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Nuclear Energy: Not a Climate Change Solution?

We've covered the argument that nuclear is not a climate-friendly energy source before, but here's new evidence -- a paper from the Irish sustainability thinktank Feasta, titled Why Nuclear Power Cannot Be a Major Energy Source:

The advantage of nuclear power in producing lower carbon emissions holds true only as long as supplies of rich uranium last. When the leaner ores are used - that is, ores consisting of less than 0.01 percent (for soft rocks such as sandstone) and 0.02 percent (for hard rocks such as granite), so much energy is required by the milling process that the total quantity of fossil fuels needed for nuclear fission is greater than would be needed if those fuels were used directly to generate electricity. In other words, when it is forced to use ore of around this quality or worse, nuclear power begins to slip into a negative energy balance: more energy goes in than comes out, and more carbon dioxide is produced by nuclear power than by the fossil-fuel alternatives.

Add to these concerns the carbon costs of building, maintaining and securing reactors, and shipping, processing and storing (for thousands of years) the waste created, and the carbon benefits of nuclear energy completely disappear, and, indeed nukes start to look not only dangerous but downright polluting. Or so, at least, the argument goes, and it does seem like the various folks making it are pretty credible.

more from the report:

A Lean Guide

Nuclear energy could sustain its present minor contribution of some 21/2 percent of global final energy demand for about 75 years, but only by postponing indefinitely the expenditure of energy that would be needed to deal with its waste.

Each stage in the nuclear life-cycle, other than fission itself, produces carbon dioxide.

The depletion problem facing nuclear power is as pressing as the depletion problem facing oil and gas.

The depletion of uranium becomes apparent when nuclear power is considered as a major source of energy. For instance, if required to provide all the electricity used worldwide - while clearing up the new waste it produced - it could (notionally) do so for about six years before it ran out of usable rich uranium ore.

Alternative systems of nuclear fission, such as fast-breeders and thorium reactors, do not offer solutions in the short/medium term.

The overall climate impact of the nuclear industry, including its use of halogenated compounds with a global warming potential many times that of carbon dioxide, needs to be researched urgently.

The option that a nation such as the United Kingdom has of building and fuelling a nuclear energy system on a substantial and useful scale is removed if many other nations attempt to do the same thing.

The response must be to develop a programme of "Lean Energy". Lean Energy consists of: (1) energy conservation and efficiency; (2) structural change to build local energy systems; and (3) renewable energy; all within (4) a framework, such as tradable energy quotas (TEQs), leading to deep reductions in energy demand.

That response should be developed at all speed, free of the false promise and distraction of nuclear energy.

Image: the recent implosion of the Trojan nuclear plant cooling tower. Video here.

Editorial Notes: I've been working on the assumption that David Fleming's report, based on the work of Storm van Leeuwen and Philp Smith is more or less on the money about nuclear fission's potential. He is claiming that, once decommissioning energy costs are considered, there will be about enough net energy from high grade uranium ore to supply all of the world's electricity for about 6 years. As electricity accounts for about 16% of the world's energy use, that's not very much in the big picture. Even if these numbers are an order of magnitude out (and they do not differ from the nuclear industry by all that much) there would not seem to be enough high grade uranium to make widespread nuclear investments worthwhile, when all the other concerns are considered. Others I have spoken to, including the authors of the US Army Corps of Engineers Energy Trends report have been more optimistic about the commercial potential of breeder reactors which theoretically could 'breed' more fuel, and extend the amount of fissionable fuel dramatically. However this is a more dangerous and expensive technology, and after decades of research its commercial viability is still a big unknown. We seem to be betting our future on A) a relatively insignificant resource by global energy use standards, or B) a distant technological hope. I welcome comments from anyone who has a thoughts on Fleming's paper. -AF

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