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The environmental case for nuclear power

Time is running short. When the IPCC published its first scientific report in 1990 on the possibility of human-caused global warming, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) was 354 ppm. It is now 397 ppm and rising. In spite of Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancun, Durban, and Doha, atmospheric CO2 continues its inexorable upward path.

And the earth continues to warm. Each of the last four decades has been warmer than the previous one. Sea levels continue to rise, the oceans are acidifying, glaciers and ice sheets continue to melt, the Arctic will likely be ice-free during the summer sometime this century, and weather extremes have become commonplace around the earth. We are playing a dangerous game with the earth and ignoring the potential consequences. It is time to get serious about recognizing what we are doing to the earth and drastically reduce our production of CO2.

Forty percent of all energy used in the US is devoted to producing electricity. In spite of energy conservation, the EIA expects the use of electricity to increase by 30% in 2040, while total energy consumption is expected to increase by 12%. The big question is: can we generate the electricity in a manner that drastically reduces the production of CO2?


Coal is the big problem for electricity generation, and carbon capture and storage technology is not going to solve the problem. Coal needs to be essentially eliminated as a power source because of its multitude of health and environmental consequences. Coal provides about 43% of our electricity, and the actual amount of coal used is expected to increase through 2040, even though the percentage of electricity generated by coal would be slightly decreased by then. That is untenable if we want to reduce CO2 emissions. Coal usage generates about two billion tons of CO2 annually in the United States. Natural gas generates about half the CO2 as coal, but fugitive emissions of methane reduce or eliminate its usefulness, and fracking is controversial.

Renewable energy can help. But energy from the sun and wind have major difficulties associated with intermittency, location relative to population centers, footprint, and cost that limit their contributions to about 20% or less of electricity production. Even worse, they do not effectively contribute to the baseload electricity that coal provides. Baseload is the minimum electrical demand over a 24-hour day that must be provided by a constant source of electricity. Solar and wind power contribute principally to the intermediate demand that fluctuates during the day, but they still require backup — usually with natural gas power plants — for when they are not available. An increase from the current 4% to 20% of electricity would be an enormous help. But it does not solve the coal problem.

Nuclear power is the only alternative to coal for stable baseload power that can truly cut the emissions of CO2 to nearly zero. It currently provides 20% of electricity in the United States. It would take about 175 Generation III nuclear reactors to replace all of the coal-fired power plants in the United States. This would take a major national effort, but it would also require a major national effort to get 20% of electricity from wind and solar and that would not reduce coal usage. Neither of these goals will be achieved unless there is a cost associated with CO2 production through some kind of carbon tax. And that will only happen if there is a strong public demand that we get serious about reducing CO2 emissions and halting global warming.

What about the risks of nuclear power? The reality is that nuclear power has a much better safety record than coal. Since the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident (that killed no one), US coal mining caused 1,969 direct deaths. Deaths from black lung (pneumoconiosis) were over 2,500 in 1979 alone and continue to be hundreds per year. Deaths in the general public from lung disease are estimated to be in the thousands per year. No one in the United States has ever died from a nuclear power reactor accident in over 3,500 reactor-years of experience. It is vastly worse in China where several thousand miners die yearly, and several hundred thousand people die from respiratory diseases related to coal burning.

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident caused 31 immediate deaths, 19 delayed deaths in emergency workers and 15 children who died from thyroid cancer. The best scientific estimates are that 4,000 more people may ultimately die from cancer. The tsunami that caused the nuclear accident in Fukushima in 2011 killed nearly 19,000 people and destroyed or damaged over a million buildings. No one has died from the nuclear accident, and it is likely that very few ever will. Even with these accidents, nuclear power has a far safer record than coal.

I am an environmentalist but most environmental groups are opposed to nuclear power. I challenge environmentalists to look at the environmental cost of depending on coal and measure that against the actual risks from nuclear power. Even in the worst accident — Chernobyl — the effects were localized, but the atmospheric effects of burning coal are worldwide. If environmentalists continue to oppose nuclear power, coal will still be providing most of the world’s electricity 50 years from now and the earth will be on a path to catastrophic warming.

The choice is ours. I believe the best choice is to reduce global warming by replacing most coal power plants with nuclear power. I hope we have the wisdom to take that path.

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Image: Dukovany Nuclear Power Station, Czech Republic. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Miller

    This article is hogwash. The authors has no training or experience in nuclear engineering. He has no standing to judge nuclear power. He simply believes in the nuclear dream–nukes are clean, safe and cheap. In truth, they are none of these things.

    I was a nuclear engineering officer on a US nuclear submarine. I know what I’m talking about, and I know that almost all the evidence argues against nuclear power.

    Dr. John Miller

  2. Michael Mann

    Excellent article from a true expert in Environmental and Radiological health, I agree with everything in this article. I was a reactor operator on operational US Submarines where I shared a metal tube under the ice with a nuclear reactor which safely provided me with clean air, clean water, heat, and light, in addition to propulsion. Nuclear power could do the same for humanity. Since leaving the Navy I have been a technician at a commercial nuclear power plant (over 25 years) and I know how safely existing plants are operated and new plants should be even safer.

  3. John Riley

    @ John Miller,

    If you want someone to take you seriously instead of just as the hysteric you appear to be, you should try to provide some evidence with your argument instead of a heaping of fallacy. Concerning your idiotic claim to authority, what training does the operation of a submarine have with the environmental and health effects of nuclear energy and radiation? The author you so quickly dismiss is a professor in the department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences… That is exactly the person who would be an considered expert on the topic of this article. You completely fail to demonstrate how the opinion of a nuclear engineer has any merit in the case of this article considering it has nothing to do with core design, thermal hydraulics, reactivity, etc. or any other activities of nuclear engineering. I recommend you strongly reevaluate your rhetoric as it presents itself as condescending, lacking rigor (or any real effort or thought), and generally poorly composed.

  4. Mark Uhran

    Nuclear power could also be generated in multiple forms. Existing plants could be operated more efficiently and effectively through the use of advanced modeling & simulation tools in the next 10 years. Next- generation uranium fission technologies that are safer and more efficient at fuel burn-up could be demonstrated in the next 20 years. And, ultimately, a transition from uranium fission to clean and unlimited hydrogen fusion could be accomplished in the next 30 years. By the mid 21st century atmospheric carbonization and oceanic acidification could be reversed. The benefits possible through deployment of a time-phased portfolio of nuclear technologies is constrained only by weak public policy and well-meaning, but tragically misled special interest groups.

    This energy-climate nexus is the defining issue for humankind in the 21st century.

    Mark Uhran
    NASA HQ Director, International Space Station, 2005-12

  5. Jeff Walther

    John Riley, do not be fooled by Miller. He has zero relevant nuclear operator experience. His resume is an exercise in puffery. His PhD is in a “social science” not in any rigorous technical field. The man has been lying to achieve notoriety (or a paycheck) in the anti-nuclear field for decades.

    He was not a nuclear engineering officer, not in any meaningful sense.

    I find it entertaining that the author states that “in spite of Kyoto” CO2 continues to rise. The Kyoto treaty specifically excluded nuclear generated electricity from the sources for which signatories could get CO2 reduction credits.

    In other words, build all the nuclear you want, it does not count under Kyoto. The framers of Kyoto (who were guided by Dutch Shell) purposefully excluded the only source of energy that stands a chance of ever reducing CO2 emissions.

    None of the efforts, hundreds of billions of dollars, and decades of building wind and solar installations, none of these have reduced CO2 emissions one gram. The backup systems required to make so-called renewables work on a real world grid mean that no net CO2 reductions are realized.

    The only way to reduce CO2 emissions is to build nuclear electricity generation.

    Look at France, Ontario and South Carolina as examples of nuclear working. See Germany and Denmark as abject failures who still have criminally high CO2 emissions.

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