Nuclear Energy Credits and the Growing Carbon Marketplace: Where Do They Stand?

By Jazmin Murphy | Updated on September 13, 2021

The U.S. generates around 1.72 billion metric tons of CO2 through electricity generation every year,8 and many people suggest nuclear energy credits become a bigger part of the growing carbon marketplace. But, where do these credits stack up?

As a sustainable power source, nuclear energy may be the next contender for much-needed climate change mitigation alternatives.

Why?

Because with nuclear energy credits entering the carbon marketplace,12 sustainable energy has the opportunity to become more accessible… meaning everyone can benefit.

Nuclear energy cooling towers with power plant in front.

What is Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear energy is a type of power harvested from continual nuclear fission,1 normally involving the elements, uranium and plutonium. Nuclear fission is the process of a neutron slamming into an atom, causing it to split into two smaller versions of itself. With every split of an atom, a surge of heat is released. This heat is then used to create steam for spinning turbines to produce clean electricity.

(In this case, “clean” electricity refers primarily to the fact that nuclear energy is a zero-emissions process of generating electricity. This doesn’t mean that this power source cannot cause environmental pollution or similar damages.)

Some experts support nuclear energy so strongly that it’s been repeatedly proposed as a viable option for buying and selling credits in the carbon marketplace. For example, in 2005, the federal government introduced the Energy Policy Act. This statute imposed a production tax credit (PTC) of 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of energy a nuclear power plant produced within its first eight years of operation.2

The facilities could secure this credit for up to 6,000 megawatts (M.W.) of nuclear generating capacity. They’re available on a first-come, first-serve basis and can be transferred to collaborating entities, providing an opportunity for companies to maximize the credit’s value. These funds are then partially allocated to the development of new nuclear reactors to produce more sustainable energy.

With this system, the world can continue making strides toward a cleaner, greener future. Presently, nuclear-generated energy has prevented the release of more than 506 million tonnes (approximately 558 million tons) of CO2.

This is more than the total emissions from 110 million American passenger vehicles.

The reliability of nuclear power over the last several decades, and vast potential for eco-friendly innovation, make nuclear energy credits a strong contender for a new niche in the carbon marketplace, especially since many nuclear power plants are already in place worldwide.

Nuclear Energy Credits Enter VCM Debate: Why This Energy Source is a Serious Contender against Climate Change

There are now 94 nuclear reactors stationed at 56 nuclear power plants across the United States alone. Most of these plants only have two reactors, with a select few being home to three. These are the primary reason why the United States is the world’s leading producer of nuclear energy.3

For years, nuclear energy has been a staple in global energy, operating as a cornerstone of many countries’ power supplies. This significantly reduces the costs of transitioning to nuclear energy on a larger scale, bringing us closer to effective greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions mitigation.

Here’s a snapshot of nuclear energy production worldwide:

  • United States: Nuclear energy accounts for 19% of the country’s total generated electricity.
  • France: This country relies on nuclear energy the most, accounting for 70% of electricity generation.
  • China: With yet to integrate nuclear energy into their power industry, this country’s electricity is produced in part by 5% of nuclear power.
  • Russia: Trailing behind the U.S., 18% of this country’s power supply is derived from nuclear reactors.
  • South Korea: Outpacing all but France, nuclear energy accounts for 25% of this nation’s electricity.

Since nuclear power is already established throughout the world, the groundwork has been established to build a more robust system for trading nuclear energy credits in the carbon marketplace.

Comparing Nuclear Energy to other Power Alternatives

One of the strongest points in favor of nuclear energy is its relative consistency when compared to the most widely-accepted sustainable energy alternatives: solar, wind, and water. Although most experts recognize the demonstrable benefits of these energy sources over fossil fuels, some regard them as inconsistent, and therefore not entirely reliable.

Eco-friendly power alternatives are always a better option for the earth than burning fossil fuels, but nuclear power has the potential to make a bigger difference when compared to other options.4

An 8 Billion Trees graphic of nuclear energy credits and where they stand in the carbon marketplace, at a lower cost than most energy sources.

Nuclear vs. Coal

Coal is known to be one of the least sustainable fuel sources in the world. Unlike nuclear energy sources, power generated from coal emits 820 g CO2 per kWh (g CO2eq/kWh).

In contrast, nuclear power emits merely 16 g CO2eq/kWh. And that’s only a by-product of the process of construction material development.5  This sustainable energy alternative can produce the same amount of power as 149 gallons of oil.10

Plus, nuclear energy is a highly cost efficient option for electricity generation, especially compared to coal.

In fact, this has always been one of the biggest selling points for nuclear energy. Back in 2008, The World Nuclear Association (WNA) reported, “the total fuel costs of a nuclear power plant… are typically about a third of those for a coal-fired plant…”8

Nuclear vs. Natural Gas

According to the WNA, generating electricity with nuclear power costs only significantly less than maintaining a gas combined-cycle plant.

(A gas combined-cycle plant generates electricity by using gas and steam. These power plants are designed to produce up to 50% more electricity than traditional plants.)9

Further, nuclear energy is responsible for far fewer GHGs than natural gas, which emits 490 g CO2eq/kWh.

Not only that, but nuclear energy is far more powerful than most people realize. A single gummy-bear-sized uranium fuel pellet can generate the same amount of energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.10

That’s enough electricity for 755,000 homes.10

Nuclear Energy vs. Sustainable Power Sources

Nuclear plants’ average “capacity factor” (the percentage of time the plant is actually making energy) was an impressive 92.3% in 2016.7 On the other hand, these were the results for other widely used power production systems:

  • Hydroelectric: 38.2%, the equivalent of 138 days per year
  • Wind turbines: 34.5%, 127 days per year
  • Solar electricity arrays: 25.1%, 92 days per year

Coal and natural gas plants generated electricity only about half the time due to the cost of fuel and seasonal fluctuations in weather and market demand.

Not only would switching to nuclear energy be a sustainable power alternative that’s available year-round, but it could be one of the safest, too. These plants release the least amount of radiation into the environment out of all major energy sources, and studies indicate that even the worst possible nuclear power plant accident would be (and has been) less destructive than other major industrial accidents.6

Cooling towers at nuclear power plant with solar panels in front.

Comparing Nuclear Power with Forestry Programs

Is nuclear energy the solution to eliminate greenhouse gases?

Despite it’s obvious advantages, when compared with forestry programs, nuclear energy can’t compete with the benefits that building new forests (afforestation) and replacing old ones that have been cleared (reforestation) have on the planet.

Reducing the emissions generated by energy use is crucial in the battle, but a holistic approach can help solve the current challenges facing the environment.

Forestry carbon offsets are an integral part of mitigating climate change. In addition to the ‘carbon sinks’ created by planting trees, the advantages to endangered wildlife and improvements to global weather patterns continue to benefit the planet for decades to come.

Tree planting carbon offset programs are some of the best opportunities to reduce climate devastation. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that a single 10-year-old “medium growth” coniferous or deciduous tree in an urban environment could sequester 36.4 lbs of carbon dioxide.11

Together, an entire hectare of trees could capture and store 0.55 metric tons (tonnes, the equivalent of 0.61 tons) of carbon dioxide per year.11

To choose the best carbon offset providers for you, use an ecological footprint calculator today.

While nuclear energy provides global communities with the power they need to live comfortably and efficiently, afforestation programs give wildlife a healthy habitat and actively remove harmful gases from the atmosphere.

Nuclear energy has a lot to offer the world and change it for the better. It is one of the safest, most sustainable power sources in use today, which means further implementation of nuclear energy credits could improve the world’s chances in combating climate change.

With nuclear energy credits entering the carbon marketplace, this addition is helping reduce humanity’s impact on the planet, and paving the way for a ‘greener’ tomorrow.

Read More About the Carbon Marketplace:


References

1Office of Nuclear Energy. (2021, April 1). Fission and fusion: What is the difference? Retrieved June 16, 2021, from Energy.gov:  https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/fission-and-fusion-what-difference

2Nuclear Energy Institute. (n.d.). The nuclear production tax credit. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from nei.org: https://www.nei.org/advocacy/build-new-reactors/nuclear-production-tax-credit

3U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). (2020, April 16). Nuclear power plants. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from eia.gov: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/nuclear/nuclear-power-plants.php

4Gardner, T. (2021, May 26). U.S. Senators introduce nuclear power credit to help curb emissions. Reuters. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from reuters.com: https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/us-senators-set-introduce-nuclear-power-credit-energy-tax-reform-bill-2021-05-26/

5Wilkerson, J. (2016, October 25). Reconsidering the risks of nuclear power. Harvard University, The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences | Science in the News. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from sitn.hms.harvard.edu:

6Rhodes, R. (2018, July 19). Why nuclear power must be part of the energy solution. Yale Environment 360. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from e360.yale.edu: https://e360.yale.edu/features/why-nuclear-power-must-be-part-of-the-energy-solution-environmentalists-climate

7Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). (2021). Retrieved June 24, 2021, from eia.gov: https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=74&t=11

8World Nuclear Association. (2008). The economics of nuclear power. http://www.world-nuclear.org/uploadedfiles/org/info/pdf/economicsnp.pdf

9General Electric Gas Power. (n.d.). Combined-cycle power plant: How it works. https://www.ge.com/power/resources/knowledge-base/combined-cycle-power-plant-how-it-works

10Nuclear Energy Institute. (n.d.). Nuclear provides carbon-free energy 24/7. Retrieved June 28, 2021, from https://www.nei.org/fundamentals/nuclear-provides-carbon-free-energy

11US Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, April 28). Greenhouse gases equivalencies calculator – Calculations and references | US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gases-equivalencies-calculator-calculations-and-references

12John, J. S. (2018, September 27). New York’s Nuclear Zero-Carbon Credits Pass Federal Court Challenge. New York’s Nuclear Zero-Carbon Credits Pass Federal Court Challenge | Greentech Media. Retrieved July 6, 2021, from: https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/new-yorks-nuclear-zero-carbon-credits-pass-federal-court-challenge.