OF THE OIL ECONOMY > NUCLEAR POWER IS A PROBLEM, NOT A SOLUTION
Nuclear Power can't replace cheap oil
Summary: We instinctively imagine that 'they' will
something to replace cheap oil. Or other power sources will be expanded
to take over the role. What about nuclear power? Isn't it cheap, latest
technology making it non-polluting, and can't it be used to split the
molecule into oxygen and hydrogen gas, with the hydrogen gas being used
directly or in fuel cells for vehicles?
Nuclear power doesn't cut it. About 42% of the 'primary energy' we
- oil, coal, and natural gas taken together - is used to generate
About 90% of coal is mined specifically for burning to generate
Looking at world coal consumption alone, there are 2 129 million tonnes
of oil equivalent being burned every year to make electricity. 1 tonne
of oil produces 41.8 gigajoules (billions of joules). So to replace
half the coal burned for electricity, nuclear energy would have to
44 496 000 000 gigajoules.
Obviously, no country is going to divert its entire electricity
generation from existing nuclear power plants to produce the hydrogen
energy equivalent that would be needed to substitute for even half the
existing petrol and diesel used in transportation. But the table at
least shows how false and foolishly absurd the notion of a 'hydrogen
economy' to replace the present 'oil economy' is.
Nuclear power consumption
or less reflects capability
Multiples of the existing
production needed to replace 50% of current oil consumption
| FORMER USSR
When uranium atoms split ('nuclear fission) in a power plant, they give
off heat, used to make steam to drive the electricity producing
The 'broken pieces' of uranium atoms left from the process of
become new radioactive materials -"fission products", atoms much
than the original uranium, substances not found in nature. These
strontium-90, cesium-137 and iodine-131. These high energy atoms give
two forms of radiation -beta and gamma, but not alpha radiation.
Fission products never existed on earth prior to the first atomic bomb,
but are now present in small amounts everywhere . All are dangerous,
strontium-90 and cesium-137 are two of the most dangerous. Strontium 90
enters the body through the food we eat and what we drink. It is stored
bones, like calcium, where it compromises the immune system and may
to cancer, especially leukemia. Cesium-137 is stored in the flesh of
fish and animals exposed to environmental contamination . At very high
levels, such as around Chernobyl it makes the entire local environment
uninhabitable, the food too dangerous to eat. Strontium-90 and
remain hazardous for decades.
Nuclear reactors produce large quantities of fission products,
contained within the reactor. Except when there is an 'accident', such
as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the smaller recent (1995) release
from the Monju reactor in Japan. Very little fission product escaped
- about 4% - but the effect carries on, and will carry on for many
The incidence of childhood cancers in the region, let alone birth
is horrific. Pasture as far away from Ukraine as Wales was contaminated
with cesium-137 in 1986, and the animals that graze that pasture are
just now (2000) being judged fit for consumption.
Freshly removed spent reactor fuel emits intense, quickly lethal gamma
radiation. It has to be handled by robotic means and transported in 50
tonnes especially shielded flasks. This is known as "high level
waste". Humans cannot approach the unshielded spent fuel rods
centuries, until the gamma radiation from fission products has died
enough. About a third of the fuel rods (each rod a 12 foot tube of
uranium pellets) are replaced every 12 to 18 months. They are stored in
deep pools until they physically cool down and lose gamma radiation -
radiation falls by about 90% within 10 years). The 'spent' rods are
one third unused uranium (and plutonium), and could be re-processed.
is so cheap that it is uneconomic to do that. Which may be a good
on one level.
The highly toxic alpha radiation from plutonium and the other
elements remains for thousands of years. Plutonium is not a fission
but an unavoidable element created from uranium in reactors when a
proportion of the uranium absorbs neutrons and doesn't split, thus
heavier than the uranium feedstock. Thus creating "one of the most
man-made substances there is". A few thousandth of a gram breathed in
microscopic contaminated dust particles is potently carcinogenic, with
a very good chance of lung cancer within a decade or two of the
"It would take more than twice all the water in all the lakes and
rivers of the world to dissolve the spent nuclear fuel on hand by the
2000 to the maximum permissible levels of radioactive pollution.
the material must be safely stored in a near-perfect containment
There is as yet no proven safe method for permanently disposing of high
level radioactive waste."
Uranium (U3O8) supplies, according to some sources, are not expected to
oil supplies. As concerns rise for security of electricity generation,
does the price of uranium. Uranium that sold on the spot market for
$US9.60 in 2002 per 500 grams, now (2005) sells for $US23 per 500
-Dr. Gordon Edwards, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.
Many nuclear plants also rely on large amounts of water for cooling. In
a time of climate variabilty, in a markedly dry year, rivers may not
have enough water in them to allow the plant to operate - as has
happened in the UK this year (2005).
Plutonium is a useful nuclear fuel, and it can be
from the spent rods by dissolving the rods in boiling nitric acid. But
this process releases radioactive gases, and worse, millions of gallons
of high level liquid waste that will need storage for millennia. To
this powerfully carcinogenic substance, 'geologically stable' rock
have to be found in which to bury it (at depths of 1,000 feet). Areas
there are no earthquakes, no volcanoes to regurgitate and spread the
waste in some future century. Preferably where there are few people at
the moment. And no ground water movement to leach the radioactive
and the toxic plutonium from the canisters when they eventually corrode
away before the next 1,000 years. There are not very many suitable
Besides plutonium being extraordinarily toxic, it can be used to
"crude but powerful" nuclear weapons with little effort. It is
to account for every last kilogram of existing plutonium, without
around much larger quantities in commercial operations all over the
Nuclear plants are expensive and slow to build. The full costs have
to take 'decommissioning' into account when the plants end their useful
life due to the build up of radiation levels within the reactor (from
The USA has a 'decommissioning' component built into the price of
nuclear generated electricity, but who is to say the money won't be
(or worthless), and will it be enough to keep looking after the waste
facilities in 500 years time? 1,000 years time?
The counter argument to the increased use of nuclear energy - even
if it could carry us through the transition from oil, which it patently
can't - is that if the investment in nuclear energy was switched to
energy efficiency improvements and energy conservation, then the
demand would be at least equal to the existing nuclear power generation
" Federal subsidies continue unabated to the present day. Research
funding has consistently been far greater for nuclear power than for
other energy options combined (oil, coal, gas, hydro, energy
and renewable forms of energy), even though nuclear power
only 3.3 percent of Canada's delivered energy."
The argument is that efficiency measures would not only save this
but do it at much less 'up-front' cost than doubling existing nuclear
Efficiency industries are often smaller, more distributed, employ more
and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions faster than nuclear power
-Dr. Gordon Edwards, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.
Since Chernobyl many countries have decided to phase out nuclear power.
In the privatization of the British electricity industry in 1989
investors would not buy the nuclear plants, simply due to the cost of
of both radioactive wastes and disposing (storing for millennia)
radioactive physical structures at the end of their useful lives.
In total, nuclear energy provides around about 17% of the world's
electricity. The United States, France, Japan, and Germany are the most
dependent on electricity from nuclear power. France, with few
within its national boundaries, and an entrenched military nuclear bomb
heirachy, has chosen nuclear reactors as its single main electric power
source, getting 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.
While the attractions for countries such as France are obvious for our
generations, future generations will curse these people bitterly.
Nuclear power generation is a monolithic 'instant fix' requiring vast
capital, and whose true cost of dealing with many thousands of years of
waste cannot be met. As oil becomes more expensive, the cost of
containing the waste increases. Ultimately, unforeseen 'accident' will
happen, and the invisible but highly dangerous waste will enter our
food chains, and will become part of the soil - and thus enter the dust
that we inhale every day.
Worse, the billions 'invested' in these monoliths are billions diverted
away from non-polluting renewable solutions, which even modest
investment is now showing increasing practicality so long as they are
combined with a distributed power network.
Ultimately, the true cost of nuclear power that is not brought to book
on the accounts is a huge tax on this generation, and generations to
come. This enormous tax is a huge lost opportunity cost, preventing
profitable investments in developing and expanding sustainable power,
power for a sustainable future.
2005 Sustainable Living Organisation, version 1
The information in this
site is largely informed opinion, although it is written
in good faith. It is up to the reader to criticize, read alternative
and assertions, and come to an independent view. Do not rely on anything
in this site being current, correct or factual.
you take after reading the material here is solely your responsibility
- seek advice from others, read critically and widely, don't accept
you read here. You have been warned! Question everything.
Form your own opinion
on these matters after reading widely and consulting appropriate
advice, including advice of appropriate professionals.