Life-cycle emissions

All forms of electricity production emit some amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, even if they don’t burn fossil fuels. The construction phase of plants and equipments, for example, requires the pouring of cement and the use of vehicles and machinery, each of which carries its own carbon footprint. Other potential emissions arise from mining, transportation of raw materials and fuels, refining and machining, decommissioning of plants, and storage of waste products.

Though nuclear energy does have an intensive life-cycle, from mining of uranium ore to storage of spent fuel, it releases no carbon in its operations. When all of these steps are taken into account, nuclear power still compares favourably with that of renewable energy sources – and is well ahead of fossil fuels.

Carbon emissions per kWh

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Nuclear power sits alongside renewables such as wind and hydro as electricity sources with lifetime carbon emissions of under or about 20 grams per kilowatt-hour (g/kWh). As the average Canadian home consumes approximately 30 kWh/day, these sources generate very little carbon dioxide – about 600 grams or less, per home, per day.

Fossil fuels have considerably larger emissions: to generate the same amount of power as nuclear technology does, when the full life-cycle is taken into account, natural gas emits 29 times as much carbon, while oil emits 52 times as much, and coal emits 62 times as much. Because fossil fuels used to generate electricity represent approximately 30% of global carbon emissions, switching to clean energy sources such as nuclear could significantly reduce the global carbon footprint.