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Friday, October 23, 2009

Nuclear Power and Global Warming

1. Nuclear Power is not Greenhouse Friendly

While nuclear electricity generation entails no direct emissions of CO2 or any other greenhouse gases, the nuclear fuel cycle does in fact release CO2. Although these emissions are, at present, quite small in comparison with coal fired power stations (4% of equivalent size generation); they are considerably larger than alternatives:

Nuclear Power -
• releases 4-5 times more CO2 than equivalent power production from renewable sources
• releases up to 20 times more CO2 than saving the same amount of power with energy efficiency measures

(By Dr Nigel Mortimer, FoE 9, 1989)

This is because of the considerable fossil fuels use during mining, fuel enrichment, manufacture, and plant construction. It might be argued that future nuclear systems could achieve lower emissions, though as demand for uranium grew, CO2 emissions would again rise as ore grades declined.

2. Unsustainable - Fast Breeder Reactors and Uranium Reserves

Most publicity promoting nuclear power acknowledges that global uranium reserves are indeed quite limited when used in conventional thermal reactors.

“..used in the type of reactors now in operation, the world's uranium supplies that are recoverable at a reasonable cost would be unlikely to last more than 50 years”. (U.S. Dept of Energy, 1989).

“However, without drawing attention to the fundamental technical problems and substantially higher economic costs, fast breeder reactors are usually cited, quite glibly, as a means of transforming severely limited uranium resources into a much larger potential source of energy. In theory, the use of fast breeder reactors could increase the energy available by a factor of 60. In practice, it is now not clear how this would be achieved on an expanded global scale without encountering basic plutonium shortages, not to mention serious problems with waste disposal, power plant decommissioning and nuclear weapons proliferation. In fact, the fast breeder reactor is an essential component of the case for nuclear power. Yet, this case is built around a technology, which is not expected, by the nuclear industry itself, to be available for commercial introduction for another 20 years”. (UK Atomic Energy Authority).

Is nuclear power a global warming solution? Are there any ways to prevent global warming?

The main cause of global warming is the increased emission of so called greenhouse gases , in particular carbon dioxide (chemical symbol CO2). These greenhouse gases have an average lifetime in the atmosphere of 50 to 200 years. This means that even if we stopped the emission of greenhouse gases completely tomorrow, global warming would still continue.

In other words: It is impossible to stop global warming, it is only possible to mitigate its effects through a drastic reduction of the emission of CO2.

Can nuclear power plants mitigate the effects of global warming?

Nuclear energy is used to generate electrical power. Therefore it is only possible to reduce the emission of CO2 if nuclear power plants are used instead of other, CO2 emitting technologies. This is in particular the case for electrical generation plants fuelled by coal, oil or gas. The CO2 emission can indeed be reduced, if electrical power plants driven by fossil fuels are being replaced by nuclear power plants. However the application of nuclear power unfortunately is highly problematic, therefore the problem of CO2 emissions must not be looked at independently of all other risks and problems. See our text about pros and cons of nuclear power for a summary of the advantages and disadvantages.

How much can nuclear energy reduce the main cause of global warming?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) records the energy consumption world-wide and produces a forecast for the next 25 years. In their last energy outlook published in autumn 2006, IEA predicts a strong increase of the carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2030 as a consequence of the increasing demand for energy world-wide.

Additionally, IEA investigated to which extent the above mentioned emissions of CO2 could be prevented if politics applied rigorous measures. One of many measures investigated was massive facilitations and incentives for building additional nuclear power plants.

From all measures proposed, nuclear energy was found to have the smallest effect (only 10%). This result is even more remarkable facing the fact that IEA is known for having no reservations whatsoever against nuclear energy.

The chart below shows the effects of each proposed measure to reduce the main cause of global warming, the emission of carbon dioxide:

The following results attract attention:

• Almost 80% of the desired effects are due to increasing the energy efficiency (36% due to increasing the efficiency of the use of fossil energy, 29% due to increasing the efficiency of electrical appliances and 13% due to increasing the efficiency at the electrical power generation).
• 12% of the desired effects are due to furthering the generation and application of renewable energies.
• Only 10% of the desired effects are due to furthering nuclear energy.

This result is surprising, in particular if you think about how nuclear power is praised as solution to global warming by politicians like George W. Bush and Tony Blair. It seems like they would (again) head into the wrong direction.

Instead of talking about measures to increase the energy efficiency, which accounts for 80% of the effects, some politicians propagandize building nuclear power plants, which according to IEA can only account for 10% of the desired effects. Here the focus is clearly on the wrong subject!

Why is the focus on nuclear energy instead of energy efficiency?

Unfortunately, there is no lobby for energy efficiency, except perhaps some environmental organizations. The nuclear industry however, does have quite a strong lobby world-wide. If a politician asks for a higher efficiency of cars, he or she gets opposed immediately by the automobile industry (keyword work places). If the same politician suggests building nuclear power plants, he or she can even hope for some money for the next election campaign.

Why use nuclear power at all?

If the focus is put only to avoid the emission of CO2 and if all other side effects are neglected, then nuclear energy can indeed contribute to the solution. However the problem of climate change should be solved and discussed in a much wider context: It is important to limit our consumption of resources to such an amount which does not curtail future generations nor other beings on Earth. We finally must learn to live a sustainable living .

In this context, nuclear power plants are no solution at all. On the contrary, it would mean to shift from one problem (CO2 emission) to another and not less severe problem (nuclear waste, risk of nuclear catastrophes, limited resource uranium, and nuclear proliferation).

Dangers and Cleanliness of Nuclear Power Plants

Among the many departures from the truth by opponents of the Kyoto protocol, one of the most invidious is that nuclear power is “clean” and, therefore, the answer to global warming.

The cleanliness of nuclear power is nonsense. Not only does it contaminate the planet with long-lived radioactive waste, it significantly contributes to global warming.

While it is claimed that there is little or no fossil fuel used in producing nuclear power, the reality is that enormous quantities of fossil fuel are used to mine, mill and enrich the uranium needed to fuel a nuclear power plant, as well as to construct the enormous concrete reactor itself.

Indeed, a nuclear power plant must operate for 18 years before producing one net calorie of energy. (During the 1970s the United States deployed seven 1,000-megawatt coal-fired plants to enrich its uranium, and it is still using coal to enrich much of the world’s uranium.) So, to recoup the equivalent of the amount of fossil fuel used in preparation and construction before the first switch is thrown to initiate nuclear fission, the plant must operate for almost two decades.
But that is not the end of fossil fuel use because disassembling nuclear plants at the end of their 30- to 40-year operating life will require yet more vast quantities of energy. Taking apart, piece by radioactive piece, a nuclear reactor and its surrounding infrastructure is a massive operation: Imagine, for example, the amount of petrol, diesel, and electricity that would be used if the Sydney Opera House were to be dismantled. That’s the scale we’re talking about.

And that is not the end of fossil use because much will also be required for the final transport and long term storage of nuclear waste generated by every reactor.

From a medical perspective, nuclear waste threatens global health. The toxicity of many elements in this radioactive mess is long-lived.

Strontium 90, for example, is tasteless, odorless, and invisible and remains radioactive for 600 years. Concentrating in the food chain, it emulates the mineral calcium. Contaminated milk enters the body, where strontium 90 concentrates in bones and lactating breasts later to cause bone cancer, leukemia, and breast cancer. Babies and children are 10 to 20 times more susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of radiation than adults.

Plutonium, the most significant element in nuclear waste, is so carcinogenic that hypothetically half a kilo evenly distributed could cause cancer in everyone on Earth.

Lasting for half a million years, it enters the body through the lungs where it is known to cause cancer. It mimics iron in the body, migrating to bones, where it can induce bone cancer or leukemia, and to the liver, where it can cause primary liver cancer. It crosses the placenta into the embryo and, like the drug thalidomide, causes gross birth deformities.

Finally, plutonium has a predilection for the testicles, where it induces genetic mutations in the sperm of humans and other animals that are passed on from generation to generation.

Significantly, five kilos of plutonium is fuel for a nuclear weapon. Thus far, nuclear power has generated about 1,139 tons of plutonium.

So, nuclear power adds to global warming, increases the burden of radioactive materials in the ecosphere and threatens to contribute to nuclear proliferation. No doubt the Australian government is keen to assist the uranium industry, but the immorality of its position is unforgivable.

Safety of Nuclear Power Related to Other Common Risks

When people hear the word "nuclear," it usually conjures up a sense of intense fear. They associate that word with danger because they think of nuclear bombs, radiation sickness, cancer, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl, to name a few. In the minds of many, nuclear power is an unsafe method of generating electricity that is to be avoided. In reality, nuclear power is much safer than other ways of creating power. Electricity can be generated from steam, and the methods to boil the water to create the steam include nuclear fission, the burning of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, or petroleum), the combustion of natural gas or oil, biomass, geothermal power, other renewable sources such as hydroelectric power from the flowing water of dams of tidal forces, and wind. People are most familiar with the idea of getting their power from coal fired plants that move turbines by creating steam. They don't realize that this method involves much more risk to workers, the people who live nearby, and the environment than does nuclear power.

One of the first concerns about nuclear power is the possible risk to the people who work there. Most think that workers in nuclear plants suffer from problems with radiation. Many think that these employees will be radiated so much that they will all get cancer or have deformed offspring. In reality, nuclear power plant workers do not get much exposure to radiation because of safety regulations and work practices. The average U.S. radiation worker exposure is less than 300 milligram, which is not enough to increase cancer risk or other health risks.(UWM). All Americans in general get about 360 milligram of radiation exposure a year from natural radiation sources like cosmic rays, terrestrial, radon, and internal and from man-made sources like medical radiation and consumer products (UWM). Nuclear workers, as shown above may get as much as double that rate, but their cancer risk is not significantly increased.

In addition to cancer risks, people are concerned about the risk of death from accidents at a nuclear power plant. Compared to other industries, nuclear power death and injury rates are low. The mining industry records 24 fatalities per 100,000, agriculture 23, and construction 12, compared to an overall rate worker fatality rate of 4 for all workers ("High Risk Industries"). Other methods of generating electricity are not safer than nuclear power. A chart provided by the Next Big Future website compares risk of death per TWh for power generation as follows: oil37, coal25, lignite 18, peat 12, biomass 12, natural gas 5, wind 3, nuclear power 2, and hydro 1 ("Deaths per TWh',). With the exception of hydro power, nuclear power is the safest. A major nuclear accident is a concern, but safety regulations, training, and the nature of the nuclear fission process make such accidents almost impossible. No deaths or injuries occurred in the Three Mile Island incident, and as Stanford University Professor John McCarthy writes. The immediate death toll of 31 people at Chernobyl was small compared to the hundreds that die in regularly occurring coal mine cave-ins (5).

Workers at nuclear plants are subjected to many fewer risks than those who work in coal-fired plant sand substantially fewer risks than those who mine the coal for those plants. Even wind power, which might be thought to be harmless and safe, results in more and more gruesome injuries from toppling towers, broken blades and ice shards. The way a nuclear plant is run compared to any other type of energy plant is drastically different in amount of safety precautions. The nuclear plants are safer, have lower injury rates, and higher health standards. Excellent and extensive training in these plants ensures that workers know how to be safe.
Enhanced safety from nuclear plants not only includes that of workers but also that of people who live nearby. Inhabitants are exposed to less air and water pollution than those who live near a coal mine or coal-fired plant. No increased radiation exposure results to people who live near nuclear plants, studies find (BBC). The radiation that a normal person gets exposed to is not much more than a worker at a nuclear plant.

Additionally, people who live near nuclear plant shaven o increased health risks, especially as compared to other common neighborhood risks such as living near coal fired plants, coal mines, chemical plants, or large dams, or living within high-crime or high-poverty areas. Should a nuclear accident occur and land become inhabitable from contamination, Dr. McCarthy reminds us that at Chernobyl "about 20 square miles of land became uninhabitable for a long time. This isn't a lot". He goes on to say that although the radiation from the accident caused radiation exposure to Europeans", the largest estimates are in the low thousands which would make Chernobyl a disaster comparable to the Bhopal chemical plant or the Texas City explosion of a shipload of ammonium nitrate or the Halifax disaster during World War I. It is comparable to the
Number killed in coal mining accidents in the Soviet Union over the years Chernobyl was operating" (McCarthy 5).

As shown in McCarthy's article and in other studies, nuclear power plants simply do not increase health risk to anyone. As explained by Dr. Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh, "radiation due to nuclear technology should eventually increase our cancer risk by 0.002% (one part in 50,000), reducing our life expectancy by less than one hour. By comparison, our loss of life expectancy from competitive electricity generation technologies burning coal, oil, or gas is estimated to range from 3 to 40 days".

In addition to causing little or no risk to workers and residents, nuclear power also does not harm the environment. It is much safer environmentally than coal-fired plants. A small example of the kind of pollution that occurs from one coal-fired plant can be seen in the current argument over a new coal-fired plant in South Carolina. The head of SC's Department of Natural Resources opposes that plant because of its "grave" threat to human health. John Frampton is concerned about mercury pollution, carbon dioxide releases, and ash pond damage, which "present unacceptable impacts, costs and risks for the natural environment" (Monk l). Nuclear power plants have near-zero carbon emissions and, according to Paul Meier, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, are on the order of only I to 5 per cent of a coal plant…[preventing] 631 million tons of carbon from being emitted every year in the United States alone" (Kleiner 1). The advantages of nuclear power in the war against global warming are clear.

In considering risks to workers, residents, and the environment, nuclear power is as safe or safer as other common risks that occur at work, at home, and in daily life. The burning of fossil fuels is considered fine by most Americans; however, in actuality it is very harmful to people and the environment. Burning coal and other fossil fuels releases poisonous, destructive gasses that harm humans and destroy the atmosphere. In comparison nuclear energy is less harmful and more efficient than using fossil fuel.

Equal-sized amounts of uranium and coal do not produce an equal amount of energy. Nuclear energy yields far more power than coal, solar, wind, or any other alternative energy sources. Also, nuclear energy causes little if any environmental damage except in the very unlikely case of a nuclear accident or in disposal of waste products. It is free of air emissions which are the major cause of greenhouse gasses and global warming. Its benefits are high and its risks are low.
People, however, can be funny about evaluating risk. According to one travel site, the fatality rate per billion passenger miles traveled in a care is 7.2; the rate for an airplane is 2.0. ("Is It Better to Drive, Fly, Take the Train, or Take a Bus?"). However, many people who are tenified of flying to Texas, for example, will happily drive there without a thought about the true risk of their decision. If we can educate people about the actual risks of nuclear power compared to those of other power generation methods and make them really understand what it means, we can convince them that nuclear power will make them safer, healthier, and ultimately, happier. Nuclear power is much safer than other common risks, and it may be our only way to solve the global warming crisis that threatens our survival.

References Dr. Helen Caldicott. 2001. Nuclear Power Isn’t Clean; it’s Dangerous. Unknown. (w.y.). Energy information administration (EIA), official energy statistics from the U.S. Government. Unknown. March 2002. Environmental Policy Issues. Nuclear Energy Issues. Unknown. (w.y.). Is Nuclear Power a Global Warming Solution?. Time of Change.

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