How Does Nuclear Power Fit In With The Clean Energy Transition?

by | Sep 13, 2021 | Blog

A power plant with two cooling towers releasing vapour clouds.


  • If we are to reach the goals set out in the Paris Agreement and stop the global temperature rise, clean energy is the way forward. However, there is debate among environmental groups whether nuclear power has a place in a sustainable future.
  • Deriving from uranium, nuclear power is a controversial energy source that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. Nuclear energy is up for a much-needed debate, as it has the potential to displace fossil fuels and reduce harmful emissions. However, despite its potential positive impact on global warming, nuclear plants are problematic due to their indisposable, radioactive waste and detrimental effects on human health.
  • New data shows that nuclear power is far safer than fossil fuels and biomass fuel because of a low death rate and limited effects on health. In this same data, wind and solar power came out as the safest forms of energy.
  • The International Energy Agency reported that if nuclear power continues to decline, it will only hinder the green energy initiative. Currently, nuclear power is responsible for 10% of global energy capacity. Despite the industry’s incredible growth, solar and wind energy may not keep up if this were to stop. Consequently, the demand would fall on fossil fuels, thus increasing greenhouse gas emissions.


Clean energy is a renewable, low-emission power source that does not contribute to the changing climate by polluting the atmosphere. Therefore, in a world that is switching to sustainable sources, it may seem like a no-brainer to cut out nuclear power altogether. In reality, there are significant arguments for and against this controversial power source.

The Paris Agreement intends to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to stop the global temperature from increasing by 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels – it hopes to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. Consequently, switching to clean energy aims to lessen the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels, the most harmful GHG generator.

This article reviews the ins and outs of nuclear power, how it fits into a sustainable future, and ultimately, whether its decline helps or hinders the green energy initiative.
An infographic displaying various forms of energy production.

Can Nuclear Power Be Part of the Clean Energy Transition?

25% of nuclear capacity is set to shut down by 2025.

Nuclear power originates from a process called fission, which splits uranium atoms to produce energy. This method releases heat, then steam, which turns a turbine to generate usable electricity. Unlike fossil fuels, generating nuclear power doesn’t create harmful byproducts, such as greenhouse gases. In 2019, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) reported that the US avoided over 476 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions – equal to removing 100 million cars.

The future of nuclear power is often up for discussion. The International Energy Agency (IEA) believes that nuclear energy is essential to meeting our climate goals. In a clean energy report, the IEA shared that over the last 50 years, nuclear power has avoided over 60 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions – equivalent to two years of global energy-related emissions. It is even the second-largest source of low-carbon electricity, making up 10% of worldwide energy supply.

Unfortunately, as many systems are coming to the end of their designed lifetime, 25% of nuclear capacity is set to shut down by 2025. While the wind and solar power industries are growing at an impressive rate, it isn’t fast enough to keep up with the decline of nuclear power plants. Consequently, the clean energy system will suffer, and fossil fuel demand may increase once again.

The IEA claims that it may be cheaper to extend the lifetime of a nuclear reactor than to invest in new energy projects. The report outlined that the past 20 years saw a growth of 580 gigawatts (GW) in wind and solar energy capacity; however, this must increase by five times in the next 20 years to offset the decline in nuclear power.

Certain obstacles stand in the way of making this achievable, such as public acceptance of clean energy projects and network infrastructure development. The IEA states that nuclear-based energy can ease the transition to clean energy by lowering the cost of changing the systems and integrating renewables.

The Negatives of Nuclear Power

A standard nuclear reactor generates 20-30 tonnes of toxic waste each year, which stays radioactive for a quarter of a million years.

While the IEA report paints nuclear power in a favourable light, there is another side to this energy that decision-makers must consider. From public health to toxic waste, nuclear power has many adverse side effects that may leave future generations with more problems.

Firstly, the mining and transforming uranium into fuel uses a lot of fossil fuels, producing CO2 emissions – highlighting that the lifecycle of nuclear power isn’t completely clean. Secondly, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported that nuclear radiation could lead to 12 cancer deaths per 20-year term – excluding accidents or radiation release from “disposal”.

Alongside the health repercussions, thermal pollution can affect marine ecosystems. Many US locations dispose of billions of gallons of water each day into water that varies in temperature. Moreover, there is no way to dispose of nuclear waste safely. In fact, a standard nuclear reactor generates 20-30 tonnes of toxic waste each year, which stays radioactive for a quarter of a million years.

Nuclear power plants have a bad reputation – and for good reason. Accidents happen, such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and more recently in Ohio, and the effects can be disastrous. Many people have limited options and must live near toxic power plants, a large portion of them being historically marginalized communities. The NAACP reported that 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of coal-fired plants in the USA.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that long or short-term exposure can lead to respiratory conditions, heart disease and lung cancer. Living near any power plant can subject people to harmful air and water quality. So it’s in everyone’s interest to limit public exposure to dangerous locations, including fossil fuel or nuclear plants.
An infographic showing renewable energy and nuclear power working together in a clean energy future.

What is the Safest Form of Renewable Energy?

In 2018, 87% of global CO2 emissions were from fossil fuels and industry emissions.

Every energy source has downsides, but some are more harmful than others. Transitioning to a clean energy future means we need to invest in technology with the least adverse effects. Our World In Data conducted a report to assess the safety of various energy sources. They evaluated three primary areas, including air pollution, accidents and greenhouse gas emissions.

Unsurprisingly, the burning of fossil fuels and biomass is the most harmful – as air pollution may lead to approximately five million premature deaths every year. If fossil fuel use declined, these deaths might go down by around three to four million annually. The authors state that it was vital to transition away from fossil fuels, whether nuclear or renewable energy. The figures echo this urgency as a report highlights that in 2018, 87% of global CO2 emissions were from fossil fuels and industry emissions.

According to the safety report, solar power is the safest form of energy thanks to its minimal emissions and low death rate. However, as the IEA outlined, despite the enormous growth in wind and solar industries, the market will struggle to offset the energy if nuclear power declines. Compared to fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, nuclear power is far safer for the climate and human health. In fact, the report estimated nuclear energy to cause 99.8% fewer deaths than brown coal.

Moreover, in a theoretical example, the authors hypothesized that a European town of 187,090 people would expect 25 premature deaths per year if the area was coal-powered. In comparison, if the city were nuclear-powered, the death rate would be 0.07 deaths every 14 years. Finally, if the town were solar-powered, the death rate would remain at one every 53 years.

Wind and solar power systems are the safest forms of energy and will drive the clean energy transition. These renewables use little water and do not produce greenhouse gases or toxic waste. What’s more, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels need little maintenance and are versatile across various industries.

Although there are some serious concerns regarding nuclear power, the data shows it is far less harmful than biomass and fossil fuels.

Final Thoughts

There isn’t a clear-cut answer on how nuclear power will fit into a green future – if at all.   Surprisingly, nuclear power may ease the transition to green energy by displacing fossil fuels, lowering harmful emissions and paving the way for solar power growth.

The addition of nuclear power may make the climate goals more attainable because it allows solar and wind energy to continue growing without relying on fossil fuels to supplement the energy demands. That said, nuclear plants are still dangerous and pose a significant health risk. Waste from nuclear power is indisposable and is radioactive for a quarter of a million years. As history tells, there is also a risk of accidents. Therefore, despite some convincing arguments for the continuation of nuclear power, governments must consider these adverse effects.

It is clear from the data that wind and solar power must excel to become the largest sources of energy because of their limited emissions, water waste and renewable nature. However, it is up for debate how this transition will occur.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is nuclear power essential for a clean energy future?

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), nuclear power is vital to meeting global climate goals. Although renewable energy such as wind and solar are growing at a sustainable rate, they will not keep up with energy demands if nuclear power continues to decline. Therefore, some groups argue that supplementing the national grid with nuclear power, opposed to fossil fuels, is more environmentally friendly as it avoids further greenhouse gas emissions. However, nuclear energy production still has implications and causes harmful waste that cannot be disposed of responsibly. In fact, it may create more problems for future generations.


What is the environmental impact of nuclear energy?

Generating nuclear power doesn’t produce greenhouse gases; however, its complications extend further than climate change. The mining, milling and converting of uranium into fuel is energy-intensive, meaning it uses fossil fuels in its lifecycle, emitting harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. Furthermore, nuclear power plants may affect marine ecosystems, produce radioactive waste and even cause unexpected accidents. Research shows a nuclear power plant may be responsible for several cancer-related deaths per year.


What is the safest form of renewable energy?

Our World in Data highlights that anything is better than fossil fuels and biomass energy. These two forms involve combustion, which creates vast amounts of greenhouse gases. It outlines that the world needs a combination of nuclear and renewable energy to reach the necessary climate goals despite the other implications. In particular solar power is leading the way to a sustainable future and is ranked the safest form of energy, with wind closely behind.


Is nuclear power classed as clean energy?

Greenwashing has been misleading the sustainability movement for some time, and there is debate in the field whether the energy industry is greenwashing nuclear power. The term greenwashing refers to a company that misleads their consumers into believing they are a sustainable company. While it may not directly contribute to air pollution and climate change, there is no doubt that nuclear power has its drawbacks. However, there is a debate that it can help reduce the impact of fossil fuels; hence it’s given this blanket term, “clean energy”.


How is Canada contributing to the clean energy transition?

Canada is taking necessary steps to make its energy industry more sustainable by switching to renewable energy. Among these is hydropower – Canada’s largest source of renewable energy. Alongside the growing renewable power market, nuclear energy is responsible for approximately 15% of Canada’s electricity in 2018 – helping to displace tons of fossil fuel energy. Canada is a leader in nuclear technology and has even developed unique nuclear technology, 18 of which remain in Ontario, 1 in New Brunswick and 10 outside of Canada.