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With Putin having invaded Ukraine, Europe made getting rid of Russian hydrocarbons a more urgent priority than phasing out fossil fuels and other unsustainable energy sources. They now intend to consume more coal, LNG, possibly nuclear energy too (which is not sustainable too, despite it being low-carbon). Is it more likely to be a long-term shift or just an insignificant blip in its determined way toward green energy? You can't just turn them on and off as a light bulb, those coal and nuclear plants.

P.S.: I want to stress that ending the war may indeed be a more pressing goal for now. If you ask me, I'd be happy to see all Russian exports banned if it helps it. Don't take it as a criticism of Europe (they may be criticized for some things but not for ditching Putin's fossil fuels).

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  • Was net zero ever any more than a dream?
    – RedSonja
    Oct 10, 2022 at 11:30

1 Answer 1

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No way is net zero threatened at all.

So far, the actions have been:

  • Find alternative gas sources like LNG (there's slight risk of leaking methane, a strong greenhouse gas)
  • Restart nuclear power stations (good!)
  • Use coal power stations that have been not used for a long amount of time (temporarily bad)

I suspect eventually each and every gas power station will switch to using hydrogen instead of natural gas (methane). The modifications needed are not major. That hydrogen will be produced from clean energy sources.

Note that gas prices are so expensive now that nobody is planning of constructing more gas power. So getting replacement fuel for the existing plans will not mean we need more of it -- we need the same amount of it.

Nuclear energy, on the other hand, is about the greenest energy source we have. Sadly, constructing new nuclear power plants is so expensive that it will be outcompeted by renewable electricity and electricity storage. Giving more life for old nuclear power plants doesn't involve the massive costs of constructing new nuclear plants.

About the only really problematic thing is using those dirty coal plants. They replace natural gas plants all of which can't get enough fuel, and as coal is dirtier than natural gas, 1000 g / kWh as opposed to 400 g / kWh of natural gas, this will cause lots of new emissions. But we have to remember that those aging coal power plants are still existing plants that have been given new life. They will be phased out eventually.

The net zero plans are for year 2050 or so -- nearly 30 years in future. In that 30 years, we will get rid of those coal power plants, and use renewables and energy storage.

The replacement fuels will cause more emissions in the short term, so when considering climate change, it's a problem. But when considering net zero plans, those plans are so far away in the future that we will achieve them. The energy system of 2050 will look so much different than the energy system of 2022.

I see you have a misconception about nuclear energy not being sustainable. It's true that at current uranium prices, for current reactors, we have about 100-200 years of more uranium. But the cost of nuclear power is nearly all capital costs, fuel is practically free. If fuel prices were increased let's say by a factor of 50, nuclear power would still have a low marginal cost. That factor of 50 increase on the other hand would mean lots of new uranium sources become practical to utilize. Also, there are reactors that use uranium 100 times more efficiently than the current light water thermal neutron reactors. Fast breeder reactors for example run on U-238 (over 99% of uranium) rather than on U-235 (less than 1% of uranium -- the reason uranium needs to be enriched for current reactors). With fast breeders and increased uranium prices, we could tolerate 5000x increase in uranium prices. At that price, uranium could be extracted from seawater too, and there's lots of it in seawater.

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  • Greenpeace says it's unsustainable so it's not. Radioactive waste and such. Besides, they are, as it were, Chekhov's guns waiting to become an apocalyptic threat the moment some terrorist group or insane dictator like Putin gets hold of them (as you can see now with the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station). It's a very bad idea Aug 24, 2022 at 20:35
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    Sadly, constructing new nuclear power plants is so expensive that it will be outcompeted by renewable electricity and electricity storage — why is that sad?
    – gerrit
    Aug 25, 2022 at 9:00
  • More than half of the EU nuclear fuel is coming from Russia, so replacing fossil by nuclear is no improvement at all as far as geopolitics are concerned.
    – gerrit
    Aug 25, 2022 at 9:01
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    It's sad because nuclear is predictable, whereas renewable electricity is weather-dependent and storage usually has short durations, with the exception of maybe hydropower -- but we don't have enough hydropower to have enough storage. Also, nuclear fuel is so cheap it can be considered free. Getting something from Russia practically for free isn't an issue. Besides, there are suppliers other than Russia in case price would increase so that Russia could fund war with nuclear fuel payments.
    – juhist
    Aug 25, 2022 at 12:50
  • Clean energy sources, just like that. Pouf! Abracadabra! Hand-wavery alert.
    – RedSonja
    Oct 10, 2022 at 11:31

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