Nuclear and carbon emissions: the facts

Nuclear power’s full life cycle carbon emissions are considerably lower than those of solar, making it a crucial source of low-carbon energy.

Nuclear is one of our most important sources of low-carbon energy, with a recent study describing it as having ‘amazingly low’ emissions. Its life-cycle emissions – that’s the emissions you get when taking into account the building, maintaining and decommissioning of an energy source – are roughly a hundredth of those of coal power and are surprisingly lower than solar and hydro power.

Check out this chart comparing the carbon balance of different ways to produce electricity according to the renowned IPCC:

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Life Cycle Assessment summarised here.


Because this graph shows us the full life cycle, not just the emissions created whilst making power, it reveals that nuclear is seriously low-carbon even once uranium mining, enrichment, fuel fabrication, plant construction, plant use, decommissioning and long-term waste management have all been taken into account.

As climate scientist Ken Caldeira says:

The atmosphere doesn’t care whether the electricity came from a wind turbine or a nuclear reactor. It just cares about greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear energy is extremely low carbon, with no emissions in operation. Its full life cycle emissions are comparable to onshore wind, and surprisingly, considerably cleaner than solar.”

So why aren’t more environmental organisations committed to fighting climate change not backing nuclear?


Further Reading

Comparison of Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Various Electricity Generation Sources, World Nuclear Association.

For more detail on lifecycle emissions analysis of different electricity generation sources, check out this excellent summary paper by the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. The team writes accessible briefing papers for busy members of parliament to help them get to grips with complex issues.