Nuclear Renaissance? The Growing International Push for Nuclear Power as Green Energy

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s subsequent energy crisis, a global push towards adopting nuclear energy is gaining momentum.[1] This surge in support for nuclear energy stems not only from a reassessment of Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas, but also from addressing persistent challenges in achieving energy goals via wind and solar.[2] The growing interest in nuclear energy has come from both ends of the political spectrum in the United States.[3] In Europe, even figures like Greta Thunberg, who previously decried nuclear energy as “extremely dangerous, expensive, and time-consuming,” have openly voiced support for nuclear power.[4] This post will discuss the international agreements that form the basis for increased interest in nuclear energy and explore how the history of nuclear energy has affected current attitudes, as well as key advantages and disadvantages associated with its heightened adoption as a strategy to combat climate change.

As global awareness and apprehension regarding the repercussions of climate change have intensified over recent decades, numerous nations have entered into international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Signatories to initiatives such as the European Green Deal, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and, most famously, the Paris Agreement, have all committed to lowering emissions and adopting green forms of energy.[5] The Paris Agreement alone, originally developed in 2015 and going into force in 2016, had 196 signatories.[6]  Those parties committed to the goal of “holding the increase in global average temperature from pre-industrial levels to well below 2°C, the threshold at which most experts believe the worst impacts from climate change can still be avoided, and pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5°C.”[7]  However, signatory countries to the Paris Agreement, as well as several other high-profile international agreements concerning climate change, have had issues meeting their targets.[8] This has led the UN to issue statements suggesting that an increased adoption of nuclear energy may prove crucial for countries to meet their green energy goals.[9] Despite tacit endorsement from groups like the UN, nuclear energy remains controversial for many civilians, environmental groups, and countries.[10]

Nuclear energy is generated through nuclear fission, in which the nucleus of an atom is split into two smaller nuclei, releasing a significant amount of energy.[11] While this controlled fission process allows for continuous and efficient production of energy, it also produces radioactive material as a byproduct.[12]  Nuclear energy was initially harnessed primarily for military endeavors, but under the Truman Administration, the United States began investigating nuclear’s civilian energy applications.[13] Currently, nuclear power produces 10% of the world’s energy, in contrast with 17% in 1996.[14] The world’s decreased reliance on nuclear energy is partly attributable to diminished public trust following several high-profile disasters, namely: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011.[15] Likewise, the environmental fallout of these disasters remains the primary reason why many environmental groups remain opposed to increased reliance on nuclear power.[16] Yet, increasing demand for sustainable energy sources has driven renewed interest in nuclear as an alternative (or supplement) to wind and solar, despite many of the pros and cons to nuclear remaining unchanged.

The advantages of nuclear energy are well-documented: it has a low carbon footprint, is reliable, produces an enormous amount of energy, and has a small physical footprint.[17] Nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gasses or pollute the air.[18] Its carbon footprint is on par with wind energy and less than solar.[19] Additionally, while the size of the plant affects its power output, nuclear is considered better at the per-acre energy output than wind and solar.[20] Likewise, proponents point to the fact that nuclear plants can be built in urban or rural areas.[21] A nuclear plant’s energy output is also consistent: where wind and solar do not produce energy when it is calm or cloudy, nuclear power plant output is not dependent on environmental conditions.[22] Thus, there are substantial advantages to adopting nuclear energy as a sustainable option for clean energy.

However, there are also serious cons to nuclear power, primarily its high up-front costs and issues related to its radioactive byproducts. In reports balancing the viability of nuclear energy as an alternative to wind and solar, cost and time are frequently listed as obstacles.[23] Nuclear reactors are incredibly costly and take anywhere between four and ten years to build.[24] Since many countries who have committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions have set targets for 2030, they are hesitant to adopt widespread nuclear initiatives because they take longer to bring online.[25] Likewise, because of the extensive construction process, the energy produced by nuclear plants is expensive as compared with wind and solar.[26] However, the cost issue with nuclear energy can be mitigated, mostly by accelerating the construction process and by making improvements in design.[27] Small Modular Reactors (or “SMRs”) have grown in popularity as a partial solution to the cost issue: they take less time to construct because they are smaller and many of the parts can be built in factories, which reduces overall construction delays and variabilities in project costs.[28] Contributing to the issue of cost in the United States is the fact that the average age of nuclear power plants in the U.S. is thirty-nine, and most nuclear reactors were constructed with a lifespan of only forty years.[29] While cost remains a major barrier to widespread adoption of nuclear power, countries can mitigate costs by keeping current nuclear plants online and constructing smaller, modular plants. Similarly, another major concern with expanding nuclear power is the radioactive byproduct produced by nuclear fission. When not properly disposed of, this byproduct can have serious effects on the surrounding environment and can cause cancers, malformations, and other diseases.[30] Likewise, radioactive waste can last thousands of years and must be stored in special facilities.[31] Critics worry about the long-term safety of those facilities if not properly maintained as well as potential terror attacks on facilities harboring radioactive waste.[32] Proponents of nuclear energy emphasize a shift in research from plants that maximize the energy output of a plant to plants that minimize waste and emphasize climate change’s damage to the environment if alternatives like nuclear energy are not adopted.[33] Thus, while the advantages of nuclear energy are clear, there are serious disadvantages that cannot be overlooked.

Driven both by its distinct advantages and disadvantages, the international discourse around nuclear energy’s potential as an environmentally-sustainable option is likely to intensify as countries increasingly look for green energy alternatives to fulfill their treaty obligations. This support not only serves as a rare bridge across political divides internationally and within the United States, but also emerges as a response to the imperative for Western countries to explore energy alternatives, reducing dependence on states like Russia for natural gas. Despite its current drawbacks and criticisms, nuclear energy stands out as a promising candidate for sustainable, carbon-neutral power. The ongoing adoption of green energy sources globally is likely to amplify the discourse surrounding nuclear energy’s role as a viable option for meeting energy needs. However, for it to become an economically viable replacement for natural gas and coal, increased innovation is essential.


[1] Steven Mufson & Claire Parker, War in Ukraine generates interest in nuclear energy, despite danger, Wash. Post (Apr. 15, 2022, 1:46 PM),  https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/04/15/nuclear-energy-europe-ukraine-war/.

[2] Charlie Campbell, As Putin Threatens Nuclear Disaster, Europe Learns to Embrace Nuclear Energy Again, Time  (Apr. 21, 2022, 11:31 AM), https://time.com/6169164/ukraine-nuclear-energy-europe/.

[3] Adam Stretford, Bridging our Political Dviide with Nuclear Energy: Even Ben Shapiro and Ana Kasparian Agree we Need Nuclear, Medium (Mar. 1, 2021), https://medium.com/generation-atomic/bridging-our-political-divide-with-nuclear-energy-even-ben-shapiro-and-ana-kasparian-agree-we-need-373998b4dc60.

[4] Greta Thunberg, Facebook (Mar. 17, 2019), https://www.facebook.com/gretathunbergsweden/posts/793441724356983; Ariel Cohen, Greta Thunberg Has Embraced Nuclear Power: Will The Greens Follow?, Forbes(Apr. 3, 2023, 9:00 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/arielcohen/2023/04/03/greta-thunberg-has-embraced-nuclear-power-will-the-greens-follow/?sh=6e6e28911e9a.

[5] The European Green Deal, European Commission, https://commission.europa.eu/strategy-and-policy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en (last visited Dec. 12, 2023);

Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda (last visited Dec. 12, 2023); The Paris Agreement, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement (last visited Dec. 12, 2023).

[6] The Paris Agreement, supra note 5.  

[7] Nuclear Power and the Paris Agreement, International Atomic Energy Agency, 1, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/16/11/np-parisagreement.pdf (last visited Dec. 14, 2023).

[8] Jon McGowan, U.N. Releases Paris Agreement Climate Analysis Ahead of COP28, Forbes (Sept. 13, 2023, 10:51PM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonmcgowan/2023/09/13/un-releases-paris-agreement-climate-analysis-ahead-of-cop28/?sh=2cb724ef4561.

[9] The Paris Agreement, supra note 5.  

[10] Alejandro de la Garza, Nuclear Power Is COP26’s Quiet Controversy, Time (Nov. 5, 2021, 8:42 AM), https://time.com/6114156/nuclear-power-is-cop26s-quiet-controversy/

[11] Nuclear Energy, National Geographic, https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/nuclear-energy/.

[12] Id.

[13] Timeline of Nuclear Technology, Pbs, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/three-nuclear-technology/.

[14] Lois Parshley, The Controversial Future of Nuclear Power in the U.S., National Geographic (May 4, 2021), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/nuclear-plants-are-closing-in-the-us-should-we-build- more.

[15] Brian Martin, Opposing Nuclear Power: Past and Present, 26 Social Alternatives 43, 44 (2007)

[16] Nuclear Free Future, Sierra Club, https://www.sierraclub.org/nuclear-free.

[17] 23 Pros & Cons of Nuclear Energy You Need to Know, Environmental Conscience, https://environmental-conscience.com/nuclear-energy-pros-cons/#:~:text=Nuclear%20Energy%20Pros%20%26%20Cons%20%E2%80%93%20Summary%20List,of%20nuclear%20waste%20%207%20more%20rows%20.

[18] Parshley, supra note 8.

[19] Id.

[20] Physical Footprint Comparison, Greens for Nuclear Energy, https://greensfornuclear.energy/physical-footprint-comparison/.

[21] Nuclear Energy, supra note 5.

[22] Campbell, supra note 2.

[23] Parshley, supra note 8.

[24] Campbell, supra note 2.

[25] Jonathan Tirone, What’s Boosting Nuclear Power? War and Climate Change, Wash. Post (Dec. 5, 2022, 11:31 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/energy/whats-boosting-nuclear-power-war-and-climate-change/2022/12/02/3e56b31a-7264-11ed-867c-8ec695e4afcd_story.html.

[26] Parshley, supra note 8.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Nuclear Energy, supra note 5.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Jacopo Buongiorno et al., The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World 82 (2018)