Should We Subsidize Nuclear Power to Fight Climate Change?

Scientific American | online content (blog) | 3 December 2018

Last month, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) put out a report entitled The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions that calls for offering subsidies to unprofitable nuclear power plants. Not surprisingly, it has been widely welcomed by nuclear advocates, who interpret the report as essentially saying “yes to nuclear power” in order to reduce carbon emissions.

But that interpretation misses the many important but less prominent insights in the UCS report.

Nuclear power plants are associated with significantly less carbon dioxide emitted per unit of electricity produced when compared to fossil fuel plants, even when including the emissions associated with the fuel chain required to generate nuclear energy. Therefore, the report’s basis for argument—if utilities were to replace “existing nuclear plants with natural gas and coal rather than low-carbon sources,” then it would compromise “our ability to achieve the deep cuts in carbon emissions” (p. 1)—is obvious. Whether nuclear plants would be replaced by fossil fueled plants is questionable.

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