Is nuclear power necessary for a carbon-free world?

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Argument: Is nuclear power necessary for a carbon-free future? (June 2011)

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have shown that nuclear power is dangerous. Governments in many countries are thinking again about plans for nuclear power. Are they wrong? Chris Goodall and Jose Etcheverry are both environmentalists – but they don’t agree on the question of nuclear power.

YES Chris Goodall (a 2010 Green Party candidate in the UK, author of many books)


I am looking at a website that shows how much electricity comes from different power sources around Britain. Wind turbines now produce about 2% of our electricity, after 10 years of financial help. We have a small amount of hydro-electricity and all the rest comes from fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) and nuclear. The 10 nuclear power stations in Britain now produce 10 x as much energy as 3,000 wind turbines. I would love all power to come from renewable technology, but not many people in politics want this, and it would need a lot of investment. If we don’t use nuclear, it is impossible to reduce carbon emissions quickly; we would have to keep using coal for 30 years. People say we need to make the public say yes to very many wind turbines and invest billions of dollars in other renewable technologies. But this is not responsible: it is very possible that maybe we will not expand low-carbon energy enough. It might be sad, but nuclear is the only one that can produce so much power in the next 10 years. In the UK, we have not invested enough money in renewable power and now we have no choice – we have to use nuclear.

NO Jose Etcheverry (an activist and professor from Chile/Canada)


Nuclear power stations need to go because they are dangerous, toxic and stop us making a carbon-free future. There are 3 important things we need for a carbon-free future: conservation, efficiency (both of these mean that we could do more with less energy) and renewable energy. Conservation and efficiency are very good in Denmark and Germany (much worse in Canada and the USA) and are very good for making new jobs. Denmark and Germany are creating new efficient designs and are now world leaders in developing renewable energy eg. feed-in tariffs (when people are paid for renewable energy they produce and don’t use), low long-term prices for renewable energy and stable investment. Germany’s renewable energy agreements are the most important plan in Europe against climate change. They are also very good for new industry and more jobs. People in Germany and Denmark understand that nuclear power plants cannot work with renewable energy, because we cannot turn them on and off easily. Also, if a country has nuclear power plants, they need to sell huge amounts of electricity. This works against conservation and efficiency. 148 other countries have joined together in the International Renewable Energy Agency to develop new plans to have energy and protect the climate at the same time.

YES - Chris

We all think renewable energy is good, but even in Germany, only 17% of electricity comes from renewables. The most important question is: can renewable energy sources grow fast enough to replace fossil fuels completely? In the UK, no-one thinks they can, so nuclear energy is very important. Also, it is not true that efficiency can reduce electricity demand so much. Many sources of research say we will use more electricity because of heating homes and because we need to change to electric cars and transport. Conservation is having very little effect. Environmentalists can complain about this, but we need to live in the world as it is, not as we want it to be. Maybe we don’t like the consumerist, high-energy life of today, but we cannot change it so quickly. Nuclear power is necessary.

NO – Jose

Here are some facts about nuclear power plants:

• They are toxic and very dangerous to us now and in the future (Fukushima is now a level 7 catastrophe, the same as Chernobyl)

• They take at least 10 years to build and need to be very different in different places (eg. a nuclear plant design from Canada cannot be built in earthquake areas without a lot of changes, costs, time and experiments)

• They are not cheap and uranium will not last forever, is non-renewable and toxic

• They can easily be changed into making atomic weapons – one reason why they are supported

Renewable energy sources, on the other hand:

• are much safer, affect the ecology much less and will be very important now and for a long time in the future

• are mostly made in factories and can be used anywhere in the world, quickly

• mostly become cheaper when we have more of them. Also, they use energy that is cheap and available (sun and wind) or energy that can be made locally at stable prices (biogas and biofuels)

• can make local areas more independent, producing their own energy. This makes conflict less possible.

YES – Chris

Fukushima was horrible but probably no-one will die because of radiation. Yes, nuclear power is expensive, but all low carbon technology is expensive. Most studies say that nuclear costs less than offshore wind (wind farms in the sea). Also, nuclear produces power all the time, all year. People who live and work near nuclear plants seem happy to be near them. On the other hand, in Britain, many people hate wind farms.


China is continuing its nuclear power programme: it has 13 reactors and is building 35 more. This one is in Fujian

I cannot accept that other technologies affect the ecology much less. A new nuclear plant will produce the same electricity as 3,000 wind turbines, which cover hundreds of square kilometres, and the wind turbines need far more steel and concrete, and they affect the wildlife more. The most important argument is this: politicians do not want enough renewable energy to be produced. I am very sad about this. Environmentalists must be responsible and accept that nuclear power is one of the few ways we have to keep our standard of living while we cut CO2.

NO – Jose

We need a lot of creativity, courage and political energy, and we need to produce plans for renewable energy that people can see the benefits from. For example, farmers could own or earn money from wind turbines on their land; schools can have solar roofs to use for teaching; hospitals can use biomass heat and power to get lower fuel bills and cheap hot water. We need to solve climate change with renewable energy, conservation and efficiency. The biggest problem is that most people do not have enough experience with these choices. We need to “learn by doing” and use our creativity. This is the biggest renewable resource, and it has no limits.


Renewable energy: energy from natural sources (eg. sun, wind, waves) that will not end

Fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas

Carbon emissions: the amount of CO2 produced

Wind turbines: a machine to produce energy from wind

Conservation: keeping the energy we have

Efficiency: using less energy, often with new technology

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: