Re-Think Nuclear

Presented as a one-page primer for the Sustainable Tucson Newsletter

By Russell Lowes, February 27, 2010

The real choice is not nuclear versus coal, but nukes & coal versus the reasonable alternatives. 

There is massive opposition to coal now, which comprises about 45% of U.S. electricity. You can see smoke from the stacks or read about its CO2 emissions.

Opposition to nuclear energy is also amassing. Nuclear also produces CO2 emissions, which are growing ever-greater. It emits invisible radioactivity, uses even more water, and is much pricier. Here are some of the problems with nuclear energy.

Safety Issues Persist: The world has 436 reactors. In order to have a significant contribution to world energy, 1000 reactors are projected. Even if future reactor accidents improve by a factor of 10, the chance of a reactor meltdown would be roughly one more Chernobyl-like “sacrifice zone” by 2050.

Terrorist Issues: Shortly after the 9/11 New York jetliner crashes, the NRC corrected itself saying that airliners could destroy U.S. reactors. There is an even greater threat at the adjacent spent fuel cooling pools, housed in non-hardened buildings which, if breached, could create a meltdown.

Poor Economics/Subsidies Required: Nuclear electricity would run about 25 cents per kilowatt-hour to your meter. Current Tucson electricity is about 11 cents. New coal would be about 16 cents, wind at 12, solar photovoltaic at 24, gas at 13. The best option, however, is reducing energy with better lighting, architecture, insulation, A/C efficiency, etc.  Energy efficiency averages about 3 cents. Numerous nuclear industry officials have said they will build no new reactors without taxpayer loan guarantees.

Two Ways to Worsen Global Warming: Investing 1 dollar in nuclear rather than energy efficiency, you forgo saving 8 times the electricity. In other words, you can invest 1 dollar in nuclear and get 4 kilowatt-hours – or you can invest in energy savings and get 33 KWH. Investing in nuclear energy will dominate energy dollars, setting back the real options.

Second, nukes produce about 110 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. This is 11 times the CO2 of wind, double that of solar, and many times that of energy savings/efficiency. It gets worse if you include 1 million years of waste storage.

Water Consumption Is Highest: Water lost to the environment at Palo Verde is about 0.8 gallons per kilowatt-hour. Coal consumes 0.5 gallons. With solar PV, wind and energy savings, water use is negligible.

National Security Is Diminished: We import 80-92% of our U.S. nuclear fuel. Energy independence is set back with nuclear.

Waste Legacy: The U.S. courts have ruled that nuclear waste much be safeguarded for 1 million years, 25,000 times the 40-year operating life of a reactor.

Russell Lowes is Research Director for http://www.SafeEnergyAnalyst.org. He was the primary author of a book on the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant, the largest U.S. nuclear plant upwind of Tucson about 125 miles. This book was used in a campaign to successfully stop two reactors at this now three-reactor complex. You can contact Russell Lowes for presentations or for questions at russlowes@gmail.com  Documentation to this article can be found at http://www.SafeEnergyAnalyst.org

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CO2 Emissions Will be Higher for Nuclear Power than for Coal

by Russell Lowes, March 9, 2008

It is Just a Matter of Time. . . and It is Just a Matter of Counting the Whole Nuclear Cycle

In one of the comments on my last blog, Tasha Nelson insists in a questioning way, “I would imagine nuclear power still emits far fewer greenhouse gases overall.” This is the conventional thinking. . . thinking that will hit a hard wall of thought revolution. Over the next decade or so, reassessment of economically mined uranium reserves will come into clearer focus.

By then there will be a small number of reactors being built around the globe, as the industry tries to keep pace with the number of reactors that are being retired, UNLESS the industry gets the full support of the U.S. and world governments, with additional massive subsidy, on the order of hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars.

If complete socialization for nuclear power happens, no one knows how many reactors will be built. If this happens, while we will have a socialistic system for nuclear energy, we will not be able to afford it for any other energy industry, such as solar. We would have a system where the cost of money would be hidden from sight, causing all sorts of irrational decisions to come into play. The general public would pay the cost of this irrationality in the long run.

In either event, the nuclear industry will be trying to play catch-up. Reactors have already started to drop off. Of the 439 reactors we currently have, globally, they will be retiring quicker than they are being built (without a massive global subsidization). In fact, a leveling off of the number of reactors worldwide is already starting. See the graph below:

Frogattnuclen1

But, back to the question at-hand:

In a nutshell, won’t nuclear energy generate less CO2 than coal and other sources? There has been some serious work on this issue. On the other hand, there has been some self-serving nuclear industry work on this issue. With much of the industry’s estimates, there is a circular logic where the reports cite each other, with information generated by the industry that is, at best, an optimistic interpretation of the data. In the realm of independent studies, the most detailed and documented work I have obtained is at http://www.stormsmith.nl

This work, done by two analysts named Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Phillip Smith, has been peer-reviewed. It is collaborated by other works. From what I can tell, it is only disagreed with to any significant degree by nuclear industry-affiliated entities. For example, there is the nuclear trade group, the World Nuclear Association, which ironically gives itself the byline, Clean Air Energy. Their study is very brief, and has nowhere near the quality level of documentation. The legitimate independent studies that review Storm and Smith only tend to agree on the major points, with less significant points of disagreements here and there.

Storm & Smith conclude:
– In the short term, nuclear power is much cleaner than all fossil fuels, if you don’t count the energy required over the next million years (the EPA required waste management period), However,
– In the long term, nuclear power will become dirtier and dirtier, emitting more and more  greenhouse gas emissions, as we quickly deplete our uranium reserves.
– The U.S. currently imports over 90% of its uranium, and only has 7% of the world’s diminishing reserves.
– Going down to lower-grade ores will deplete the short-term net energy gain of nuclear power, and at some point push this short-term gain into the negative realm, with greenhouse gas (GHG) production going through the roof. To give you a graphic illustration, uranium mining of granite would require about 50 times the weight of coal that is mined per kilowatt-hour produced.
– After about 70 years, the ore that can be economically mined (using short-term thinking) will run out – and this is on the basis of current capacity, not expanded levels of world nuclear capacity.

The above second point gets to the last point that Tasha made in her post. She asks, “Also-hasn’t there been an underinvestment in uranium mine development the past 20 years or so, leading to some of the shortfalls we are seeing now?” The answer to that depends on perspective. The industry has numerous mines that were supposed to be in operation by now. This includes the largest planned new mine, under preliminary development in Canada. It just flooded with water last year, putting off its opening for years. The easiest mining has already occurred. From one perspective, the industry is feeling the reduction of higher grade ores and cannot easily keep up with the demand.

When I first started writing on nuclear power and alternatives, back in the late 1970s, the typical quality of ore was higher than that mined today. Back then, it was common to mine ore that was 2500-3000 parts per million. Today the average is around 1500. To further compound the problems, back then, there was a lot of soft rock ore being mined. Soft rock is easier to mine than hard rock for the obvious reason that it is easier to crush. It takes less energy. Today, more and more hard rock is being mined. The twin problems are decreases in ore grade plus the harder-to-process rock.

Then, there is a third problem, and that is access to the ore itself. About 50% of the current mined uranium comes from below surface mining, going deeper and deeper. The lowest apples have been picked.

It is also true, as Tasha suggests, that there hasn’t been enough investment in mining. One question comes to mind: who is responsible for that? However, this question is irrelevant in a way. What is the current shortfall in mining? The current mining levels are at about 50 kilo-tonnes (kt) of ore per year. The current usage of ore by nuclear reactors is about 67 kt per year. Over recent years, the industry has augmented this shortage of production with ore reserves and other smaller sources like mixed oxide fuels and conversion of weapons stocks to commercial stocks, particularly from Russia. At the rate we are using up these stocks, if mining does not jump significantly, complete depletion of stocks will occur by 2015 at the latest. The price of uranium will skyrocket. So much for “cheap” nuclear fuel of days gone by.

There is a final thing to add to this. Nobody wants to hear this. It is avoided like the proverbial elephant in the room, avoided like the plague. The nature of nuclear waste is that it is transgenic. It is changing its own state through irradiation of all the ingredients of the waste. It is creating gases. It is creating liquids. It is also irradiating its container, changing the properties of whatever the container is made out of (with few exceptions).

What you might store as a near perfect rectangle today, could be quite a different shape in thousands of years. What this means is that it will off-gas, migrate, and as it is well known, go through periods of increased and decreased beta, gamma and alpha radiation over many centuries. Over many millennia. Someone is required by U.S. law to safeguard this waste for one million years. “Someone” is the word because no one knows who will be around for that long.

I will soon be writing a report on the cost of a million years of nuclear waste. To make a long story short, to guard that waste will clearly cost more energy input and create more greenhouse gases than any other current energy option under serious consideration.

In the long run, because of its waste, and because of its depletion of resources, nuclear energy creates more greenhouse gas than any other option. Remember these words in a few hundred thousand years, while you are just beginning to understand how to manage all this junk.