Opinion Piece
Nuclear Power can't replace cheap oil

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Summary: We instinctively imagine that 'they' will invent 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 water 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 use - oil, coal, and natural gas taken together - is used to generate electricity. About 90% of coal is mined specifically for burning to generate electricity. 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 even half the coal burned for electricity, nuclear energy would have to produce 44 496 000 000 gigajoules.


(Million tonnes)
Nuclear power consumption - more or less reflects capability
(in Million tonnes of oil equivalent)
Multiples of the existing reactor production  needed  to replace 50% of current oil consumption
2 x
2 x
41 x
0.5 x
1.5 x
1 x
1.6 x
1.7 x
2.75 x
25 x
14.1 x
1.5 x
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.

When uranium atoms split ('nuclear fission) in a power plant, they give off heat, used to make steam to drive the electricity producing turbines. The 'broken pieces' of uranium atoms left from the process of  fission become new radioactive materials -"fission products", atoms much smaller than the original uranium, substances not found in nature. These include strontium-90, cesium-137 and iodine-131. These high energy atoms give off 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, but 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 in bones, like calcium, where it compromises the immune system and may lead to cancer, especially leukemia. Cesium-137 is stored in the flesh of the 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 cesium-137 remain hazardous for decades.

Nuclear reactors produce large quantities of fission products, usually 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 Chernobyl - about 4% - but the effect carries on, and will carry on for many decades. The incidence of childhood cancers in the region, let alone birth defects, 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 only 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 radioactive waste".  Humans cannot approach the unshielded spent fuel rods for centuries, until the gamma radiation from fission products has died down enough. About a third of the fuel rods (each rod a 12 foot tube of enriched uranium pellets) are replaced every 12 to 18 months. They are stored in deep pools until they physically cool down and lose gamma radiation - (gamma radiation falls by about 90% within 10 years). The 'spent' rods are about one third unused uranium (and plutonium), and could be re-processed. Uranium is so cheap that it is uneconomic to do that. Which may be a good thing, on one level.
The highly toxic alpha radiation from plutonium and the other transuranic elements remains for thousands of years. Plutonium is not a fission product, but an unavoidable element created from uranium in reactors when a small proportion of the uranium absorbs neutrons and doesn't split, thus becoming heavier than the uranium feedstock. Thus creating "one of the most toxic man-made substances there is". A few thousandth of a gram breathed in as microscopic contaminated dust particles is potently carcinogenic, with a very good chance of lung cancer within a decade or two of the incident.

Uranium (U3O8) supplies, according to some sources, are not expected to outlast oil supplies. As concerns rise for security of electricity generation, so 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 grams.

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 extracted 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 seal this powerfully carcinogenic substance, 'geologically stable' rock formations have to be found in which to bury it (at depths of 1,000 feet). Areas where there are no earthquakes, no volcanoes to regurgitate and spread the stored waste in some future century. Preferably where there are few people at the moment. And no ground water movement to leach the radioactive substances and the toxic plutonium from the canisters when they eventually corrode away before the next 1,000 years. There are not very many suitable places.

Besides plutonium being extraordinarily toxic, it can be used to make "crude but powerful" nuclear weapons with little effort. It is difficult to account for every last kilogram of existing plutonium, without moving around much larger quantities in commercial operations all over the world.

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 contamination). The USA  has a 'decommissioning' component built into the price of nuclear generated electricity, but who is to say the money won't be spent (or worthless), and will it be enough to keep looking after the waste storage 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 both energy efficiency improvements and energy conservation, then the diminished demand would be at least equal to the existing nuclear power generation capacity.

The argument is that efficiency measures would not only save this power, but do it at much less 'up-front' cost than doubling existing nuclear capacity. Efficiency industries are often smaller, more distributed, employ more people, and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions faster than nuclear power could..
Since Chernobyl many countries have decided to phase out nuclear power. In the privatization of the British electricity industry in 1989 private investors would not buy the nuclear plants, simply due to the cost of disposal of both radioactive wastes and disposing (storing for millennia)  the 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 hydrocarbons 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.

 © Copyright 2005 Sustainable Living Organisation, version 1

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