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A new look at a controversial energy source
September 26, 2012 • By Colin O’Brien
Modern nuclear power plant design can supply safe, affordable, clean electricity. Coupled with PV and wind power, nuclear offers the best current alternative to fossil fuels to fight climate change.
Global scientific consensus agrees that global warming and climate change are threatening life on this planet as we know it, and it effects are possibly irreversible. (Solomon et al, 1704) This global warming is caused by an overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels for energy (Center for Climate and Energy Solutions). While there are other contributing factors to global warming, the greatest threat and largest need of correction is in the production of energy. Currently, 67.1% of world electricity generation comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. In the U.S., one of the largest consumers of global energy resources, it is closer to 70% (Center for Climate and Energy Solutions). Electricity plants are by far the largest contributor to the atmosphere of greenhouse gases (GHGs), accounting for 40% of the total, primarily in the form of CO2 (Center for Climate and Energy Solutions). Fossil-fuel-burning electricity plants account for 99.6% of all greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, 80% of which originates from coal-burning power plants (EPA). Global population is on pace to hit 10 billion by 2100, with most growth happening in developing nations (Gillis and Dugger). The thirst for new electricity in these populous, developing nations coupled with a rise in the global proliferation of electricity-powered gadgets such as cell phones, laptops and media devices is fueling global electricity demand, which is forecasted to increase by 2.3% a year through 2035. (U.S. Energy Information Administration) On the current business-as-usual trajectory, global electricity sources are not expected to change a great deal. Renewable energy is expected to offset fossil fuel energy sources only by an additional 3% by 2030 (Center for Climate and Energy Solutions).
Fossil fuels and the environment
Experimental IFR Breeder Reactor. Argonne National Labratory West, Idaho
CO2 emissions and global warming is only part of the problem with fossil fuel combustion, however. Particulate pollution from coal stacks is estimated to kill a minimum of 13,000 people in the U.S. alone each year (Schneider and Banks). Fossil fuels are also a finite resource. At some point in the near future, or, according to some analysts, the very near future, fossil fuels will be mostly used up. As easy to access fossil fuel resources evaporate, the drive to find more sources will push development into difficult areas such as fragile ecosystems like ANWR, remote and dangerous offshore sea areas or into resources of dubious value such as tar sands. Thus, humanity faces a great challenge and a great threat in meeting its needs for electricity in the 21st century. Should fossil fuel combustion continue to be the dominant source of energy over the next several decades, the 2° Celsius climate emergency line will surely be crossed, while becoming more expensive and contributing to greater global instability. Can a renewed investment in nuclear power help mitigate this crisis? Do its benefits outweigh its risks? In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, is there even a market for nuclear power?
The environmental impact of current nuclear power plant design
Nuclear power currently accounts for 13.5% of global electricity supply, but only 31 countries use nuclear power for energy . The top consumer of nuclear power is France, where 75% of all electricity is generated in nuclear power plants. For most other nuclear nations, nuclear power contributes between 10% and 50% of their electricity needs, with the U.S. relying on nuclear power for 20% (IEA).
but come with their own set of environmental drawbacks and challenges. as mentioned above.000 square mile area in Ukraine uninhabitable for at least the next 20. which is well below acceptable levels of safety.000 people have died in total from that accident (Mettler). infect with disease many more and contribute to general air pollution and smog. such as the sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide that fossil fuel combustion produces (Javidkia. Hashemi-Tilehnoee and Zabihi). fear of catastrophic nuclear accidents often overrides the reality of how safe nuclear power plants actually are. most other nuclear accidents have had minimal loss of life or property. for various reasons. it has been demonstrated that. Hashemi-Tilehnoee and Zabihi). the radiation produce by coal-fired power plants is 100 times greater than the radiation found near nuclear power plants (Javidkia. that not only contribute greatly to climate change. Challenges can be overcome with modern designs Most environmental criticism of nuclear power is directed at the current LWR design of nuclear power plants. including all of the nuclear accidents that have occurred since nuclear power came online in the 1950’s. Water A second environmental concern with LWRs is that they rely on water for cooling. the Fukushima Daiichi accident in a Japan are the three most well known accidents. nuclear power is the safest overall source of electricity. Not only do LWRs not produce CO2. In several meta-analyses. The nuclear reaction process that produces electricity infects the spent nuclear fuel with radioactive isotopes. and rightly so. This nuclear waste can kill human beings if they are exposed to it. LWRs offer a number of environmental advantages over the burning of fossil fuels. Three Mile Island. A recent study. keep the waste secure. even safer than renewable sources such as PV (Starfelt and Wikdahl). as happened across Europe during the 2006 summer heat wave (Sachs). but also. This need can challenge municipal water supplies or result in power station shut downs when cooling water runs out. coal soot contains many polluting chemicals that are continually spewed into the atmosphere through smoke stacks. but ideally the locations that house this waste should be isolated and few. theoretically. a frequent flyer receives a larger dose of radiation than someone living near a nuclear power plant. have become the primary model.S. there is a negligible increase in radiation for individuals living near nuclear power plants (Javidkia. LWRs use only 1% of the available fuel from the uranium that is used to power them (Blees). People living near nuclear power plants are exposed to no more than a 1% increase over background radiation. Environmental challenges of nuclear power Toxic Waste The fundamental problem with LWRs is toxic waste. That means that the nuclear waste needs to be transported across the country to toxic waste dumps. However. To put in context. LWRs. especially in their relationship to climate change. In addition. Hashemi-Tilehnoee and Zabihi). Accidents There have been a number of nuclear accidents over the years that are also cause for great concern. Infinitely radioactive waste that must be stored indefinitely is a huge problem. Chernobyl and. transportation and enrichment. Environmental advantages of nuclear power Emissions The primary advantage of LWR nuclear power plants for electricity generation over fossil-fuel-burning power plants is that they produce almost no carbon dioxide emission. including uranium mining. While there are a number of other designs. Radiation Contrary to popular belief. sponsored by the U. the total CO2 emission is only 2% compared to the life-cycle of fossil fuel combustion (Javidkia. have estimated that less than 10. Only wind power has been demonstrated to be safer. Storage and containment systems have been developed that can. In fact. just last year. While Chernobyl has rendered a 1. some of which take millions of years to decay. there is an alternative design that ran successful- . which creates a safety concern for spills and accidents en route. Reactors of more recent vintage are built in ways much safer than the Chernobyl reactor was.. of people living in the path of the Chernobyl radiation cloud. kill tens of thousands of people annually through cancers and diseases.The vast majority of nuclear power plants in operation across the globe are Light Water Reactors (LWRs) (Blees).N. However. neither do they produce any other atmospheric emissions. These studies take into consideration the full life-cycle of the energy source. This is less than the amount of people who die in one year of burning coal in just the U.000 years. Hashemi-Tilehnoee and Zabihi). In the full life-cycle of nuclear power.
is proliferation concerns and perception of nuclear security risks. for the good of all people on the planet. some of a hybrid IFR-type design. as rapidly as possible.S. the costs can begin to look even more appealing. This waste could power IFRs for the next several hundred years. the costs could become more palatable with the added benefit of jumpstarting a portion of the economy. But the fossil fuels we rely on to provide this electricity are rapidly taking a toll on our biosphere and our ability to enjoy the fruits of our labors. artificial light. Many new nuclear power plants are being built in these countries. Nuclear’s high capital costs coupled with the recent economic downturn and poor public perception of nuclear power have caused Western governments to redirect funding away from nuclear power. which has had an upward impact on the capital costs associated with building new nuclear power plants (Lovins). however. Thus. on the other side of the world. nuclear power does not look very good. From food storage and life-saving medical devices to heating and cooling. development and investment has lagged. As shown above. pollution cleanup. India and Russia.. tion of these subsidies were redirected toward developing Generation IV reactors. If a por- In this day and age. in China. they are a solution for the existing radioactive waste. These fossil fuel subsidies are shown to be harmful to the economy and encourage continued reliance on these toxic forms of energy (International Energy Agency (IEA)). nuclear power has been given a bad rap.ly in Idaho for thirty years that produces almost none of the radioactive waste that a typical LWR produces. First is the public perception of safety. the high capital costs can begin to come down. According to a study by the European Commission called ExternE. if all of the externalities of power generation and the complete life-cycle of the fuel are reviewed. These reactors are designed to use up all the fuel that is put inside them. affordable electricity to power our lives has become a necessity. access to abundant. A contribution from nuclear energy can make this possible. Thus. Others fear that a nuclear power plant may be built in their town. Currently. Not only do IFRs use up all of the fuel that is designed for them. including loss of life. A second factor. And of course the biggest fear: What if there is an accident? These are legitimate concerns. This type of reactor is called an Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) and is also known as a breeder reactor. meaning no new uranium would need to be mined (Blees). Taking into consideration wider economic factors. which drives nuclear policy much more than people realize. but they can burn the radioactive spent fuel rods from the LWR reactors as well. mining and waste disposal. Social equity challenges There are a couple of social challenges that need to be overcome for nuclear power to go forward in an socially and environmentally positive way. LWRs produce radioactive waste that must be stored. which mean that possibility of meltdowns. as nuclear capital costs are very large. What if nuclear technology falls into the wrongs hands? . nuclear power comes out to be far cheaper in the long run than fossil fuels and is comparable to other renewable energy sources such as solar and hydroelectric power (Starfelt and Wikdahl). electricity is the backbone that makes the world what it is today. even including accidents. is virtually nil. Thus. nuclear power is experiencing a minor renaissance (International Energy Agency (IEA)). it is incumbent upon the industrialized nations of the world to change course away from fossil fuels. No one wants to live next door to radioactive waste. such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. and also create more fuel from the original fuel. there is enough uranium in seawater to power these reactors for the lifetime of the planet. Their only byproduct is a small amount of radioactive material that has a half-life of 100-300 years that can be stored onsite. Social equity perspective Economic perspective There is a lot of conflicting data regarding the economics for nuclear power. The industrialized nations are the biggest consumers of electricity and also the largest contributors of GHGs to the environment. IFRs also have built in passive safety features. nor do they want trains filled with waste rolling through their town. hence the name “breeder reactor”. the U. making them a truly renewable resource (Cohen). as opposed to the radioactive actinides produced by LWRs that last over one million years. In terms of straight cost estimates. government continues to heavily subsidize fossil fuels (Environmental Law Institute).S. This shows that with government support and investment. like the IFR design outlined above. and the computers that bring efficiency to every area of our lives. In Europe and the U. Yet. Once this waste is used up.
Steve. Even with the few risks and problems of nuclear power as they are right now. International Energy Outlook 2011. Environmental Law Institute. U.” Energy Policy. EL Monte: David Publishing Company.” Journal of Energy and Power Engineering. have lower externalized and long term costs. Greenhouse Gas Emissions And Sinks: 1990-2010. it needs to be brought into the 21st century. wind and other renewable energy resources. but not by much. Nuclear power needs to be renewed if we are to avert a major climate crisis. render a portion of the fuel unusable for nuclear power. Forecasts 10. Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. . Brian. LWRs double as weapons factories. Susan. MIT. Nuclear energy can augment these other renewable energy sources by providing consistent. As countries become more stable and involved in the global community. 19 Sep 2011. Susan. Lovins. 2003. Amory. The other regrettable reality of nuclear power is its relationship with nuclear weapons. Washington . Otwock: Management of Health and Environmental Hazards. much as it did in the 40’s and 50’s. Stein. however. it is doubtful that the public will ever accept them. PDF file. World Energy Outlook 2011 Factsheet . One of the reasons LWRs were selected over alternative breeder reactor designs that produce no waste.org>. Economic Analysis of Various Options of Electricity Generation .org/>. New York. and are generally safer than almost all other power sources.. Paris: International Energy Agency (IEA). safe. University of Chicago.The unfortunate reality is that in the current nuclear paradigm.” Policy Review 174 (2012): 49-62. Mark. Inventory Of U. Zabihi. EPA.gov>. June 2009. Sep 2010. The Toll From Coal. with subsidies and rebates from government can help jumpstart this renewal. do not melt down and pose no greater proliferation risk than LWRs. Boston: Clean Air Task Force. 2001. These so-called Generation IV reactors produce very little waste.S. Even though the crude design of LWRs can contribute greatly to reducing climate change. 26 Sep 2012 <nytimes.Taking into Account Health and Environmental Effects. Javidkia. Do we even need nuclear power with advances in solar and wind power? It is debatable. 2008. Justin and Celia Dugger. “The Environmentalist’s Dilemma. Mettler. clean baseload power to the global energy grid. The Future of Nuclear Power. all the fuel gets used up – if operated correctly – leaving no fuel for nuclear weapons.iaea. Sachs. nuclear power can provide energy independence for industrialized nations. 26 Sep 2012 <http://www. Jan 1983. affordable.N. Many new solar farms in the Southwestern U. and thus the fear of it is hard to curb. they can strip out the plutonium to be used in nuclear weapons. Chicago.1 Billion People by Century’s End. 26 Sep 2012 <http://nextbigfuture.” June 2011. Prescription for the Planet. even in the face of scientific facts. 2011. 30 Sep 2011. 28 Sept. “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. et al. 03 Mar 2011. Conversely. Deaths by TWH by energy source.eli. “Nuclear Power: Climate Fix or Folly?” RMI Solutions. industrialized nations can help bring the technology safely to developing nations. Cooper. A large capital investment. It would provide skilled jobs opportunities and contribute to strengthening energy independence and greater global geopolitical stability. An interesting challenge for both nuclear power and solar and wind power is obtaining land for power plants. Radiation is invisible. With greater geopolitical stability comes less fear of conflict or the need for nuclear weapons. Snowmass. LWR reactors need to be replaced with modern IFR breeder reactors. Fred. are passively safe. Key World Energy Statistics. 2011.csmonitor. these challenges are unlikely to be overcome. Nils and Carl-Erik Wikdahl. April 2004. Looking at them each Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. PDF file. however. Renewables Sources Blees. 26 Sep 2012 <http://www. In order for nuclear power to be successful. Conclusion Nuclear vs.” American Journal of Physics. 2008. have been blocked by environmentalists on the grounds that they threaten animal habitat and wind farms face challenges from noise.com>. Conrad and Jonathan Banks. through the full life cycle from mining to manufacture to distribution to decommission nuclear power comes out slightly ahead in terms of safety and economically. 26 Sep 2012 <http://www. PDF file. Paris. “ Breeder reactors: A renewable energy source. promoting greater geopolitical stability. com/>. Vasilis and Hyung Chul Kim. ultimately reducing concerns of proliferation. Cohen. 2004. 26 Sep 2012 <http://www. Solomon. 2012.com/>. “Electricity Overview. it still provides a much better energy option than fossil fuel combustion.” PNAS 10 2 2009: 1704-1709. “A Comparison between Fossil and Nuclear Power Plants Pollutions and Their Environmental Effects. Pittsburgh. Chernobyl’s Living Legacy. The Economics Of Nuclear Reactors: Renaissance Or Relapse? South Royalton. Cambridge. Wang. As time has progressed. But in an LWR. Schneider. 26 Sep 2012 <http://www. 15 April 2012. Ironically. It was claimed that LWRs have a lower chance of their fuel falling into the wrong hands and being used for a nuclear weapon. it has been made apparent that these fears were unfounded. IEA. and thus. Energy Subsidies Favor Fossil Fuels Over Renewables. F. Nuclear power’s green promise dulled by rising temps. Bernard. The Economic Future Of Nuclear Power. “Greenhouse-gas Emissions from Solar Electric and Nuclear Power: A Life-cycle Study . Starfelt. 10 Aug 2006. U. Business Source Complete. Tom. International Energy Agency (IEA). Fossil fuels are an unmitigated disaster for humanity. BookSurge Publishing. M Hashemi-Tilehnoee and V. Energy Information Administration. Fthenakis. line-of-sight and bird deaths (Stein).c2es. 03 May 2011.S. April 2007.org>. Gillis. Imran Sheikh and Alex Markevich. Nuclear power should be leveraged alongside investments and development in solar power. Web. April 2008. In a breeder reactor. is fear of nuclear proliferation (Blees).eia.s.
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