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Don’t Nuke the Climate

No2 Nuclear Power 9 Nov 17

Nuclear power is, according to the nuclear industry, nearly carbon-free and indispensable for mitigating climate change as a result of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. In the official publications of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the nuclear industry no figures could be found regarding the present and/or envisioned future nuclear contribution to the reduction of the global emissions of greenhouse gases.

A new study by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen assesses the following questions:

How large would the present nuclear mitigation share be, assumed that nuclear power does not emit carbon dioxide CO2?

  • How large could the reduction become in the future, starting from nuclear generating capacity scenarios published by the IAEA, and also assumed that nuclear power does not emit CO2?
  • How feasible are the projections of the nuclear industry?
  • How large could the actual nuclear CO2 emissions be, estimated on the basis of an independent life cycle analysis?
  • Does nuclear power emit also other greenhouse gases?

Present nuclear mitigation contribution

In 2014 nuclear power contributed 1.6% of global usable energy supply. If we assume nuclear power displaced fossil-fuelled electricity generation its contribution to emissions reduction would be about 4.7%, assuming nuclear power is free of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) (which it is not).

Nuclear mitigation contribution in the future

A hypothetical nuclear mitigation contribution in 2050, based on two IAEA scenarios (assuming nuclear power is free of GHGs) shows the following reductions in GHGs:

IAEA Low scenario – constant nuclear capacity, 376 GWe in 2050: 1.3 – 2.4% reduction

IAEA High scenario – constant nuclear mitigation share, 964 GWe in 2050: reduction 3.8 – 6.8%.

Global construction pace

By 2060 nearly all currently operating nuclear power plants (NPPs) will have closed because they reach the end of their operational lifetime. The current construction rate for new capacity of 3-4 GWe per year is too low to maintain global nuclear capacity at the current level, so it is declining. To maintain current capacity the construction rate needs to be doubled. For the IAEA High Scenario it would need to increase to around 27 GWe/yr until 2050. In view of the massive cost overruns and construction delays that plague the nuclear industry such a high construction rate looks highly unlikely.

Prospects of new advanced nuclear technology

The nuclear industry talks about advanced nuclear systems that would enable mankind to use nuclear power for hundreds to thousands of years. These concepts concern two main classes of closed-cycle reactor systems: uranium-based systems and thorium-based systems. However, the prospects seem questionable in view of the fact that, after more than 60 years of research and development in several countries (e.g. USA, UK, France, Germany, the former Soviet Union) with investments exceeding €100bn, still not one operating closed-cycle reactor system exists in the world. If nuclear power ends up relying exclusively on a once-through cycle, as seems likely, the size of the uranium resources will be a restricting factor.

Nuclear generating capacity after 2050

In the highly unlikely event that the nuclear industry does manage to build 964 GWe of new nuclear capacity by the year 2050 these will be operating for 40-50 years. Will the industry expect to continue expanding?

Uranium demand and resources

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that no new nuclear power stations are built after 2050 with nuclear power phased out by 2100, presently known world recoverable uranium resources would be adequate to sustain the IAEA Low scenario, but not High scenario. A common view amongst nuclear proponents is that more exploration will yield more known resources, and at higher prices more and more uranium would become economically recoverable. In this view uranium resources are virtually inexhaustible. However, the amount of energy consumed per kg of recovered natural uranium rises exponentially with declining ore grades. No net energy can be generated by the nuclear system as a whole from uranium resources at grades below 200- 100 ppm (0.2-0.1 g U per kg rock); this relationship is called the energy cliff.

Actual CO2 emission of nuclear power

The nuclear process chain is a sequence of industrial activities which are required to generate nuclear electricity. CO2 emissions will result from the burning of fossil fuels and chemical reactions throughout the nuclear chain, except the nuclear reactor itself. The sum of the CO2 emissions of all processes in the chain are estimates at estimated at: 88-146 gCO2/kWh.

CO2 trap

The energy consumption and consequently the CO2 emission of the recovery of uranium from the earth’s crust strongly depend on the ore grade. As the average ore grade approaches 200 ppm, the specific CO2 emission of the nuclear energy system will surpass that of fossil-fuelled electricity generation. This phenomenon is called the CO2 trap. If no new major high-grade uranium resources are found in the future, nuclear power might lose its low carbon profile within the lifetime of new nuclear build.

Emission of other greenhouse gases

No data are found in the open literature on the emission of greenhouse gases other than CO2 by the nuclear system, likely such data never have been published. Assessment of the chemical processes required to produce enriched uranium and to fabricate fuel elements for the reactor indicates that substantial emissions of fluorinated and chlorinated gases are unavoidable; some of these gases may be potent greenhouse gases, with global warming potentials thousands of times greater than CO2. It seems inconceivable that nuclear power does not emit other greenhouse gases. Absence of published data does not mean absence of emissions.

Krypton-85, another climate changing gas

Nuclear power stations, spent fuel storage facilities and reprocessing plants discharge substantial amounts of a number of fission products, one of them is krypton-85, a radioactive noble gas. Krypton-85 is a beta emitter and is capable of ionizing the atmosphere, leading to the formation of ozone in the troposphere. Tropospheric ozone is a greenhouse gas, it damages plants, it causes smog and health problems. Due to the ionization of air krypton-85 affects the atmospheric electric properties, which gives rise to unforeseeable effects for weather and climate; the Earth’s heat balance and precipitation patterns could be disturbed.

Questionable comparison of nuclear GHG emission figures with renewables

Scientifically sound comparison of nuclear power with renewables is not possible as long as many physical and chemical processes of the nuclear process chain are inaccessible in the open literature, and their unavoidable GHG emissions cannot be assessed. When the nuclear industry is speaking about its GHG emissions, only CO2 emissions are involved. Erroneously the nuclear industry uses the unit gCO2eq/kWh (gram CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour), this unit implies that other greenhouse gases also are included in the emission figures, instead the unit gCO2/kWh (gram CO2 per kilowatt-hour) should be used. The published emission figures of renewables do include all emitted greenhouse gases. In this way the nuclear industry gives an unclear impression of things, comparing apples and oranges.

A second reason why the published emission figures of the nuclear industry are not scientifically comparable to those of renewables is the fact that the nuclear emission figures are based on incomplete analyses of the nuclear process chain. For instance the emissions of construction, operation, maintenance, refurbishment and dismantling, jointly responsible for 70% of nuclear CO2 emissions, are not taken into account. Exactly these components of the process chain are the only contributions to the published GHG emissions of renewables. Solar power and wind power do not consume fuels or other materials for generation of electricity, as nuclear power does.

Climate Change and Nuclear Power: An analysis of nuclear greenhouse gas emissions by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen. https://wiseinternational.org/will-nuclear-power-save-climate

Also see Don’t Nuke the Climate: http://www.dont-nuke-the-climate.org/?lang=en

The solutions to the climate crisis are clear: A rapid, just transition to a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system. The only sure way to stop the global warming impacts of energy use is to transition as quickly as possible from antiquated energy models of the 20th Century and their polluting nuclear power and fossil fuel technologies … to the safe, clean, affordable and sustainable renewable, efficient, and smart technologies of the 21st Century. Nuclear power in particular cannot solve the climate crisis. Indeed, its continued use exacerbates global warming by preventing the deployment of clean energy systems.

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November 11, 2017 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, climate change

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