Published: May 21, 2007 at 2:23 PM
Outside View: Nuclear CO2 warming costs
By HELEN CALDICOTT UPI
Outside View Commentator
MELBOURNE, May 21 (UPI) -- The fact is, it takes energy to make energy --
even nuclear energy. And the true "energetic costs" of making nuclear
energy -- the amounts of traditionally generated fuel it takes to create
"new" nuclear energy -- have not been tallied up until very recently.
What exactly is nuclear power? It is a very expensive, sophisticated and
dangerous way to boil water. Uranium fuel rods are placed in water in a
reactor core, they reach critical mass and they produce vast quantities of
heat, which boils the water. Steam is directed through pipes to turn a
turbine, which generates electricity.
The scientists who were involved in the Manhattan Project creating nuclear
weapons developed a way to harness nuclear energy to generate electricity.
Because their guilt was so great, they were determined to use their ghastly
new invention to help the human race. Nuclear fission harnessed "atoms for
peace," and the nuclear PR industry proclaimed that nuclear power would
provide an endless supply of electricity -- referred to as "sunshine
units" -- that would be good for the environment and "too cheap to meter."
They were wrong. Although a nuclear power plant itself releases no carbon
dioxide, the production of nuclear electricity depends upon a vast, complex,
and hidden industrial infrastructure that is never featured by the nuclear
industry in its propaganda, but that actually releases a large amount of
carbon dioxide as well as other global warming gases. One is led to believe
that the nuclear reactor stands alone, an autonomous creator of energy. In
fact, the vast infrastructure necessary to create nuclear energy, called the
nuclear fuel cycle, is a prodigious user of fossil fuel and coal.
The production of carbon dioxide, or CO2 is one measurement that indicates
the amount of energy used in the production of the nuclear fuel cycle. Most
of the energy used to create nuclear energy -- to mine uranium ore for fuel,
to crush and mill the ore, to enrich the uranium, to create the concrete and
steel for the reactor and to store the thermally and radioactively hot
nuclear waste -- comes from the consumption of fossil fuels, that is, coal
or oil. When these materials are burned to produce energy, they form CO2,
reflecting coal and oil's origins in ancient trees and other organic
carboniferous material laid down under the earth's crust millions of years
ago. For each ton of carbon burned, 3.7 tons of CO2 gas are added to the
atmosphere, and this is the source of today's global warming.
The total energy input of the nuclear fuel cycle -- the energetic costs of
nuclear power -- must be openly and honestly assessed if nuclear power is to
be compared fairly with other energy sources. Very few studies are yet
available that analyze the total life cycle of nuclear power and its final
energy input versus output.
One of the best is a study by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith
titled "Nuclear Power -- the Energy Balance." To quote the final conclusion
of their lengthy analysis, "The use of nuclear power causes, at the end of
the road and under the most favorable conditions, approximately one-third as
much carbon dioxide (CO2) emission as gas (from) electricity production. The
rich uranium ores required to achieve this reduction are, however, so
limited that if the entire present world electricity demand were to be
provided by nuclear power, these ores would be exhausted within nine years.
Use of the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors would produce more CO2
emission than burning fossil fuels directly." In this instance, nuclear
reactors are best understood as complicated, expensive and inefficient gas
Setting aside the energetic costs of the whole fuel cycle, and looking just
at the nuclear industry's claim that what transpires in the nuclear plants
is "clean and green," the following conditions would have to be met for
nuclear power actually to make the substantial contribution to reducing
greenhouse gas emissions that the industry claims is possible. This analysis
assumes 2 percent or more growth in global electricity demand: -- All
present-day nuclear power plants -- 441 in all -- would have to be replaced
by new ones. -- Half the electricity growth would have to be provided by
nuclear power. -- Half of all the world's coal-fired plants would have to be
replaced by nuclear power plants.
This would mean the construction over the next 50 years of some 2,000 to
3,000 nuclear reactors of 1,000 megawatt size -- one per week for 50 years!
Considering the eight to 10 years it takes to construct a new reactor and
the finite supply of uranium fuel, such an enterprise is simply not viable.
(This piece originally appeared in Dr. Helen Caldicott's "Nuclear Power Is
Not the Answer," The New Press, 2006. This piece is published here with the
permission of The New Press. Helen Caldicott is president of the
Washington-based Nuclear Policy Research Institute. She was a founder of the
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the organization
that won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.)