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How green is nuclear?

Posted by Anna Carlini on 22 June 2016 at 5:30 pm

It turns out that green can be a tricky colour to define. For many of us, it means sustainable, clean and good for the planet. 

So, is nuclear energy harmful to the planet or is it in fact a good, “green” option?

In a way, it is both.

Against Nuclear

We are often hesitant to label nuclear power as environmentally friendly. One of the most dangerous substances on the planet is created as a by-product of the nuclear process: radioactive waste, which can remain dangerous for at least one thousand years [1]. Nuclear power plants are creating a hazardous material which will continue to pose a threat for many generations to come. Containment of nuclear waste is a hot topic, with a half-life longer than some civilisations, it is impossible to guarantee that this nuclear waste will not one day pose a risk to the environment, or to public health. This is not something we want from “green” energy.

Nuclear power stations are also vulnerable to disaster from both nature and man. The tsunami at Fukushima in 2011 caused a wall of water to overpower the nuclear plant, resulting in a radioactive leak. This incident is still causing suffering and illness today. Accidents do happen. And in the current climate of fear from terrorist attacks, can we be certain that our nuclear power stations will be securely protected if targeted for an attack?

Great efforts are taken to prevent leaks from nuclear power stations, and a large amount of work goes into ensuring that nuclear waste is stored safely. It is impossible to know for certain whether future contamination will occur, but historic accidents are thankfully few in number.

For nuclear

There are strong arguments in favour of nuclear power as an environmentally friendly energy source. 

Although not perfect, nuclear energy is certainly a much more eco-friendly option than fossil fuel. Nuclear gives a real option to turn away from coal power stations and still be able to fuel our busy everyday lives. Experts are all agreed that in order to slow the rate of climate change, we need to reduce the amount of CO2 we release into the atmosphere. Nuclear power produces drastically lower CO2 emissions than coal, and in fact the radioactive waste it produces is far smaller in volume than that of the radioactive ash produced by coal-fired power stations.

Despite several high profile disasters, the damage done by nuclear power, both to the environment and to public health is substantially less than that resulting from constant use of coal fired power stations. Research suggests that historical use of nuclear power may have prevented as many as “1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions” [2].

This at least qualifies it for the title “more green than fossil fuel”  

What’s more, nuclear power is a reliable source of energy. Unlike some renewables, nuclear doesn’t require the sun to shine or the wind to blow. The fuel needed for nuclear energy is uranium; a resource found abundantly in the Earth’s crust. A lot of energy is produced from a very small amount of uranium, so although it is a finite resource it is one that will last for a long time. Estimates by the US National Energy Agency suggest that there are sufficient uranium reserves to run the nuclear industry for 230 years at current levels, advancements in technology are likely to decrease the rate at which we use uranium, extending this further [3]

In this sense, you could argue that nuclear power is sustainable, as it will be a very long time before we run out of fuel. But it doesn’t measure up to truly renewable resources. Then again the rare earth elements that are used to produce solar panels are also of limited supply.

The impact of uranium mining on the environment is a complicated topic with many factors involved. Like all mining this is invasive to nature and has an effect on local eco-systems. However the high energy density of uranium means that fewer, smaller, mines are needed than if the same energy was to be provided by coal. 

In conclusion

The question of nuclear being green is therefore a tricky one. It is not as green as solar or wind, but it is more consistent. Nuclear power releases substantially lower volumes of CO2 into the atmosphere than every source of power with a comparable reliability. However it does produce dangerous radioactive waste. It comes with the potential for dramatic, if extremely infrequent, disasters, although the overall hazard that such events pose is lower than the constant, lower level, damage caused by fossil fuel emissions to both the world’s climate and public health.

In conclusion nuclear power may not be “green”, nor without its faults, but it is certainly many shades greener than coal.

Do tell us what you think about nuclear in the comments below...

 References

  1. World Nuclear Association
  2. Kharecha, P. A., & Hansen, J. E. (2013). Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power. Environmental Science & Technology, 47(9), 4889–4895.
  3.  Scientific American 

 Image from: kmichiels

By Anna Carlini with contributions from Alex Barrett

If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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Comments

4 comments - read them below or add one

lalunatech

lalunatechComment left on: 30 July 2016 at 6:57 am

Thorium based molten salt nuclear reactors should be developed to bridge the fossil fuel / renewables gap.

1. Thorium is more abundant in accessible deposits than uranium and the required isotope is in a higher proportion in the natural ore.

2. The reactor can be designed to shut down automatically and passively if it overheats

3. They can be fueled partially from plutonium byproducts of the existing generation of reactors.

4. They do not produce weapons grade material (that is why they were dropped)

A working thorium MSR was built and showed great promise but was shelved due to lack of funding. I believe China and India have active research programmes for Thorium reactors today.

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Eco Andrew

Eco AndrewComment left on: 6 July 2016 at 4:59 pm

Very revealing article from The Ecologist, Elizabeth1981.  Given...

1.  nuclear power is VERY expensive

2.  safety risks from accident, natural disaster, terrorism, war

3.  depletion of limited uranium ore sources

4.  no current solution to the waste storage problem (It remains radioactive for thousands of years, so what safe guarantee could possibly be given over such a period?)

5.  on a whole-lifecycle-analysis it is actually HiGH carbon

... who would want to go down that route?

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anne miller

anne millerComment left on: 30 June 2016 at 9:45 am

Any discussion of the greenness of Nuclear power should include the carbon emissions from mining, processing  and decommissioning.   These can be very significant, so can give nuclear power higher carbon emissions than gas.

The carbon emissions increase significantly as the concentration of the ore decreases, so the carbon footprint of nuclear power is likely to get worse as the high grade ore gets used up and we have to use lower grade ore.

Theres a good review of this by Prof Keith Barnham here http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2736691/false_solution_nuclear_power_is_not_low_carbon.html

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Elizabeth1981

Elizabeth1981Comment left on: 24 June 2016 at 1:35 pm

Interesting article, I really enjoyed it! It is crazy to think that nuclear overall hazard is lower than damage caused by the fossil fuel emissions. I am really surprised, to say the least! 

Elizabeth

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