Nuclear Energy Production and Addressing Climate Change

Malik Antoine
February 26, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: This is an image of Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in Covert, Michigan (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Over the past few years the world has been looking for many ways to effectively address climate change or global warming. This problem can only be addressed by quick change in the ways we consume and produce energy. More specifically, considering all options to help limit heat-trapping gas emissions. Some ways we are trying to limit these heat-trapping or greenhouse gas emissions are the use of solar energy, hydroelectricity, wind energy, and nuclear energy. As of now world energy consumption ranks oil just above 30%, coal right under 30%, natural gas at 25%, hydroelectricity just under 10%, and nuclear energy and renewable energy at around 5%. [1] Nuclear energy is on the low end of energy consumption around the globe, but can be a tool in fighting this problem.

Nuclear Energy Production

Global nuclear power generation increased by 1.3% in 2016. [1] This may not seem like a lot, but is equivalent to 9.3 million tons of crude oil. [1] This nuclear energy is generated in nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors, just like other plants generate electricity. The main difference between nuclear reactors and other power plants like coal or oil is that they don't burn anything. Instead uranium is used as fuel. This production of electricity through uranium is called fission. [2] The process of fission generates heat to produce steam. This is used by a turbine generator to generate electricity. Thus, effectively not producing greenhouse gas emissions.

There is only small percentage of Uranium that is fissile, or able to go under fission. [2] This form of the isotope Uranium is U-235. [2] The remainder of the isotope is U-238 which is not fissile. Along with there being two types of uranium there are also two types of nuclear reactors. There are either boiling water reactors or pressured water reactors. [2] Two-thirds of America's nuclear reactors are pressurized water reactors, and the rest are boiling water reactors. [2] The main difference between the two is that a pressurized water reactor keeps the heated water under pressure to prevent it from boiling. Then this pressurized water is pumped to a steam generator to be used to spin the turbine. Both ways are very effective.

Climate Change

To move toward clean-energy, nuclear energy must continue be included. Nuclear energy currently has a small contribution to world energy consumption. [1] This should increase due to the benefits of nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors produce no air pollution that threatens our atmosphere. It has become apart of America's fight against climate change being 20% of the energy consumed. This is an estimated 64 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution. It has become obvious from data that these nuclear reactors do work and can be vital to help reduce greenhouse gas emission. The only problem is that there are not enough nuclear reactors as generation of nuclear energy is increasing but slowly. China leads the world in nuclear power generation as they expanded by 24.5% in 2016. [1] Unfortunately, the construction of these plants require a bit of greenhouse gas emissions due to steel, cement, and the enrichment of uranium. As seen in Fig. 1, nuclear reactors can be very large and take a while to be built. Thus the reason why an undesirable amount of greenhouse gases will be emitted. However, this is a necessary evil to help reduce greenhouse emission on a large scale. Nuclear energy and nuclear reactors can be a key to address climate change.

© Malik Antoine. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017," British Petroleum, June 2017.

[2] J. M. Pearce , "Limitations of Nuclear Power as a Sustainable Energy Source," Sustainability 4, 1173 (2012).