses abroad while reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

But global warming is exposing France to new risks. There is a less well-known side of nuclear power: it requires great amounts of cool water to keep reactors operating at safe temperatures. That is worrying if the rivers and reservoirs which many power plants rely on for water are hot or depleted because of steadily rising air temperatures.

Governments and the energy industry are just starting to grasp the vulnerabilities of water-hungry power plants. If the complications prove serious in countries where inland sources of water are growing scarce, where seafront nuclear stations are unwelcome or impractical and where alternative cooling technologies are too expensive, it could take the bloom off of nuclear as a source of clean energy and leave it more unclear than ever where sizeable new power supplies might come from.

“We’re going to have to solve the climate-change problem if we’re going to have nuclear power, not the other way around,” said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who is with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“As the climate warms up, nuclear power plants are less able to deliver,” he said.

Officials at Électricité de France have been preparing for a possible rerun of a ferocious heat wave that struck during 2003, the hottest summer on record in France, when temperatures of some rivers rose sharply and a number of reactors had to curtail output or shut down altogether.

The French company operates 58 reactors – the majority on ecologically sensitive rivers like the Loire.

During the extreme heat of 2003 in France, 17 nuclear reactors operated at reduced capacity or were turned off. Électricité de France was forced to buy power from neighboring countries on the open market, where demand drove the price of a megawatt hour.

Finding enough water for nuclear plants “is front and center of everything we will do in the future,” said Craig Nesbit, a spokesman at Exelon, a Chicago-based company operating the largest group of U.S. nuclear plants.

Patrice Lambert de Diesbach, an energy analyst at CM-CIC Securities in Paris, said hot summers were the problem. “We are up against the maximum amount of hot water that can be released into rivers,” Diesbach said. “Unfortunately the situation is only going to get worse.”

More ….

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23 Responses to Is nuclear the answer to climate change?

  1. viv rendall says:

    I think we believe and rely too much on nuclear power to be our main power source in future. We should understand and be aware that renewable power sources can be the alternative to nuclear power despite what the pro nuclear lobby says. We are at the crossroads of that happening now.
    We also have to cite the very obvious that we will never have a safe nuclear industry because we live in a world entrenched in crazy ideologies. We are in dire need to have safe cheap power sources and reduce global warming as well and only renewables will in the end do that.
    There has been a breakthrough in renewable energy base power production! I refer to solar thermal power using a cheap flat mirror system and storage by the disassociation of ammonia in an endothermic reactor then stored at ambient temperature and used at any later time even during wintertime the sun’s energy is not lost being chemically locked up. Then reapplied to an exothermic reactor heat is produced at about 500 degrees to provide steam for power generation. This closed loop system enables 24/7 base power production for industry and it also is able to provide medium or peak power on demand. Not only that the storage system is easy to do and cheap and is based on mature technology and enables the sun’s energy to be stored any length of time without loss so that the energy can be extracted in the wintertime if necessary or any time in the future! No other storage system can do this and it is a real breakthrough. A gigawatt plant is right now being built in America financed by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla who says that solar thermal power is poised for explosive growth because of it’s low costs together with Australian scientist Dr David Mills. In Europe a TRANS-CSP report commissioned by the German government calculates that solar thermal power is likely to become one of the cheapest sources of power including the cost of transmission. Not producing any carbon and it does not have safety issues it’s easy to see why. This is the power that needs to be, and can be sent to third world counties and the rest of Europe via High Voltage Direct Current Transmission lines from solar thermal plants in North African deserts or the Middle East with only 3% loss in transmission. In fact the whole world could use this as a major power source as there are many deserts around. The potential for it to power the world cleanly and safely and reduce greenhouse gasses at the same time is a real bonus. And it is being done now. Lets get on with it and continue! A general understanding and awareness of solar thermal power (CSP) can be seen on and ( and and understanding of the storage system in schematic form can be seen at and to see where CSP plants are operating or being built or planned see and go to CSP plants on Google Earth.

  2. earthpal says:

    So we need to fix the climate change problem before we can have nuclear power but we need (according to the nuclear-nerds) nuclear power to fix climate change.

    Some dilemma! Is Mother Earth trying to tell us something?

    Another reason to avoid the nuclear route.

  3. matt says:

    It’s an excellent article isn’t it. ‘Dilemma’ is a good word to sum up the nuclear question but, also increasingly I feel the human relationship with mother earth.

    Ice melt is a perfect example because the more stored water released into the hydro cycle the more violent the weather is becoming. All that water has to go somewhere and huge floods seem to be the outcome.

    Water. The issue of our times
    ; not enough, too much, polluted, conflicting needs. It’s all there!

  4. matt says:


    Excellent! Thank you for this information.

    Definitely the answers are there and the technology too. A little more application from businesses and governments and we’ll be on the right road.

    There are many sea and tidal technologies being trialled within the UK and Europe at the moment which are looking good. It helps if governments realise the need to distribute power production around to smaller units too, rather than always thinking of mega power plants.

    I’ll check out your links.

  5. Govind says:

    Hm…I’d say one nuclear accident (god forbid) and all that we have been doing in the name of ‘Environment’ will go down the drain.
    We’ve already had two such incidents.

  6. the Grit says:

    Hi Matt,

    While a lack of cooling water is really stretching things far into the realm of the absurd, there is a real reason why nuclear power is not going to be the answer to fossil fuels; their isn’t enough uranium to power that many. Back in the 70s, if memory serves, the estimates of proven uranium reserves were for a sufficient supply to provide 50% of world energy demand for 50 to 100 years depending on how fast plants were built. This could be extended to 200 years using breeder reactors, but we all know that isn’t ever going to fly. Even though a few new sources of uranium have been discovered since then, energy demand has grown much faster than was expected at the time, so, at best, expansion in the use of nuclear power will be small in the developed countries.

    the Grit

  7. earthpal says:

    Hi Grit.

    How can it be absurd when it’s already occurring?

    Good point about the uranium though. Not only are uranium reserves depleting but the energy costs of mining the stuff is counteractive to any emissions advantages that nuclear power might offer.

    And in any case, the whole process of converting uranium ore to nuclear fuel produces ghg’s.

    More reasons to avoid the nuclear route.

  8. matt says:

    > How can it be absurd when it’s already occurring?

    Well exactly earthpal. It is after all nuclear engineers who are deeply concerned about the issues surrounding water cooling. Think I’ll go with their qualified opinion. 🙂

  9. the Grit says:

    Hi y’all,

    When you show me a river that provides cooling water to a nuke plant going dry due to Global Warming, I’ll take back the absurd.

    As to the suggestion that uranium refining produces GHG, not if the processing plant gets its electricity from a nuclear power plant. Oh, and the finished product produces tremendously more power than the production of the fuel consumes. For that matter, if environmental extremists would quit blocking attempts to recycle the spent fuel, nuclear power would be the cleanest and cheapest source of power we have, including solar. While I’m at it, it’s also the safest major power source in the US, with not one death in any commercial fuel processing or power generation facility.

    the Grit

  10. earthpal says:

    Grit, when you show me a uranium processing plant that gets it’s electricity from a nuclear power plant I will take back the suggestion. Well I won’t actually – unless you show me that every single plant uses nuclear energy.

    As far as I can tell, the enrichment process is fueled by fossil fuel plants. Furthermore, most of the energy needed for the building and running of nuclear power plants – the mining and enrichment of the uranium, the transportation and distribution of the product and the final transportation and dodgy business of storing its waste comes from fossil-fuel plants hence large amounts of ghg’s emitted.

    Uranium mining is environmentally destructive, it disturbs tonnes of radioactive rocks causing the dust to spread and contaminate everything it touches. The mining and milling process is a poisonous business and there have been many deaths and disabilities due to uranium exposure.

    So many reasons to avoid the nuclear route.

  11. Pete Smith says:

    “When you show me a river that provides cooling water to a nuke plant going dry due to Global Warming, I’ll take back the absurd.”

    Yet another reductio ad absurdum Grit. This problem doesn’t have to involve rivers running dry, or indeed rivers at all. Many nuke plants use lakes or sea water for cooling. For some years there have been problems for plants in Europe and the US over the amount of available water for cooling and the temperature of that water source. Operations are also constrained by official restrictions on the quantity of heat returned to the environment.

    Nothing new of course. This from the Christian Science Monitor in 2006:

  12. matt says:

    Nevermind the movie ‘Flood’ for a scenario; how about ‘Memphis Meltdown’.

    🙂 🙂

  13. Michael Stuart says:

    Surely you can’t be serious. There is not one single technology that can avoid the GHG emissions for our future energy needs while replacing the deeply entrenched fossil fuels that already generate 90% of our energy.

    If you think we can eliminate coal AND oil AND natural gas AND nuclear and replace it all with windmills and solar, then you are sadly mistaken.

    Here’s the most ridiculous quote of all: “Hm…I’d say one nuclear accident (god forbid) and all that we have been doing in the name of ‘Environment’ will go down the drain.”

    ‘Scuse me, but wasn’t Chernobyl a full nuclear meltdown, fire, explosion, etc.? If it was so horrible, then maybe somebody can tell the class how many people have died in the TWENTY years since? I believe the official UN report lists it as 54? A far cry from the 15,000 or so that die every year from respiratory distress from the burning of coal!

    And modern designs bear no resemblance to Chernobyl. They have withstood earthquakes in Japan, hurricanes in Louisiana, and tornadoes in Ohio – all without incident.

    Sorry folks. I am all for solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and tidal power, but it will take a combination of ALL OF THEM to meet our energy demands and replace fossil fuel.

  14. Pete Smith says:

    Just a word on the Chernobyl casualty figures. I assume your figure of 54 deaths refers to the victims of acute radiation during the incident and its immediate aftermath. Acute radiation sickness was diagnosed in 237 emergency workers, of whom 28 died in 1986 and a further 19 died between 1987 and 2004.
    The great uncertainty lies in the number of additional deaths from cancers and other diseases caused by increased radioactivity over and above the naturally occurring background level. The epidemiologists are having an understandably tough time with this, as they lack a viable control with which to compare measured disease rates.
    Common sense suggests that there must have been at least some increase in death rates from radiation-induced diseases. I doubt if there will ever be a definitive number put on this, just as we will never know the extent of human contributions to global warming. Oh the joys of experimenting on a planetary scale!
    FWIW, the 2006 WHO report estimated an additional 4,000 excess cancer deaths. I’d give you a reference, but I’m sure your guys at ‘North American Young Generation in Nuclear’ will have a copy somewhere 🙂

  15. Andrew Hvatum says:

    The argument that there is any sort of shortage of nuclear fuel is patently absurd. Even a cursory investigation of the matter would show this. I see this “fact” parroted off constantly, and then quotes from experts taken out of context by people who think U235 is the only fissile material known to man. If the anti-nuclear crowd wants to be taken seriously then they need to stop proposing the peak uranium argument, because it shows a total lack of understanding of basic nuclear physics.

    Of course, Uranium-235 reserves are limited at current prices. But given an increase an prices people would explore for further reserves. Honestly an increase in the price of U235 would have almost no effect on the nuclear industry, since the fuel only accounts for about 2% of the cost of RUNNING a plant. Unlike Coal and Oil where prices are already skyrocketing and the fuel accounts for 80-90% of the cost.

    As stated before, an understanding of nuclear physics would reveal that there are a plethora of alternate fuel sources besides U235. Indian research has shown serious potential for Thorium in power generating reactors. The currently known world reserves of Thorium are at least equal to that of all Uranium isotopes. More immediately we already use U238, but it’s slightly more expensive, and U235 is currently so cheap that no one really even cares to bother using anything else. U235 composes only .7% of Uranium ore, so if you throw the other isotopes in there, and assume your pessimistic world Uranium reserves (which includes only U235 because that’s the only thing the industry even cares about right now because it’s still dirt cheap) we have at least 1000 years of fissile material remaining. And that’s without breeder reactors, re-use of still rich fuel, or any major advances in technology. If you include Thorium tack on another 1000 years.

    The issues worth addressing are economics (if we develop a room temperature super-conductor solar panels would become extremely cost effective) or safety. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know what the solution to all of these problems are. But as I said there are many other reasons for disliking nuclear power… But not a lack of fuel, that’s just silly. Any person educated on the subject who sees people making claims of a lack of fuel will immediately zone you out, because it shows you haven’t done your research.

  16. Andrew Hvatum says:

    Actually I should correct myself, there are some serious scientists claiming uranium reserves will be a problem. They’re nuclear engineers and scientists who are devoted to the concept of a closed fuel cycle, where breeders or spent fuel reprocessing (to re-use the uranium and plutonium in spent fuel) is used. They argue that unless these methods are used, nuclear has no long-term future, because standard reactors (using the once-through fuel cycle) only have enough fuel (uranium ore) for a few more decades.

    These are still interesting technologies, but any claims made by people with major vested interests in them about uranium shortages should be taken with a grain of salt.

  17. Andrew Hvatum says:

    “The 2006 WHO report estimated an additional 4,000 excess cancer deaths.”

    That’s a joke to the ravages caused by coal burning as well as the radioactive isotopes spewed out into the atmosphere. Yearly at least 7,000 people die just in coal mining worldwide, that’s an indisputable fact.

    According to the clean air task force 24,000 people die every year due to fine particulate pollution emitted from coal burning plants in the US. Including 2,400 deaths due to lung cancer. So regardless of the future way forward, it’s reasonable to estimate that “green” opposition, which resulted in the halting of plant construction or canceled plants caused least a 10% reduction in the amount of nuclear power available. That translates into a solid 5,800 deaths that could have been avoided. During that period of time renewable sources were not anything close to practical, so pre-1995 there is no renewable vs. nuclear argument, it was nuclear vs. coal/oil. Not to mention all the children born every year with reduced IQ due to mercury from coal plants.

    That aside, nuclear power may or may not be the best way forward now. Given that we have finite resources it seems wise to invest them in the areas that net the greatest return on investment (clearly nuclear, solar is far from economical, wind doesn’t work everywhere nor all the time), for at least the base load. If we had infinite resources, sure, cover Arizona with solar panels and store the energy at night using a yet to be invented super capacitor, or stupidly inefficient water pump systems. But if we’re not going to do nuclear at least make damn sure we aren’t instead building coal plants. That’s namely exactly what we’re doing, 32 are being built at this moment in the US.

    Nuclear power presents the almost impossible chance of a sudden large number of deaths, coal results in the 100% certain slow, mundane kill-off that people don’t notice happening.

  18. matt says:

    Hi Andrew

    I think nuclear has a place in the energy mix if they sort out the waste question. For some reason in the UK governments haven’t done so. In fact all we have had from the nuclear industry here is one mini disaster after another, which hasn’t endeared them to the public: own goal.

    I think the most exciting thing about the energy industry right now is the huge race going on in the venture capital world to find the next big thing to drive future energy needs. The high oil price makes this possible. Long may it stay high. Having said that, the worst thing in the energy world right now is the development of the Canadian oil sands. Extremely inefficient resource and highly polluting but, while oil prices are high, Canada will happily pollute their own back yard to supply the beast over the border with fuel. 🙂

  19. Andrew Hvatum says:

    Yup, I completely agree about the Canadian sand-tar oil fields. Unfortunately some of that will be going into oil burning power plants, which is almost grotesque, that could saved and replaced by nuclear.

    The waste issue doesn’t bother me too much. The volume of waste which needs to go into permanent storage is minute if it’s re-processed (granted so far only France reprocesses their waste). I personally support the idea of “stocking” the nuclear waste, since in a hundred years it will likely have some useful purpose.

    Burying it underground is also possible and technically feasible. People need to remember that burying nuclear waste in the ground doesn’t mean they simply pour it into a cave, it’s stored in glass or ceramic cylinders. Also Yucca mountain isn’t a big tax payer funded pig barrel, since most of funding actually comes from a tax paid by nuclear companies (passed onto consumers). Really the government owes the US nuclear industry some $58 Billion in permanent storage. This might seem like a lot, but remember the US electricity market is over a trillion dollars every year (retail + wholesale), so that storage cost is peanuts.

    The real problem with storage is that absolutely no option will satisfy some environmentalists, so by definition that problem can’t be solved in their eyes. Burying it is too risky, there might be a .016% chance that a volcano blows up there in the next million years. It’s too dangerous to transport it, because terrorists could shoot an anti-tank round through the casket after allowing it to burn under super-concentrated jet fuel for six hours. Sure, there’s some risk (not really to our generation), but solar panels have risks too, every single truck transporting solar panels for the next year could crash into a school bus filled with children and kill them all.

  20. Luke Weston says:

    Yes, nuclear power plants are subject to the laws of thermodynamics, just like coal- red power plants, and every kind of power plant and everything else, are subject to the laws of thermodynamics.

    Any type of thermal engine discharges waste heat to the environment, and has the potential problem of exceeding discharge limits if temperatures are excessively warm, where the ambient environment is employed as the engine’s heat sink. It doesn’t matter if you’re burning uranium, coal, oil, cow dung, peat, or harnessing geothermal or solar heat.

    The laws of thermodynamics are in no way prejudiced for or against nuclear fission as a heat source in a thermal power plant.

    It doesn’t matter if you’re working with solar thermal, geothermal, coal, nuclear, biofuels or any other kind of heat source as the basis of your power plant – for the same thermal efficiency, a power plant with the same power output dumps thermal energy into the heatsink medium at the same rate. If that means that it’s dumping waste heat into a river or lake at a given temperature, and the ecological rules for the heating of the water are the same, then exactly the same flow rate of water is required for the same sized power plant.

    Large coal fired power plants can shut down on very hot summer days, too – it’s nothing to do with the safety of the reactor core, but instead everything to do with ecological limits to the absolute temperature of the water being discharged into the lake or river.

    This argument is a textbook example of “nuclear exceptionalism”, and a completely meaningless argument.

    Since only about 30%-40% of the heat is usable to turn a turbine in typical thermal power plants, as per Carnot’s theorem on the efficiency of a heat engine, the waste heat has to go somewhere. To get around this problem you can engineer a better heat sink, build a smaller plant, accept higher temperature discharges into the environment, or re-write the book on applied thermodynamics.

    The size or rated capacity of any power plant which is designed and constructed is dictated primarily by economics. If you expect to have one hundred percent assurance that the situation where high temperatures mean that shutdown of the generator, or a reduction in power output, is required is never going to occur, then you design the plant assuming the highest implausible temperature for the thermal engines heat sink – if the heat sink is a cooling water supply – as it often is with large thermal power plants – you would assume the water inlet temperature to be the maximum temperature ever recorded for your cooling water source. So instead of assuming it to be, say, the maximum average summer temperature and designing a plant around that assumption, which might result
    in your designing a typical plant of say 1 GW capacity, which might need to
    be limited to say 80% output on extremely hot summer days, if you give the plant a nameplate rating of 800 MW, then it can always be assured of operating at 100% capacity. However, clearly it is not the most sensible answer to use this derated fi gure as the nameplate capacity of the plant, when for all but perhaps the very hottest parts of summer, the plant can operate at full 1000 MW capacity without exceeding discharge temperature limits.

  21. David says:

    Nuclear Power and Electric Cars: a
    free fuel for electric cars?

  22. Lapoynte says:

    “Nuclear power and electric cars” is the mantra for the answer to energy and the environment. We need to go completely electrical; cars, trains, heating, cooling, -everything possible.
    Having a standardized energy would make all the alternative sources make sense. Why not have solar panels or wind turbines at home to charge your car or other home products. The government could supply free charges on highways with solar and wind installations near by; that would insure people would change to electric cars.
    With the standard of electricity, even small systems at home can make a difference; not so with petro and gas.
    Nuclear power and electric cars, now!

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