nuclear power life cycle costs

Yes, folks, global warming is happening. When one looks at similar warming effects occuring on other planets in our solar system, and at the recent increase in solar activity, it shouldn’t be surprising that things start to warm up. , but, hey! we won’t be around. Hmmm, that attitude sounds familiar. Oh, yeah… nuclear power.

Certainly our current fossil-fuel-based goin-on-all-guns economy isn’t making matters better when it comes to global warming. Nuclear energy appears to be an appealing emmissions-free alternative. But, is it really?

1- Claims of greenhouse reductions made by nuclear power generation supporters focus primarily on only one aspect of the entire process, namely the power generation cycle, which gives off nearly no greenhouse emissions, while downplaying or ignoring greenhouse gas emissions throughout the remainder of the cycle, such as mining of uranium, uranium conversion and enrichment, plant construction, transportation of uranium and spent fuel, nuclear waste storage and nuclear power plant de-commissioning.

In order to produce enough enriched fuel to supply a standard 1GW reactor for one full-power year, about 160 tons of natural uranium must be processed. The hexafluoride method of uranium enrichment commonly employed during both enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel releases greenhouse gasses in the form of halogens and halogenated compounds, such as Freon-114, with many times greater global warming potential than CO2. When the entire nuclear power cycle is considered, the argument that nuclear power reduces greenhouse gas emissions does not stand under scrutiny.

2- Nuclear power is not cost-effective. The nuclear power industry is the most heavily subsidised among all power generation technologies. Without these subsidies, nuclear power could not compete with other, less labor, time and capital intensive generation technologies. There is currently a backlog of high-level nuclear waste that has accumulated over the course of 60 years into a over a quarter of a million tons that are kept in storage in ponds in temporary storage containers, which have to separated by boron panels to prevent chain reactions. How much energy will be required to dispose of this waste is unknown, but in “Why Nuclear Power Cannot be a Major Energy Source” suggests a rough guideline of one third of the total of all energy produced.

When the total life cycle of nuclear power generation, from mining to plant decommissioning is factored in, the cost of nuclear power is greater than the power generated. It is estimated that the energy requirements to create the lead-steel-copper containers required to package the spent nuclear fuel produced by a reactor is nearly equal to that required to construct the reactor.

3- Nuclear power generation decreases national security. Governments have been aware of the security issues raised by nuclear power generation since the inception of the industry. In the US, the FBI has long considered nuclear power plants to be “hardened” targets. After the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, the public became increasingly aware that nuclear power plants could be devastating targets for attack. In 2005, elected officials from counties neighboring the India Point nuclear power plant facilities in New York called for the immediate closure of the plant, citing a history of accidents and toxic leaks, and a growing concern that the dense local population within a fifty-mile radius of the plant, numbering close to 20 million, would be at great risk in the case of a terrorist attack on India Point.

Nuclear reactors are not the only potential targets for terrorists. Because spent fuel contains deadly radioactive particles that remain hazardous for so long, an attack on nuclear storage facilities could lead to a catastrophe on the same scale as an attack on a nuclear reactor. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, over $US 1 billion has been spent on security improvements by the nuclear power industry, in addition to the substantial sums which has already been spent before that time.

4- Toxic waste and pollution is created at every stage of nuclear power production. In mining operations, “in sutu leaching” is a common technique for reaching deeper uranium deposits by injecting hundreds of tons of sulphuric acid, nitric acid, ammonia and other chemicals into the strata and pumping them back out after 5 - 25 years. This process yields about a quarter of the uranium from the treated rocks, but also deposits radioactive and toxic metals into the local environment and aquifers. The milling process also produces an average 999 tons of highly radioactive waste rock for every ton of uranium yielded. Preparation of the fuel creates another 85 percent waste out of the mined uranium yellow-cake, a small percentage of which can be turned into depleted uranium metal, which is usually used to make armor-piercing bullets and shells. There are currently 500,000 tons of depleted uranium in “temporary” storage.

Spent nuclear fuel is highly toxic and hazardous to human health, so much so that to stand beside it would mean death in one or two seconds. Some of the spent nuclear fuel might be re-processed and used to make nuclear weapons. Much of the spent reactor fuel will be re-processed to extend the life of the fuel as long as possible, releasing more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere in the process. Eventually all nuclear waste must put into perpetual storage, where it will remain as a legacy for future generations to deal with.

5- There are other viable alternatives. While proponents of the nuclear power industry may claim that there is no other alternative that can provide sufficient baseload power to a centralized grid, other approaches have been suggested. For example, a completely renewable baseload generation system that combines wind energy, compressed air energy storage and biomass gasification can potentially provide clean energy functionally equivalent to a large fossil or nuclear power plant system and virtually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

+ Modok +

Further reading: arMacGilletAl_IEEEPE0607.pdf

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