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Keywords:

  • environmental impact assessment;
  • industrial ecology;
  • life cycle assessment;
  • light water reactor;
  • meta-analysis;
  • nuclear power

Summary

A systematic review and harmonization of life cycle assessment (LCA) literature of nuclear electricity generation technologies was performed to determine causes of and, where possible, reduce variability in estimates of life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to clarify the state of knowledge and inform decision making. LCA literature indicates that life cycle GHG emissions from nuclear power are a fraction of traditional fossil sources, but the conditions and assumptions under which nuclear power are deployed can have a significant impact on the magnitude of life cycle GHG emissions relative to renewable technologies.

Screening 274 references yielded 27 that reported 99 independent estimates of life cycle GHG emissions from light water reactors (LWRs). The published median, interquartile range (IQR), and range for the pool of LWR life cycle GHG emission estimates were 13, 23, and 220 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (g CO2-eq/kWh), respectively. After harmonizing methods to use consistent gross system boundaries and values for several important system parameters, the same statistics were 12, 17, and 110 g CO2-eq/kWh, respectively. Harmonization (especially of performance characteristics) clarifies the estimation of central tendency and variability.

To explain the remaining variability, several additional, highly influential consequential factors were examined using other methods. These factors included the primary source energy mix, uranium ore grade, and the selected LCA method. For example, a scenario analysis of future global nuclear development examined the effects of a decreasing global uranium market-average ore grade on life cycle GHG emissions. Depending on conditions, median life cycle GHG emissions could be 9 to 110 g CO2-eq/kWh by 2050.