Nuclear power won’t help us to fight climate change.

Hi, my name is Hendrik. As an admin I work at the lowest level of what makes up Datawrapper. Usually you won’t see (or even notice) what I do. If you do – most likely something went severely wrong. I am one of the people working to keep your experience when using Datawrapper as smooth as possible, always trying to improve it bit by bit.

Although working at a level where you have no graphical user interface, I’m not completely unfamiliar with data visualization. Searching for issues in our system often requires me to filter through gigabytes of data and to visualize the results – and yes, I often do so with Datawrapper charts.

But this time I do not want to tell a story about dull system internals. Instead I want play my part in the larger story we all have been telling in the last few weeks: Climate change.

One argument I keep hearing over and over from certain people is that nuclear power will help us to ease our needs for emission-free energy. These people might want to see something like a second spring of nuclear power for various reasons, but the argument that it might help reduce emissions is simply wrong.

The strongest counter argument that I have is that they mix up energy and electricity.

In this area chart I moved the primary energy sources that actually produce electricity all the way to the bottom, to show one thing:

Electricity is only a very small fraction of our energy mix.

If you are arguing that nuclear power is suitable to replace non emission-free forms of energy, then you are implicitly assuming that the technology or industry consuming the energy somehow uses that energy as electricity.

This is not true in most cases.

Instead the primary energy source is often consumed directly in the process without any electricity involved:

  • We usually do not heat our homes in winter with electricity. Somewhere is a large furnace that burns one of the three primary fossil fuels to heat water, which is then pumped through radiators into the rooms.
  • Iron or steel producing industry does not use electricity to get the iron out of the ore. Again there is a furnace involved, and it uses a complicated mix of coal, ore, and some additives in layers.
  • Chemical industry does not use oil to produce electricity. They use it to create other carbon based materials out of raw oil.[1] 

Only the energy sources that are actually used to create electricity can be relatively easily replaced by another source that creates electricity in an emission-free way. In all the other cases we either need to find renewable sources that serve the same purpose, or we need to change the whole industry in a way that electricity could be used instead, like we are very slowly doing with our cars.

The key point is that you’re not automatically running emission-free if you manage to generate all of your electricity in an emission-free way. Nuclear power can only be an answer to the question: How do we create electricity without emissions that have an effect on climate?

That question is almost unimportant, as we already have suitable renewable technologies which we could scale up in combination with some sort of energy storage. The only argument for nuclear power is that it’s cheaper – if you only count primary costs. If you count the costs of nuclear waste disposal, adequate deconstruction of old plants, or the event of a major incident, then nuclear is by no means cheaper.

Here is the question that we should ask instead: How do we change whole industries to be climate neutral even if their use of fossil fuels cannot be replaced by electricity?

I have no answer to that question – but one thing I know for sure:

Nuclear power is not the answer.

If emission free electricity was such a big milestone in reducing emissions at country or global scale, than we should see a decline that somehow correlates with the rise of nuclear energy since the 60’s. Here’s a nice table about the change in nuclear electricity creation per country. I’ve checked this assumption for some prominent nuclear players, but I didn’t find relevant correlation. If you find something interesting, no matter if it supports or falsifies my claim, feel free to comment below!

  1. The last example is not even accounted for in the chart because the data sources only list the amount of these potential energy sources that is really consumed to transport or generate any form of energy. The purpose of chemical processing is not to generate energy, but we shouldn’t overlook that this industry still causes emissions.↩︎