First published July 2010, last updated October 2012
I’ll be up front – I’m not a fan of nuclear power as a solution to reducingelectricity related greenhouse gas emissions. I doubt I ever will be.
While someof my reservations have to do with the period of time I grew up in -andChernobyl/Japan type nuclear emergencies aside – it’s still not asenvironmentally friendly as renewable energy options such as solarpower.
I’m not totally against nuclear energy, I just prefer the closest nuclear reactor being 93 million miles away (the sun).
Regardless, nuclear energy does have some very attractive attributes in a world becoming increasingly conscious of peak oil and climate change. It’s understandable many people feel it’s a solution.
How does nuclear power work?
Essentially, nuclear power seems quite simple. Nuclear fission heats water to generate steam, the steam turns turbines connected to a generator which in turn produces electrical power. It’s basically the same process as coal fired generation; just using what is a very, very unstable fuel.
Nuclear fission is the splitting of atoms, a process in which a great deal of energy in the form of heat is produced. Where things get complex are the controls and resources needed to keep the fission reaction safe.
Advantages of nuclear energy
- The actual generation of electricity using nuclear energy involves little in the way of carbon emissions.
- A single nuclear power plant can generate a huge amount of electricity.
- Nuclear reactors have a long life span.
- Fuel appears to be abundant; however this is hotly debated.
Disadvantages of nuclear power
Uranium mining destroys landscapes and uranium and other radioactive substances are released in the process. The mining and extraction process requires large volumes of water and various acids and alkalis. Contaminated water can leak from tailings dams into groundwater.
Greenhouse gas emissions
I mentioned that electricity generation using nuclear fuel is emissions free – but that’s just the generation. All the processes leading up to that point involve carbon emissions; but how those stack up compared to coal I’m not sure.
In two words – Chernobyl and Japan.
While the Chernobyl accident occurred decades ago, its legacy continues and may even worsen if the old plant isn’t properly dealt with. Even today, an exclusion zone of approximately 20 miles exists around the Chernobyl reactor and estimates are the region will not be safe for agricultural purposes for 200 years. The effects of Chernobyl are still measurable in countries as far away as the UK.
A nuclear meltdown can be caused by a number of issues, such as a failure in a plant’s cooling system, but my understanding is basically the fuel rods overheat to the point they melt. Beyond that meltdown, the worst case scenario is where the containment structures then also fail – they may rupture due to a build-up of steam pressure inside. At that point, dangerous levels of radioactivity can be released and as in the case of Chernobyl, affect a very wide area.
If the basement of the reactor building had been breached, groundwater contamination would have occurred wreaking even more havoc.
In Japan, a 20 kilometer exclusion zone still exists around the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor complex. It’s a lot of land tied up in a country with so little land available – and perhaps for a long time to come. The Fukushima accident has led to trace amounts of radioactive substances being observed around the world and large amounts of radioactive isotopes have also been released into the Pacific Ocean..
Nuclear power plants are thirsty operations. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, for every three units of thermal energy generated by the reactor core, two units of waste heat go into the environment.
Cooling systems for plants require huge volumes of water and a nuclear power station will use more water than a similar sized coal fired power station.
Water intake and discharge has a negative effect on aquatic ecosystems – through the processing of the water itself which kills organisms and the raising of waterway temperatures during discharge.
In a world where fresh water supplies are becoming increasingly unreliable in many places; there’s also no guarantee a plant that is built today will have the water it needs in a decade from now without causing even more related environmental problems.
The issue of radioactive waste is an important one. The more nuclear power plants we have, the more waste is generated and it only takes a single incident to affect a wide area – and for a very long time. The waste can also be used by hostile parties to create “dirty bombs”. Aside from the human costs of such devices being used, the environmental impact needs to be considered.
There are hundreds of sites around the world where radioactive material continues to accumulate. In the USA alone, there is around 70,000 metric tons of spent commercial nuclear fuel being stored in ‘temporary’ arrangements.
The long term storage of waste is where much of the real cost of nuclearpower – the costs you won’t hear supporters mention – come into play. The poweralready generated by nuclear fuel will continue to cost future generations manybillions of dollars to watch over it for hundreds, perhaps thousands ofyears.
Time for construction
A solar power plant can be planned and constructed in a matter of months; a rooftop solar power system in a matter of weeks. A nuclear power plant can take decades – it’s not a short term solution for our energy needs by any means.
Building a nuclear power plant is an expensive undertaking, usually requiring a good deal of taxpayer money. Because of the long planning and building process; costs invariably blow out – again, it’s money that could be spent right now on renewables such as solar energy.
Contrary to popular (and even my own) belief – once constructed, the actual generation of electricity via nuclear means and general operating costs are incredibly expensive. Like the true cost of coal, the price isn’t clearly visible in the cents per kilowatt hour tag we see quoted by theindustry.
Harking back to the waste issue, imagine the cost involved with storing nuclear waste for thousands of years. I say “imagine” because nobody really knows what that cost will be. Additionally, the liability insurance subsidies the industry receives are so important that without them, nuclear power stations simply wouldn’t exist as the true price per kilowatt hour of electricity generated would be far too high.
Decommissioning of a nuclear power plant so it doesn’t pose a threat to the environment isn’t cheap either – it is estimated to cost around $500 million per plant, which may be very, very, very conservative. The dismantling of 150 nuclear reactors in Europe is expected to cost around 150 billion euros – 1 billion euros (USD1.298 billion) for earch reactor.
Again, nuclear power is anything but cheap; particularly with regard to future generations.
Nuclear energy based power generation is thought to be a front in some countries for nuclear weapons programs. You cannot build a nuclear missile from solar panels, nor with the equipment used to make them. A nuclear energy free future removes some opportunities for covert weapons development.
Nuclear disarmament will likely fail if nuclear technologies are continually promoted as a solution to the world’s energy needs. The lessons of Nagasaki and Hiroshima need to be heeded, not just for the sake of humanity, but for the wider environment.
Availability of uranium
While some say we have an “endless” supply of uranium, the same sort of spiel was once used with regard to oil and coal. Perhaps uranium is a plentiful resource, but how much of it is relatively easy to get to? Low-grade uranium ore contains as little as 0.01% uranium oxides and it takes a lot of uranium oxide to make nuclear fuel.
In addition to peak oil, will there be a “peak uranium”? Will we see a tar sands equivalent in uranium extraction in the not too distant future if nuclear power plants become more commonplace?
What about Thorium?
Thorium is an interesting substance and touted to be much safer than uranium. It also produces 50% less waste – but 50% is still far too much.
There are advantages and disadvantages for all power sources and I’d be the first to admit to the fact the oil and coal industry has caused far more damage than the nuclear energy sector has done – to date. However, nuclear power isn’t as common. It’s a given there will be more accidents, which is rather unsettling to the populations living in the vicinity of reactors. What reactor will be next? How bad will the incident be?
If a solar farm or wind power facility is hit by a natural disaster that destroys it, you don’t need to evacuate a massive area for years, nor will it contaminate neighbouring counties, states or countries.
I still believe our immediate and long term answers lie in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power; but equally as important is a huge push on energy efficiency – and that is something we all need to be involved in.
Some may say solar can’t provide baseload power. Yes it can. The technology already exists for clean and renewable energy based electricity generation to provide for all our needs. All it requires now is the political will and stripping the subsidies from fossil fuel and nuclear to make it a reality. Solar power is comparatively cheap already if you consider the true cost of coal.
It’s kind of sad to think we’re willing to take the risks associated with nuclear energy in order to help power non-essential items such as big screen TV’s and game consoles.