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November 01, 2005

Nuclear Power and CO2 Emissions.

Chicken Yoghurt celebrates the return to blogging of Rochenko and especially recommends his piece on nuclear power. Which contains this:

Right. So, who’s not joining up their thinking now? Carbon emissions being a global problem, we’re talking about global solutions here. Replacing gas and coal is one such. Nuclear power is a non-renewable resource, that relies on a relatively scarce raw material. Further, uranium needs to go through a lengthy industrial process in order to be useable. How much energy does the process of mining and refining use, and how much carbon does it produce, in order to provide fuel for just one station?

Fortunately I’d written a piece on this very subject. Unfortunately the editor I sent it to did not wish to purchase it. So you, you lucky people, get to see it for free and get an answer to that very question.

We all know that we’re not allowed to use nuclear power to beat global warming, don’t we? Nasty, horrible, vicious stuff, why, it might even allow people to keep the lights on, cook meat even, possibly, dare we whisper it, allow capitalism to survive! Which would be quite unsupportable given that we know the correct method of reverence for Gaia is to be knitting our clothes out of tofu while feeding the kids on lentils in the dark (and I really don’t want to think about that no diaper training  thing in that scenario).

Which is why I always find it a little puzzling that those most vociferous against the use of nuclear power have to, err, be economical with the truth in their arguments. A couple of years ago, you may remember, we were told that nuclear did have CO2 emissions as there was lots of concrete used in the construction of plants. This has rather been put to one side now that several (gleefully on my part) have pointed out that wind turbines actually use more concrete than nuclear for the same electricity production capacity.

An example of this economy with the facts turns up in today’s Guardian written by one David Lowry (who is ”nuclear issues coordinator for Labour's environment campaign, Sera “).  The essential argument is that the total fuel cycle uses energy (true) that some of this is fossil fuel derived (true) and that therefore nuclear is not a completely non-emittive technology (true). As for the conclusion?

Using sensible assumptions, Professors Smith and Van Leeuwen determined that nuclear generation produced about a third as much CO2 per kWh as conventional mid-sized gas-fired electricity generation.

The important question is thus not whether there are emissions but how many of them there are? Most especially, how does nuclear measure up to all of the other alternatives when we look at the whole lifetime of the equipment and the fuel? According to our Mr Lowry:

As several papers made clear when presented to the World Nuclear Association's annual symposium last month, the industry will increasingly have to rely on poorer-quality uranium ores, and thus CO2 emissions from the nuclear cycle will increase. Öko's analysis shows that nuclear CO2 emissions are up to four or five times greater than those from renewables.

Well, is it true? Is it so that nuclear is good but not good enough? A truly interesting question and one that rather depends upon that assumption that increasingly low quality ores will have to be used. Which, according to another paper from the World Nuclear Association (Hey, if we’re allowed to use “several papers” and leave them unidentified then I can use one identified one from the same source, yes?) is a misunderstanding of how mining works and is in any case not true for any likely scenario in the next three or four decades.

Which rather leaves us wandering around in search of more realistic figures on what are the CO2 emissions from nuclear power plants. We’re also interested in how these compare to other forms of electricity generation. We could look here for construction figures perhaps but then that was written by those trying to justify nuclear power. Obviously, I mean obviously, they are also being economical with the truth. Or the NEI blog has several pieces . But then again, the Nuclear Energy Institute, no matter what they say, cannot be expected to be neutral on such issues now can they? So we mustn’t pay too much attention to this from the same source.

 

Comparison of Life-Cycle Emissions

Source: "Life-Cycle Assessment of Electricity Generation Systems and Applications for Climate Change Policy Analysis," Paul J. Meier, University of Wisconsin-Madison, August, 2002.

I mean, really, who could ever believe that? Nuclear emits less than solar? Than geothermal? Hah! Who would ever believe that? Not our Mr. Lowry, of course. He closes his article with this:

Before starting down the nuclear route promoted by Tony Blair at Labour's conference, ministers need a proper comparative analysis of nuclear's hidden carbon emissions.

Indeed they do and I hope that young David isn’t the one providing it to them. But all of the above is just nit-picking. It’s one boring group of scientists shouting at another over interpretations of this and that and yaaaawn, isn’t it all so dreary? So why don’t we go back to a piece of the science that many would take as being a very high estimate but one which our Guardian writer would actually agree with.

...nuclear generation produced about a third as much CO2 per kWh as conventional mid-sized gas-fired electricity generation.

A third eh? 33% of gas generation? So about 20% of coal generation then? You know, roughly, splitting the difference and all that? And what was it that we had to do to stop the world’s supplies of brown rice from melting in the capitalist inspired boiling of everything decent and good? Reduce emissions by 80% from 1990 levels wasn’t it? So, if we stuck everyone in hydrogen powered cars , junked gas and coal fired electricity generation and replaced it with nuclear (as, on the generation front, France has) then we’ve cracked it, solved the problem, eh? Why didn’t you just say so at the beginning David? Even by your, terribly pessimistic, figures there is a technological way out, we don’t all have to return to medieval peasantry, spinning our food and kneading our clothes by flickering torchlight, capitalism is saved!

Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t like it, he’s realized that nuclear works.

November 1, 2005 in Nuclear | Permalink

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Comments

Exquisitely well put!

Posted by: David Bradish | Nov 1, 2005 2:29:08 PM

I mean, really, who could ever believe that? Nuclear emits less than solar? Than geothermal? Hah! Who would ever believe that?

Only two of the four lifecycle emissions reports compare to geothermal - one, which you reproduce, shows lower CO2/GWh and one shows the same. Two reports also show that wind power produces less, demonstrating the folly of Simon Jenkins' claim that nuclear was "cheaper" than wind power in the Guardian article to which Rochenko was referring.

Tim adds: Do you mean this:

"Their cost per megawatt is double that of even the most costly nuclear power."?

That isn’t referring to CO2 that’s referring to money. Try looking up the Oxera report.

Posted by: paul | Nov 1, 2005 3:00:49 PM

You mention above, half-joking I presume, that one can't trust the life-cycle emissions numbers shown on NEI's website. At the link you provide, there is a table that quantifies various emissions produced from generating 1 kWh of electricity using several different generation sources. I wanted to point out that these were not NEI-generated numbers. The source, as noted below the table, was a report titled, "Hydropower-Internalised Costs and Externalised Benefits" by Frans H. Koch of the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA is recognized as an objective voice in the energy policy debate.

Keep up the great work!

Tim adds: No, not half-joking, very sarcastically. Must. Work. On. Writing. Style.
Just to make it clear I do accept the IEA and NEI figures as being objective.

Posted by: Lisa | Nov 1, 2005 6:28:09 PM

Of course if you believed in Gaia, you wouldn't be worried about Global Warming, would you?

Posted by: dearieme | Nov 2, 2005 2:17:20 AM

What gets me is that every time the debate turns to the non-emmission of CO2 by nuclear stations the bunny huggers all start talking about the huge amounts of fossil fuel used to get uranium ore from the ground and the uranium processed into fuel rods.

Now I've worked on a uranium mine (No, I don't glow in the dark but it could explain my many frazzled neurons). They burned a lot of diesel and electrons to deliver a usable product. But I've also worked on a coal mine and beleive me they burn just as much to get their product to market. I've never been involved with gas production, but from the sites I've seen on telly they aren't powered by little magic fairies either. All fuel production needs energy.

There's another problem associated with fossil fuel production that no one mentions: methane. We miners know all about methane, it's one of the first things you learn about when you get signed on at a mine. It scares the bejazus out of us because at very low concentrations it becomes highly explosive. This is generally considered a bad thing in an enclosed space. But methane's badness isn't limited to a tendency to blow up. As I understand it, methane is an environmental bad boy as well. Aren't the X billion farting sheep in New Zealand resposnible for blowing the Antarctic Ozone Hole wide open?

To my knowledge no uranium mine suffers from a major methane problem. Coal mines, on the other hand, do - big time. It's all to do with the difference between igneous and sedimentary rocks. Because methane is highly explosive, mines are required by law to ventilate and disperse the gas. For an underground mine it would be very difficult to collect and process the gas safely, for an open pit, impossible, so the gas is simply blown into the atmosphere as fast as possible.

According to www.naturalgas.org natural gas is 70-90% methane. They don't appear to publish an average "leakage" figure for the industry, but it would be reasonable to expect that there is some leakage of gas during the whole production and delivery process and this gas (which is lighter than air) would then fly off to eat more big holes in our ozone layer.

When this is taken into consideration, of the "big three" electricity generation methods, nukes suddenly don't look so nasty after all.

RM

Posted by: Remittance Man | Nov 2, 2005 6:45:24 AM

As I recall it isn't that Methane eats Ozone, but it is a greenhouse gas ten times more powerful than CO2.
[http://marine.usgs.gov/fact-sheets/gas-hydrates/title.html]
And as you rightly say none is produced mining for uranium, but it is found in abundance where there is other fossil fuels around.

Posted by: chris | Nov 2, 2005 10:14:40 AM

Re your comment: "That isn’t referring to CO2 that’s referring to money". Which is why I put cheaper in inverted commas - I wasn't very clear. I was pointing out that the report Jenkins is using doesn't account for numerous other costs which would put wind power much closer to nuclear in terms of £/kWh, with the benefit that we don't have to allow nuclear power to be generated in every rogue state on the planet jsut to achieve a global reduction in carbon emissions.

Tim adds: The proliferation worries are somewhat over emphasised. To get the plutonium out you need a complex and expensive factory. The more normal method is to buy fuel rods already loaded, use them and then return them to the original manufacturer. Exactly as the deal being brokered with N Korea tries to do. As in fact most countries do.
Having a nuclear reactor is a necessary but not sufficient part of trying to build a bomb.

Posted by: paul | Nov 2, 2005 12:34:10 PM

"Of course if you believed in Gaia, you wouldn't be worried about Global Warming, would you?"

Only if you wanted the human race, and perhaps your descendants, to retain the advantages they have over the rest of creation. Otherwise we should welcome our new arthropod masters.

Posted by: dave heasman | Nov 3, 2005 10:41:43 AM

"Having a nuclear reactor is a necessary but not sufficient part of trying to build a bomb" -- if that were true, what happened at Hiroshima would be very odd.

In fact it is neither necessary nor sufficient.

Tim adds: Umm, suppose you’re right. A reactor is neccessary for a plutonium bomb but not uranium.

Posted by: G. R. L. Cowan | Nov 4, 2005 5:20:17 AM

By the way if a nuclear energy station is attacked millions of people could die and 100's of km2 of the UK could be destroyed. It would reduce the UK's GDP by the 10's of %, cause the forced rehabiation of millions of people, to where who the **** knows. Exaclty how is that good for our national interest. Alot of people support nuclear because it makes them feel clever to be one the side of a nuclear scientist. So they fail to question the technology even when it causes the death of 200,000 people atleast. Unthinking, uncritical drones. Wow thoese terrible people who make up nasty lies about nuclear must have money making agenda. ehh?, because the pro nuke ones do.

Posted by: "Build more Nuclear" says mr Laden | Sep 14, 2007 12:45:58 AM

Well, It seems to me your statistics aren't plausible seeming as there are non availible for viewing. hmmmm funny that.
Nuclear power maybe the end to global warming but its just the beginning for other environmental problems.
If nuclear power ends up powering the globe.
Then hail the three eyed fish!

On a more serious note, remember the Chenobyl accident?
Unless you want our future generations to be mutated with genetic problems then i suggest we find another solution.
RENEWABLE ENERGIES ALL THE WAY!!!

Posted by: georgia priest | Sep 14, 2007 2:55:33 AM

Maybe if they would pay their own insurance bill I could take the nuclear power industry more seriously. As it is they're always lying about something, be it waste storage or anything else. Nothing a few bribes can't fix though.

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Posted by: callum hammish | Jan 14, 2008 9:20:58 PM

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Posted by: callum hammish | Jan 14, 2008 9:28:41 PM

and another thing


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Posted by: callum hammish | Jan 14, 2008 9:30:16 PM

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Posted by: callum hammish | Jan 14, 2008 9:32:49 PM

Food for thought

There has never been any doubt about the disastrous short - and long-term effects of exposure to high doses of ionizing radiation. However, the public acceptance of billion dollar investments in the fifties and sixties in a runaway build-up of nuclear weapons production, civilian nuclear energy, as well as nuclear medicine, was based on the confident assurances of enthusiastic radiation experts that added exposures at dose levels acceptable to industry would not be found detrimental to human health.

Premature evaluations of the delayed effects of radiation among the Japanese survivors, as well as transference to humans of radiation effects in animals, lead to strongly held optimistic convictions. For decades, any challenge to these tenets based on extrapolations by epidemiologic studiey among populations with occupational and environmental exposures, were received with enmity and rejection. Nevertheless, optimistic expectations had to be scaled back continuously as the appearance of long delayed excess cancer cases among the Japanese survivor population (see Table 1).

Our present regulations for radiation protection depend almost exclusively on the recommendations of the international commission on radiological protection (ICRP). The ICRP itself relies on published data and recommendation of it's subcommittees. The main source of information on radiation risk and radiation hazards taken from the experience of the atomic bomb survivors. The official risk estimates of this source have changed over the years. In 1977 the ICRP published a figure of 1,25 additional cancer death per 10,000 person cSv. This figure was revised in 1990 to 5. Other organisations and independent scientists arrived at much higher risk estimates (see. Table 1).

Posted by: Ciceroji | Mar 22, 2008 1:12:26 AM

I love lefties like Georgia Priest.

Chernobyl? Could it have been a Communist (aka socialist) screw up? Surely not...

Lack of facts? Hey, don't let the enviro-lobby hear that... they wouldn't have anything to talk about if they were restricted to facts rather than flights of fancy and political ranting.

Three eyed fish? Lol, yes that Simpsons episode was hoot... and no, Georgia, it was a cartoon, not a documentary (though I know on the left documentaries are deliberately written for laughs alone, sorry, I mean inaccuracies)

Mutated with genetic problems? Oops, that means we will all mutate into frothing socialists with their nasty little jealous minds and attendant lack of understanding of any issues. But hey... it's what we know and love them for.

Posted by: windy blow | Sep 7, 2008 11:19:35 PM