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Why nuclear power is not the answer to global warming by John Busby PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 25 May 2005

John Busby is author of 'The Busby Report - A National Plan For Survival in the 21st Century' - a starting point for many in the UK who come across Peak Oil.  The report considers the measures to be taken to ensure the survival of the United Kingdom in a new century during which the world’s oil will run out.  It is available at www.after-oil.co.uk

In the following report, John Busby looks at why nuclear power, cited by many as an important mitigation tool for global warming and peak oil, just is not the answer.


Why nuclear power is not the answer to global warming

1. Introduction

Although not every scientist agrees, emissions of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels, mostly petroleum, natural gas and coal are considered to be a major factor in causing the onset of global warming. Unacceptable rises in temperature are leading to rising sea levels from the melting of polar ice and corresponding climate changes may effect plant and animal life in otherwise temperate zones.

Technological advances reduce the growth in energy demand to around 1% below the rate of economic growth, but the world’s demand for energy is expected to continue to rise exponentially, particularly in respect to emerging economies such as China and India. What is desired is a number of renewable sources of energy, not limited by resource depletion (as is the case with fossil fuels) that are "clean" in that they emit little or no so-called "greenhouse gases". Renewable sources include wind and sea current power, but nuclear power, which is purported to meet both criteria, must be excluded, as it does not fulfil either.

2. Could all our energy be supplied by nuclear power?

Before considering alternative sources, it is necessary to understand the size of the problem by examining current global energy consumption. Energy units exhibit little uniformity, but the joule can be used as a universally acceptable basis for analysis. Big numbers have to be employed to express global energy parameters, i.e., the exajoule (joule x 1018) and the petajoule (joule x 1015), abbreviated as EJ and PJ respectively. The world’s energy consumption in 2003 was 409 EJ, of which fossil fuels provided 90% as primary energy. Of this 60 EJ was in the form of electrical energy, with only 10 EJ of it provided by nuclear generation.

If not restrained by uranium supply problems, nuclear power could in theory substitute for gas and coal for all the world’s electricity generation, but electricity is not readily adaptable for mobile transport.

Transport constrained to fixed guide systems, such as rail and tramways can use electrical energy directly from current collectors, but mobile transport able to move on roads or rough terrain uses mostly liquid fuels derived from oil. As oil reserves deplete, liquid fuels will be synthesised increasingly from natural gas and then coal, until all fossil fuels able to be economically extracted are exhausted.

To use electrical energy as an alternative to conventional liquid fuels for mobile transport requires the production of hydrogen from electrolysis and its subsequent cryogenic liquefaction for on-vehicle storage. This has an inherent energy penalty over the derivatives of primary fuels and of course, unless the electricity used to produce the hydrogen fuel is from a renewable and "clean" source, offers no panacea to global warming. Assuming mobile transport requires 40% of global energy and taking into account the energy loss in conversion, the requirement for global electrical generation rises from 409 EJ to 700 EJ. The problem is that electrical energy of whatever means of generation is a poor substitute for the adaptable primary energy obtained from fossil fuels.

 

Assuming world economic growth of 3%/annum, with growth in energy requirements 1% less, extrapolating from 2003 to 2020, increases the energy requirement to 980 EJ.

A typical 1200 MW nuclear power plant produces 32 PJ per annum, so to provide for 700 EJ around 22,000 nuclear power stations would have to be built. To provide for 980 EJ would require 30,000 stations, each requiring 200 tonnes/annum of uranium fuel. To fuel this number of stations, around 6,000,000 tonnes/annum of uranium production would be required.

Current world annual mine production totals only 36,000 tonnes/annum of which only Canada and Australia produce ore of a high grade at around 10,000 tonnes and 8,000 tonnes resp. The balance of 30,000 tonnes required to meet the 2003 nuclear generators’ demand for 66,000 tonnes/annum came from inventories, ex-weapons material, MOX and re-worked mine tailings. This secondary uranium supply is due to run out within a decade, so primary production would have to be increased 167-fold to match the anticipated global energy needs exclusively from nuclear power in 2020. *

From the above projections it is clear that nuclear power has no chance of matching the coming energy deficit by supplying the needs of an equivalent hydrogen economy to that currently sustained by fossil fuels. Even if there was sufficient uranium to fuel it, the building of a parc of 30,000 nuclear power stations would be an impossible prospect. The processing and sequestering of the consequential enormous volume of radioactive waste would be also be an impossible task.

3. Can the world’s electrical energy be supplied by nuclear power?

An MIT team ** have produced a more modest plan for the building of 1500 power stations of 1 GWe generation capacity by 2050. They calculate that an anticipated global total electricity consumption of 39,000 GWh from now to then can be matched by such a programme. But they assume a total uranium consumption for their scenario of 17,000,000 tonnes. In 2050 mining production to match demand would be 340,000 tonnes/annum, which would require a 9-fold increase in current production rates.

Uranium reserves of ore of a sufficiently high grade (see below for a definition of this) are estimated at only 3,500,000 tonnes. So to get round this difficulty, MIT compute that the reserves can be expanded to suit the requirement by progressive increases in the uranium price. They consider that ore deposits of grades between 0.001% and 0.03% would hold 22,000,000 tonnes of uranium and would be viable at increased uranium prices without unacceptable consequent rises in the electricity price. However, with the processing of these low ore grades there is a yield loss and larger energy inputs, leading to a negative energy gain in the overall nuclear fuel cycle.

In 2050 when the 1500 reactors are in service, if the required 340,000 tonnes/annum of uranium were to be extracted from the best of the low grade ores, i.e., 0.03%, with an optimistic yield of 50%, the mining of 2.3 billion tonnes of rock, plus the removal of the over-burden would be needed every year. Assuming that by 2050 the best of the ores has been taken, to extract the same from the lowest remaining, i.e. 0.001%, the yield would be even lower at say 10% and the production of 340,000 tonnes of uranium would require the mining of 340 billion tonnes of ore, plus the overburden.

The scale of such inconceivable operations and the commensurate input energy provided largely by fossil fuels is totally non-viable. This impressive academic team has therefore misunderstood the mechanisms associated with mineral extraction and there is no chance that their parc of 1500 nuclear power plants can be fueled.

4. Is there enough uranium to supply the currently operating nuclear stations for their remaining years of operation?

There is a current world building programme of around 40 new stations, some existing stations are having their operational life extended and some are now being de-commissioned. The current uranium fuel consumption of 66,000 tonnes/annum supports the equivalent of around 290 stations of 1 GWe capacity, but with varying load factors and generating capacity around 400 stations are currently in operation.

As the secondary sources of uranium, which currently provide 45% of the fuel demand are expected to be exhausted by 2012, over half of the operating stations will close within a decade for lack of fuel. Uranium mining production having passed two recent production peaks in 1997 and 2001 is now in decline. The end of the competition from secondary sources might intensify mining activity and lead to a temporary resurgence in production, but to open new mines, always assuming that suitable opportunities emerge to locate them, will take more than the intervening 10 years.

A parc of around 450 nuclear power stations, maintained by the replacement of ageing reactors and the building of yet more, would require a supply of 90,000 tonnes/annum, so that mining production will have to increase 2˝ times in the next 7 years – an unlikely prospect.

A shortfall in supply seems inevitable and the generation from the new stations will stall.

5. Is nuclear power "clean"?

Then the claim for the carbon-free status of nuclear power proves to be false. Carbon dioxide is released in every component of the nuclear fuel cycle except the actual fission in the reactor. Fossil fuels are involved in the mining, milling, conversion and enrichment of the ore, in the handling of the mill tailings, in the fuel can preparation, in the construction of the station and in its de-commissioning and demolition, in the handling of the spent waste and its processing and in digging the hole in the rock for its deposition.

The lower the ore grade, the more energy is consumed in the fuel processing, so that the amount of the carbon dioxide released in the overall fuel cycle depends on the ore grade. Only Canada and Australia have ores of a sufficiently high grade to avoid excessive carbon releases and to provide an adequate energy gain. At ore grades below 0.01% for ‘soft’ ores and 0.02% for ‘hard’ ores more CO2 than an equivalent gas-fired station is released and more energy is absorbed in the cycle that is gained in it. Ores of a grade approaching the "crossover" point such as those in India of 0.03%, if used, risk going into negative energy gain if there are a few "hiccups" in the cycle. ***

The industry points to the presence of uranium in phosphates and seawater, but the concentrations are so low that the energy required to extract it would exceed many times the energy obtained from any nuclear power resulting and the resulting carbon emissions would be massive.

 

6. Global warming

Maybe the world does not need to stop all carbon dioxide emissions, but even a doubling of nuclear generation capacity were possible it would only provide 20 EJ, i.e., 5% of world energy consumption. There is no possibility of an extension of nuclear capacity solving to any significant degree the problem of global warming.

It is claimed that nuclear power meets the two characteristics of sustainability and zero or low carbon dioxide emissions and so might be able to substitute for fossil fuels once they are exhausted and in the meantime to avoid release of some greenhouse gases. The claims are baseless.

In conclusion, perhaps the scale of global warming has been overstated by omitting to take into account fossil fuel depletion. A guide to the maximum amount of carbon dioxide released from the combustion of fossil fuels can be calculated, given that they are limited. The graph **** accessible on the web shows that if economic growth continues as currently, the reserves of oil, gas and then most of the coal will have emptied by the end of the century. From a knowledge of the carbon content of the three fuels, it is then possible to work out the total amount of carbon dioxide likely to be released.

This comes out as 5 exagrams or 5,000 billion tonnes.

An earth scientist should be able to work out the temperature rise that the release of this limited amount, mostly over the next 50 years, is likely to produce. Before hampering the world with useless measures unable to reduce the eventual amount of the release of carbon dioxide, it would be more appropriate to estimate the ultimate consequences of today’s immoderate exploitation and exhaustion of fossil fuels.

 

* WNA Symposium 2004, Dzhakishev,

http://www.world-nuclear.org/sym/2004/pdf/dzhakishev.pdf

** MIT "The Future of Nuclear Power", http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/

*** Storm van Leeuwen and Smith, http://www.oprit.rug.nl/deenen/

**** http://www.after-oil.co.uk/energy3.gif

For a full analysis of the consequences of fossil fuel depletion see The Busby Report on http://www.after-oil.co.uk

John Busby 22 May 2005

"Oakwood"

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Website: http://www.after-oil.co.uk

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