Fossil fuel electricity could be replaced with nuclear power in just 25 years, cutting worldwide human carbon emissions by half, a new analysis published to PLoS ONE finds.
Climate change is widely recognized as a global threat, but thus far there's been little effective resolve to curtail carbon emissions, which are largely responsible. A world powered by carbon-free renewable energy would undoubtedly be a better place, but getting there is the tricky part. The combined power of solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower cannot feasibly electrify the world at this time. In a number of years, when energy storage technology improves and solar panel efficiency increases, that could very well change.
But there is a solution available right now that's reliable, clean, safe, and affordable: nuclear energy.
Staffan Qvist, a physicist at Uppsala University in Sweden, and Barry Brook, a Professor of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania, wondered how long it would take for nuclear power to be deployed in order to replace all fossil fuel electricity, which primarily comes from coal and natural gas. So they analyzed the cases of Sweden and France, two countries that successfully completed large-scale expansions of nuclear power.
In the early 1960s, Sweden began a massive project to build nuclear power plants. By 1986, half of the country's power came from nuclear, CO2 emissions per capita fell 75% from the peak in 1970, and energy costs were among the lowest in the world.
Beginning in 1973, France embarked on an ambitious path to free itself from foreign oil and generate almost all of its power from nuclear energy. Today, nuclear produces 75% of the country's electricity at the7th cheapest rate in the European Union.
Qvist and Brook calculate that if the world built nuclear power plants as fast as Sweden, based on a per capita rate, all coal and natural gas power plants could be phased out in 25 years. If the world emulated France's rate of construction, the phase out would take 34 years.
"Continued nuclear build-out at this demonstrably modest rate, coupled with an electrification of the transportation systems (electric cars, increased high-speed rail use etc.) could reduce global CO2 emissions by ~70% well before 2050," they write.
One could endlessly speculate on the potential ramifications of such an undertaking. Nuclear weapons proliferation, handling and disposal of radioactive waste, and the chance of a nuclear disaster are all consequences that will have to be measured against the known benefits of nuclear energy. Optimistically, it's entirely possible that in a world dedicated to nuclear power, scientific and technological innovation will rapidly solve all of the current drawbacks.
"Replacement of current fossil fuel electricity by nuclear fission at a pace which might limit the more severe effects of climate change is technologically and industrially possible—whether this will in fact happen depends primarily on political will, strategic economic planning, and public acceptance," the authors conclude.