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Nuclear power: not green, clean or cheap

By Mark Diesendorf - posted Friday, 16 June 2006

With growing international concern about global climate change from human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, the nuclear power industry has attempted to change the image of its product into that of an energy source that is “clean, green and cheap”. In reality, all the problems that worried us about the nuclear industry in the 1970s and 1980s are either unchanged or have become worse. In the latter case:

  • the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons is worse because the US and Australian governments are undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by selling uranium to non-signatories, India and Taiwan. While the NPT is far from adequate, it is better than nothing or unilateral US control;
  • since September 11, 2001, the risk of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities has increased. The fewer the facilities, the safer everyone is;
  • now that several countries have created competitive markets for electricity, it is clear that the cost of nuclear electricity is even higher than previously projected (see below); and
  • detailed recent calculations of the CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle reveal that nuclear energy, based on existing technology, cannot be a long-term solution to global climate change from the human-induced greenhouse effect (see below).

This article addresses the last two of these points.


CO2 emissions

The nuclear industry has disseminated widely the false notion that nuclear energy emits no greenhouse gas emissions. The truth is that every step (except reactor operation) in the long chain of processes that makes up the nuclear fuel “cycle” - mining, milling fuel fabrication, uranium enrichment, construction and decommissioning of the reactor, and waste management - burns fossil fuels and hence emits carbon dioxide (CO2).

Over the past 20 years there have been several calculations of CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle. The most detailed calculation comes from Van Leeuwen and Smith (VLS) (2005).

Contrary to the claims of the nuclear industry, VLS find that the CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle are only small when high-grade uranium ore is used. But there are very limited reserves of high-grade uranium in the world and most are in Australia and Canada. As these are used up over the next several decades, low-grade uranium ore (comprising 0.01 per cent or less yellowcake) will have to be used.

This means that to obtain 1kg of yellowcake, at least 10 tonnes of ore will have to be mined and milled, using fossil fuels and emitting substantial quantities of CO2. These emissions are comparable with those from a combined cycle gas-fired power station.

In response, the nuclear industry cites a report by Swedish utility, Vattenfall, which only considers a single power station and obtains lower emissions than VLS in the case of high-grade uranium ore and apparently doesn’t address low-grade uranium at all. This report has not been published and is not available on the Internet - only a summary (pdf file 248KB), that does not reveal most of the assumptions or results, is available.

It is very poor science to cite a report that is unavailable to the public. Van Leeuwen and Smith’s report, which is based on the analysis of many uranium mines and power stations, stands unrefuted at present.


In theory, a technically possible solution to the shortage of high-grade uranium would be to switch to fast breeder reactors, which produce so much plutonium that in theory they can multiply the original uranium fuel by 50. Large-scale chemical reprocessing of spent fuel would be necessary to extract the plutonium and unused uranium, and this has its own hazards and costs, since spent fuel is intensely radioactive and plutonium is an excellent nuclear explosive. The “commercial” reprocessing industry has failed in the US and UK. Only France hangs on.

Fast breeders use liquid sodium as a coolant and so are more dangerous than ordinary nuclear reactors. So far, fast breeders have all been technical and economic failures. The largest was the French 1,200 megawatt Superphoenix, a name that alludes to the mythical bird that burnt itself on a funeral pyre and then arose from the ashes to live again with renewed youth.

Reality was rather different from the myth: Superphoenix commenced operation in 1985 as a “commercial industrial prototype”. It operated only intermittently and very rarely at full power, experiencing leaks from its cooling system and several other accidents. It was shut down at the end of 1998 after costing an estimated total of about A$15 billion.

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For an article summarising our national scenario study, A Clean Energy Future for Australia, and related studies on four States, go here (pdf file 513KB).

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About the Author

Dr Mark Diesendorf is Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies, UNSW. Previously, at various times, he was a Principal Research Scientist in CSIRO, Professor of Environmental Science at UTS and Director of Sustainability Centre Pty Ltd. He is author of about 80 scholarly papers and the book Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy. His latest book is Climate Action: A campaign manual for greenhouse solutions (UNSW Press, 2009).

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