Why Nuclear Power Doesn’t Help With Global Warming

Apparently George Bush thinks the answer to global warming is nuclear power. The reality is far more complex and relies on Russian goodwill more than anything else.

I suspect this is not something Bush wants to rely on given the resumption of the Cold War practices of long range bomber patrols after a 15 year break. This is from the White House Press Release on the subject released for the APEC summit in Sydney, Australia.

“11. In acknowledgment of the important contribution nuclear power can make in meeting energy needs and addressing the challenge of climate change, Australia and the United States agree on enhancing bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation and supporting the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).

In another APEC news report APEC 2007: Australia and USA To Push Nuke Solution Australia and the US have today unveiled a plan to have nuclear power generation as the cornerstone of its climate change proposal.

John Howard told reporters here in Sydney that he and George Bush “agreed on joint statements regarding climate change and energy, a joint nuclear energy action plan which involves cooperation on civil nuclear energy, including R&D, skills and technical training, and regulatory issues.

Australia intends to participate in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, and there will be great benefits in terms of access to nuclear technology and nonproliferation. And the United States will support Australian membership in the Generation IV International Forum, which involves R&D to develop safer and better nuclear reactors,” John Howard said.

Australia is seen to be rich in Uranium, however this is something of an illusion as the average uranium ore grade in Australia is reckoned to be 0.045% and 0.1% is needed to be commercial.

This means discarding 99.9% of the ore (at huge environmental cost) unless there is some other co-product like gold, silver, copper or platinum to extract (see quote at the bottom of this post called a Little makes a lot.)

At present the U.S gets half its enriched uranium from the Russians who keep the disposal problem but export uranium hexafluoride gas to the U.S.

They can only keep up this supply level by dismantling weapons (which is a good thing) but uranium fuel from other sources is a great deal harder to extract and supplies are running low.  John Busby points out also that:

“carbon dioxide is emitted from every element of the nuclear fuel cycle except the actual fission in the reactor and the world is running out of its fuel, uranium; a reality the lobby fails to embrace.”

John Busby has written below about the realities of using Nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels for energy. He comments that

“In comparison with the amount of coal burned for a given electrical generation, the nuclear proponents argue that the amount of uranium required for the same output from a nuclear power station is tiny.”

His feature is called A little makes a lot? and I recommend you read the whole piece. Supplies of nuclear fuel are running out fast.  

‘The industry deals with this embarrassing scenario by pretending that there is no uranium supply problem as there is ample residing in the earth’s crust and that the rapidly rising prices that has stimulated exploration will make its extraction economic. Moreover, it argues that nuclear electricity is not as sensitive to its fuel price as other forms of generation relying on fossil fuels.

See the analysis of the flawed IAEA “Red book” by the Energy Watch Group.[5]The flaw in this argument is that unlike highly valued gold which is mined from decreasing ore grades at great expense, uranium can only be valued as a source of fuel now that the world has sufficient nuclear weapons to end human existence.

This means that to mine and mill the decreasingly low grade ores requires an increasing amount of energy inversely proportional to the decrease, so that the energy input eventually exceeds that gained from the overall nuclear fuel cycle.

The exact “cross-over” or “economic cut-off” point at which an ore grade is deemed to be of no use as a net energy source is subject to disputation as even its very existence as a concept sounds the death knell of the “renaissance”. In practice, it has been defined by the Australian mining industry as around an ore grade of 0.1% unless there are co-products such as copper, gold, silver or platinum which provide additional revenue.[6] As the average uranium ore grade in Australia is reckoned to be 0.045%, it means that claims of having the world’s largest uranium deposits are bogus — unless the prospective mines offer remunerative co-products they will not be opened.

Even so this is no panacea: BHP Billiton is engaged in a four year feasibility study as a precursor to sanctioning the expansion of its Olympic Dam mine as an open pit, where copper, gold and silver will augment its uranium production.[7] The pre excavation of 3 cubic kilometres of rock may take too much imported diesel to allow it to proceed and the processing will need desalinated water, most likely requisitioned to stem a local drought.[8]

The fact that governments around the world appear to embrace the nuclear “renaissance” is a triumph of the public relations industry, which has overcome safety concerns and a poor economic record to allow nuclear power even to be considered. It has offered economic salvation as oil, gas and coal pass (or soon will pass) their production peaks and has argued erroneously that it can offer a part solution to global warming.

However, soaring prices for uranium supplied as “yellow cake” signal the end of the nuclear power era and the “renaissance” will stall when a lack of fuel causes the premature closure of aging reactors.”

New Zealand is right to reject the argument that nuclear power offers help with global warming. It is a false hope that is based on a misunderstanding of the science and actual realities of raw material supplies, not to mention the actual process. There are also many other risks around the continued use of nuclear power as well. 

Is nuclear power an option for New Zealand’s electricity needs?

Answer: From Chair, Roy Hemmingway, 4th August 2005
Although the Electricity Commission has no role in choosing which resources generating companies build in New Zealand, I believe that nuclear power is the wrong choice for the country, and I can give several reasons why that’s the case.

Answer is abbreviated below. Use the title link to check the full version. These are all local logistical reasons without looking at waste or the other usual reasons.

  • The first problem is size. (NZ total needs 4500MW – typical Nuclear plant is 1200)
  • Secondly, a nuclear plant runs flat out, it does not follow load up or down.
  • Thirdly, from a cost standpoint, nuclear plants produce power about twice as expensively as the plants that have been built in New Zealand recently.
  • And finally, nuclear really requires a whole industry to go along with it

Note also : From my earlier post How to Survive Peak Oil by Acting Locally – 7 ways

It is now entirely feasible to build 150MW solar powered stations, for example in Melbourne, Australia a company called Solar Systems has received government funding to proceed with construction of a 154-megawatt solar power station in Victoria. It will be the bigest if the world if completed. There are also major solar projects (150Mw) in Algeria that have been announced recently although the lead times are very long – but not as long as for nuclear.

More on Supply Issues from Energy Watch Group.[5]

“Any forecast of the development of nuclear power in the next 25 years has to concentrate on two aspects, the supply of uranium and the addition of new reactor capacity. At least within this time horizon, neither nuclear breeding reactors nor thorium reactors will play a significant role because of the long lead times for their development and market penetration.

The analysis of data on uranium resources leads to the assessment that discovered reserves are not sufficient to guarantee the uranium supply for more than thirty years.

Eleven countries have already exhausted their uranium reserves. In total, about 2.3 Mt of uranium have already been produced. At present only one country (Canada) is left having uranium deposits containing uranium with an ore grade of more than 1%, most of the remaining reserves in other countries have ore grades below 0.1% and two thirds of reserves have ore grades below 0.06%.

This is important as the energy requirement for uranium mining is at best indirect proportional to the ore concentration and with concentrations below 0.01-0.02% the energy needed for uranium processing – over the whole fuel cycle – increases substantially.

Other Risks  & Issues

For more detail on some of the wider issues see a summary of the book “Insurmountable Risks:The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change” by Dr Brice Smith who holds a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Insurmountable Risks lays out a set of criteria for evaluating proposals aimed at limiting climate change, including:

  • comparative costs of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector;
  • risks of catastrophic accidents with long-term health and environmental impacts;
  • potential for compromise of power plant integrity by terrorist attacks;
    proliferation and other security impacts; and
  • management of wastes

There is also a newer U.S study called “Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy by Dr Arjun Makhijani. A full Executive Summary of Carbon Free is also available. It contains a full road map and underlines the main point which is that there are far better alternatives to nuclear – even if that was viable.

Central Finding of (Carbon Free and Nuclear Free Roadmap)

“The overarching finding of this study is that a zero-CO2 U.S. economy can be achieved within the next thirty to fifty years without the use of nuclear power and without acquiring carbon credits from other countries.

In other words, actual physical emissions of CO2 from the energy sector can be eliminated with technologies that are now available or foreseeable.

This can be done at reasonable cost while creating a much more secure energy supply than at present. Net U.S. oil imports can be eliminated in about 25 years.

All three insecurities – severe climate disruption, oil supply and price insecurity, and nuclear proliferation via commercial nuclear energy – will thereby be addressed.

In addition, there will be large ancillary health benefits from the elimination of most regional and local air pollution, such as high ozone and particulate levels in cities, which is due to fossil fuel combustion.”

More than 50 years of commercial use of nuclear plants in the U.S has already showed up the extreme expense and very large number of unnecessary risks.

It all reminds me of that old Fawlty Towers episode -‘Don’t Mention the War” – except this time it is “Don’t mention the Russians”. (Of course it is more complex than this; but the huge irony of using old Soviet weapons to supply half of U.S present fuel needs is too good to pass up.) 

The real headline could be ‘Bush relies on Russians for reducing Global Warming’ – What do you think? 

UK Policy Update: Ashley Seager, economics correspondent The Guardian
Monday September 3 2007

At last someone in the mainstream of politics is taking climate change seriously. So it is a surprise that the Liberal Democrats’ weighty new document on how it would achieve a carbon-neutral, non-nuclear Britain by 2050 received so little attention when it was published last week.

For the full article go Political Climates is Changing Faster than Prime Minister or an earlier piece called “We don’t need the nuclear option” by Keith Barnham who is an emeritus professor of physics at Imperial College London, and a co-founder of the solar cell manufacturing company QuantaSol who not surprisingly argues in favour of solar.

Decentralised Energy
Combined Heat and Power and other great examples. Watch this 18 min video clip on some of the successes in Denmark and Netherlands and how this applies -especially to the U.K. The presenter is Clive Anderson.

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