Nuclear Power and Global Warming


Nuclear power has recently been promoted as a possible solution to the greenhouse problem. Such a view however is based on the premise that nuclear power represents a safe, clean, sustainable and economic alternative. Ignoring the history of nuclear issues and fundamental realities of the nuclear fuel cycle, the nuclear option remains an ineffective solution to an incompletely phrased problem.

Nuclear Power - The Ineffective Solution

1. Nuclear Power is not Greenhouse Friendly
While nuclear electricity generation entails no direct emissions of CO2 or any other greenhouse gases, the nuclear fuel cycle does in fact release CO2. Although these emissions are, at present, quite small in comparison with coal fired power stations (4% of equivalent size generation); they are considerably larger than alternatives:

Nuclear Power -
  • releases 4-5 times more CO2 than equivalent power production from renewable sources
  • releases up to 20 times more CO2 than saving the same amount of power with energy efficiency measures
    By Dr Nigel Mortimer, FoE 9, 1989
  • This is because of the considerable fossil fuels use during mining, fuel enrichment, manufacture, and plant construction. It might be argued that future nuclear systems could achieve lower emissions, though as demand for uranium grew, CO2 emissions would again rise as ore grades declined.

    2. Unsustainable - Fast Breeder Reactors and Uranium Reserves
    Most publicity promoting nuclear power acknowledges that global uranium reserves are indeed quite limited when used in conventional thermal reactors.

    '..used in the type of reactors now in operation, the world's uranium supplies that are recoverable at a reasonable cost would be unlikely to last more than 50 years'
    U.S. Dept of Energy, 1989.

    "However, without drawing attention to the fundamental technical problems and substantially higher economic costs, fast breeder reactors are usually cited, quite glibly, as a means of transforming severely limited uranium resources into a much larger potential source of energy. In theory, the use of fast breeder reactors could increase the energy available by a factor of 60. In practice, it is now not clear how this would be achieved on an expanded global scale without encountering basic plutonium shortages, not to mention serious problems with waste disposal, power plant decommissioning and nuclear weapons proliferation. In fact, the fast breeder reactor is an essential component of the case for nuclear power. Yet, this case is built around a technology, which is not expected, by the nuclear industry itself, to be available for commercial introduction for another 20 years."

    UK Atomic Energy Authority.

    2. Ineffective - Wasting Time, Money, Life
    Bill Keepin and Gregory Kats, research scholars at the distinguished Rocky Mountain Institute analyzed in detail the effect of nuclear power compared with energy efficiency measures in reducing CO2 emissions.

    Principle Findings:
    1. Even a massive worldwide nuclear power program sustained over a period of several decades could not 'solve' the greenhouse problem. Even if it could, the Third World cannot support a major expansion of nuclear power on the scale that would be required in an attempted nuclear solution to greenhouse warming.
    2. The key to ameliorating future climatic warming caused by the combustion of fossil fuels is to improve the efficiency of energy usage.
    3. Improving electrical efficiency is nearly seven times more cost effective than nuclear power for abating CO2 emissions, in the USA.
    Energy Policy Dec 1988

    They also highlight the problem of "opportunity cost". Spending money on an expensive, relatively ineffective option uses up money that could be spent on more effective, cheaper measures. By doing so removes the opportunity of carrying out those cheaper measures, this point is critical for developing nations. In the context of global warming, this could prove disastrous.

    The Problem Revisited

    Every culture develops a story or myth – a worldview – about the environment in which it finds itself and about its place in that environment. The myth of modern economics lacks any substantive specification of the energy and material inputs and outputs of production. The systemic linkages between resource commodities and ecological processes are largely ignored. Like all other organisms, we survive and grow by extracting energy and materials from ecosystems of which we are a part. Like all other organisms we 'consume' those resources before returning them in altered form to the ecosphere. We share in common with all other species a certain biophysical reality, an environment and interaction with that environment, which are constrained by and partly determined by the laws of nature.

    Prevailing environmental threats are manifestations of the failure of humans to adequately incorporate into our mechanics and economics certain basic physical and biological principles. The promotion of nuclear power as a viable source of energy is a continued attempt to defy the laws of nature.

    The greenhouse effect is a very serious symptom, it is not the problem in itself. While the sources or types of energy predominantly used in the world are indeed effecting climatic change it is the pattern and rate of their consumption, which makes them critical.

    An Alternative Solution

    The response to greenhouse reductions requires immediate action yet we can ill-afford to get the approach wrong. Inappropriate action at this stage could have minimal benefit, wasting time, effort and money we can't waste. We must provide a solid framework incorporating policy, education, legislation, and development of appropriate technologies. It means giving consideration to the full cycle, or 'cradle-to-grave', consequences of our decisions and actions.

    Energy Efficiency
    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Second Assessment Report has estimated that energy efficiency measures alone could cost-effectively reduce energy consumption in most industrialised countries by 20-30%.

    End-use efficiency is the single most important technological factor determining future energy consumption levels, and therefore also future CO2 emissions.

    i.e. basically use less, and then implement technologies, which provide the same service while requiring less power.

    Solar radiation striking the earth each year is equal to about 178,000 terrawatts or about 15,000 times current global energy consumption. There is little doubt that renewable systems, in particular solar energy, offer the best hope of providing the world with a safe, clean and sustainable energy supply.

    Most renewable technologies are now well proven. Renewable energy - solar, wind, micro-hydro, tidal and biomass (if sustainably harvested) - already meets about 5-7% of the world's commercial energy needs.

    The Expert Group on Renewable Energy Technologies (EGRET) recently identified a number of barriers to the uptake of renewable energy in Australia and elsewhere. None of these barriers are technical. They are financial, institutional and information barriers. EGRET concludes that wide-scale application of solar technologies will be capable of producing electricity for around 5 cents/kWh within a few years. This would put solar power close to the costs of coal-fired electricity in Australia and 40-60% below the cost of nuclear power in industrialised countries.

    Australian researchers are world leaders in renewable energy systems. The application of these systems will continue to be held back, though, while successive Australian governments continue to encourage the uptake at home of fossil-fuel-based energy and the growth abroad of nuclear and coal-fired power.

    Understanding is required across all sectors of society, from individuals, local authorities, industries, and commerce to the public sector. This demands the understanding of the effects our patterns of consumption, both of energy and resources, have on the environment.

    Highlighting the Linkages Between Cause and Effect

    In regard to the greenhouse effect, a total understanding of the problem that includes the following factors and our relation to them:

  • Total energy use, direct and indirect
  • Deforestation and land clearing
  • Transport effects
  • Agriculture and land fill
  • Legislation
    Current obstacles to investment in energy efficiency and renewable technologies, combined with continued protection of fossil fuel industries make government policy changes imperative. Binding CO2 targets-

  • The IPCC has stated that CO2 emissions require immediate reductions of over 60% to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at 1990 levels; methane would require a 15-20% reduction. Environmental Taxation-
  • Such taxation should be used as one of a number of mechanisms to encourage a switch to less polluting energy supplies and greater efficiency in energy use. Transportation, mining and agricultural practices need to be addressed. Initiatives need to be created to allow mutual benefit between producer, end user and the environment.
  • Cradle to grave analysis / regulations-
  • Specification of requirements so that energy use is assessed in every action made, direct and indirect. For example 5% of the energy involved in a car's life is taken in its manufacture.
  • Future Directions.....

    Ultimately decentralisation of energy and resource distribution combined with an economy that accounts for the real costs of production.

    Nuclear Power and Global Warming
    Written and compiled by Bruce Thompson, November 1997
    For comments or further information contact:
    Friends of the Earth, Fitzroy, Ph 03 9419 8700

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