By Andrew Quaal
Introduction: Fighting climate change with carbon zero energy
As climate change continues to become more and more of a pressing issue, countries all around the world are formulating plans to lower their carbon emissions to net zero. There are many different routes to reach this goal, with different countries following their own unique path. Some may focus more on renewables or nuclear or carbon capture, but each country is trying to help combat our current climate crisis through their own means. A prime example of differing approaches are the countries of France and Germany. Relatively similar in size and population, these two make a good comparison in terms of their approach to energy on a nationwide scale and how their respective plans impact their country and the environment.
How much energy is produced by nuclear?
Germany and France have taken drastically different approaches to their energy infrastructure and lessening their dependence on fossil fuels. France started their nuclear program in 1973, following a sharp increase in oil prices due to conflicts in the Middle East. At the time, France was mainly dependent on burning oil to generate their electricity, but after the price spike they decided to switch to nuclear power as this would give them energy independence and lessen their overall impact on the environment. Currently, nuclear still makes up the majority of their electricity production, coming in at 67% of their overall supply. On the other hand, Germany has approached reducing their amount of fossil fuels in a much different way: by switching to renewable sources like wind and solar. However, renewables still only make up about half of their overall electricity production, with the rest being mostly made up of fossil fuels. Although renewables in Germany have proved to be largely reliable when it comes to household electricity production, Germany still has to rely upon fossil fuels for those moments where the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. However, France displays that fossil fuels aren’t necessary to help power a country, as nuclear power is the most reliable source of energy and produces no greenhouse gasses. As a result, if France’s renewables are enabled obsolete for whatever reason, they have their nuclear power as a backup instead of coal or oil, showing that net zero carbon emissions is achievable with modern energy demands. The answer to climate change isn’t just nuclear or just wind or just solar; it’s all of them working together to provide clean energy for all.
How does nuclear energy affect carbon emissions?
Greenhouse gasses are the leading cause of global warming, and one of the main contributing gasses is carbon dioxide. CO2 is produced as a result of burning coal, oil, and other fossil fuels. Consequently, countries are trying to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that they release to combat global warming. This includes transitioning away from fossil fuels as the main source of energy. As stated before, France has been mostly using nuclear power to generate their nationwide electricity for decades, as nuclear reactions don’t release any greenhouse gasses while producing energy. This leads to France having relatively low emission rates when compared to Germany. Germany’s energy breakdown does have a lot of renewable, clean energy sources included in it, but they still rely heavily on fossil fuels to meet the rest of their energy demands. This leads to their carbon footprint remaining one of the highest in Europe, despite their growing amount of solar and wind power. Germany releases ten times the amount of carbon when producing electricity than France, and their per capita emissions are almost double that of France. Overall, France proves that utilizing nuclear energy at a higher potential directly leads to lower carbon emissions at a nationwide level.
Is nuclear energy cheaper?
A main critique of nuclear power is the price. The initial capital cost of a nuclear power plant is expensive, as they are large, complex structures that require lots of safety precautions, but when considering the overall price of nuclear power, reactors are affordable in the long run. Once they are built, they are relatively cheap to operate when compared to other energy sources. Nuclear energy is not only cheaper to operate than other renewables, but it is also a much more reliable energy source and has a much longer lifetime than renewables and fossil fuels, making it a much better investment for countries looking to become carbon free. Also, as nuclear reactors become more advanced (see our blog post regarding Generation IV Reactors), they will become cheaper to build due to modern designs that are inherently safer, requiring less extraneous safety costs. France is a perfect example of how the low operational costs of nuclear power leads to cheaper electricity for the country. With most of their reactors built in the late 1900’s still being operational to this day, they are able to generate clean energy for cheap. For example, France’s household electricity prices are 59% lower than those in Germany. This is due to Germany having to spend more money on the transition to renewable energy sources, like building long transmission lines to connect the solar and wind farms spread throughout the country. Overall, France has some of the lowest electricity prices in all of Europe while Germany is at the high end of countries. Despite producing more than twice the amount of clean electricity, France’s electricity prices are almost half that of Germany.
What do countries do with nuclear waste?
Another critique of nuclear energy is the waste that is produced as a result. This waste can remain radioactive for thousands of years, and how society deals with it is the biggest issue facing the future of nuclear energy. However, France provides a great example of containing this problem while the world waits for a better solution. France actively recycles nuclear waste to reuse it as fuel again. 96% of spent fuel is able to be reused, with only 4% having to be disposed of, and most of the waste is short lived, meaning that its radioactivity decreases by half in under 30 years. This leads to the amount of fuel actually being disposed of to be much lower than other nations utilizing nuclear power. Also, France uses 17% less uranium than they would without recycling. France’s regulated, standardized nuclear fleet allows them to be very efficient and diligent with their nuclear energy and the waste they produce as they are limiting the amount that they have to store in the long run. Additionally, the future of nuclear waste looks even brighter. Newer Gen IV reactors will produce less waste and be able to reuse waste in a more efficient way, and there are new solutions being developed to deal with the waste. For example, Gerard Mourou has developed a way to transmute nuclear waste with lasers, getting rid of its radioactivity. Nuclear’s biggest issue and main obstacle will soon be a thing of the past as we adapt and learn how to overcome it.
France and Germany: The Path Ahead
As we move towards a carbon zero future, nuclear energy remains a controversial topic in the conversation surrounding the future of clean energy. France intends to keep nuclear part of their energy grid as they move forward. However, they do plan on cutting nuclear’s part in their electricity production to 50% from the current 70% while increasing their amount of renewables. They are planning on closing fourteen of their current reactors by 2035, but their plan still leaves the aoptionbility to build new reactors open. Also, they are extending the lifetime of many of their older reactors, showing that they definitely aren’t completely discontinuing their relationship with nuclear. On the other hand, Germany plans on closing down all of their nuclear plants by 2022. This plan was set in motion after the events in Fukushima in 2011, and they will be joining many other european countries that have also become nuclear free. In the grand scheme of things, any move towards clean energy, whether that be nuclear power or not, is a net positive. We need to use every tool in our arsenal to combat climate change. However, nuclear energy remains one of the most efficient and safest forms of energy, and it will only get better and better as technology advances. France has been moving in the right direction for years with their large share of nuclear energy and renewables. Countries like Germany and the US need to take a page out of their book if we want any hope of saving the planet from ourselves.