Nuclear Energy - Depletion Scotland viewpoint


At present, electricity from nuclear plants is relatively inexpensive, providing only daily running costs are considered. However, if the expenditures for plant construction and safety, reactor decommissioning and waste storage are taken into account, nuclear power is very expensive.

There are currently between 400 and 450 reactors operating worldwide. Could nuclear power take up the slack as energy from petroleum production declines? Probably not - a very significant increase in the number of nuclear power plants would be required.

Those who argue that nuclear generated electricity is the answer to post Peak Oil energy shortages state that nuclear power is abundant, clean, practical and safe. Each of these areas are examined in more detail below.

Abundant

The fuel supply for nuclear power is virtually limitless if fast-breeder reactors are used to produce plutonium. Just a few of these have been constructed and they have proven to be extremely expensive, largely as a result of the need for special safety systems. They are susceptible to serious fires involving the liquid metal (sodium) used to cool the reactor. Plutonium is used in nuclear arms production and requires extra security in our current times of heightened terrorist threat awareness.

It is also possible to re-process spent fuel into a form known as MOX (mixed oxide) which consists of a mixture of plutonium and uranium oxides which can then be used to replace conventional uranium fuel in power plants. Those MOX plants that have been built however have turned out to be environmentally and financially problematic.

Uranium must be mined and exists in finite quantities. The mining process is wasteful, polluting and dangerous and much of the energy needed to mine uranium currently comes from oil. As petroleum becomes more scarce and expensive, the mining process will likewise become more costly and will yield less net energy.

The UK does not have any significant uranium deposits.

It has been calculated that if all current electricity generation in the whole world was produced from conventional uranium fuel, then known reserves of uranium would only last for three years (see ref 2). This limitation is masked at the present time by the fact that the electrical energy produced by nuclear reactors comprises only some two to three percent of the total energy use in the world.

Clean

Claims that nuclear power "doesn't emit any carbon dioxide at all" are true only in that the nuclear reaction itself doesn't create CO2 emissions. Mining, refining and concentrating the uranium ore to make it into nuclear fuel are all highly polluting processes. Construction of a nuclear power station requires huge amounts of energy to make the steel and concrete. This energy comes mostly from oil and coal. If the whole power station life-cycle is taken into account, nuclear power is responsible for significant CO2 emissions.

Practical

The costs typically quoted for nuclear-generated electricity are operating costs only and do not include costs for plant decommissioning and spent fuel storage. When fully costed, nuclear power is by far the most expensive conventional energy source. Total costs are so high that following electricity deregulation, nuclear plants in the US were deemed unable to compete and utility companies had to be bailed out for nuclear-related stranded costs. British Energy received 10 billion to keep it afloat in 2002.

Reliability is also an issue although this has improved in the last 30 years. Nuclear power plants are extremely complex, many things can go wrong and repair costs can be much higher than for other types of generating plant.

Safe

Siting nuclear plants has always been a challenge and if they are to be used to take up slack we are going to need lots more of them. Earthquake zones must be ruled out, along with most urban areas. In the US the industry has required special legislation to limit the liability of nuclear power plants operators in the event of a major accident. If the technology was as safe as that in conventional generating plants, no such measure would be needed.

Other Issues

There are three further questions we must address in considering whether nuclear power can help us through the transition away from oil and natural gas:

Can the technology be scaled up quickly enough?
What is the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI)?
To what extent can it substitute for petroleum in its current primary uses i.e. transport and agriculture?

The UK currently has 31 operating reactors at 14 power stations which provide approximately 25% of the electricity in the UK.

Scale Up?

Would be slow and costly. In the UK, to replace all current oil and gas fired electricity generation would require more than doubling of nuclear power generation capacity - i.e. 40 more reactors of current average capacity.

In the UK, we can expect to see relaxation of planning regulations and extension of existing nuclear power sites to avoid delays in bringing new nuclear generation capacity online. Scotland is in the front line for new nuclear development proposals as has been evident in recent news reports (Herald/Scotsman newspapers, 25/03/05).

Transport and Agriculture?

Andrew Oswald, an economics professor at the University of Warwick, worked with an energy consultant, Jim Oswald, to calculate how much additional electricity the United Kingdom would need to switch to fuelling transportation needs with hydrogen. They estimate that the United Kingdom would need either 100,000 new wind turbines or 100 new nuclear power plants to supply this level of hydrogen. According to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea, there are about 30 million petrol and diesel fuelled vehicles on the road in the United Kingdom.

The replacement of oil with electricity in 700 million plus vehicles over the whole world constitutes a technical and economic problem of mammoth proportions. To do this, a better storage solution than batteries is required and the best option currently feasible would be using hydrogen, but this is a technology which is unproven in the mass market.

Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI)?

When plant construction and decommissioning, waste storage, uranium mining etc are taken into account, EROEI for nuclear power is fairly low. The use of nuclear technologies in modern industrial societies has largely been subsidised by the availability of cheap fossil fuels. Decommissioning the current UK fleet of nuclear reactors in a reasonably safe manner will be difficult in a world where oil energy is scarce.

For all these reasons, the advisability of turning to nuclear power as a panacea solution when energy shortages arise due to the depletion of fossil fuels must be seriously questioned.

References

1. The Party's Over, by Richard Heinberg, New Society Publishers

2. Can nuclear power provide energy for the future: Would it solve the CO2 emission problem, by Jan Willem Storm Leeuwen and Philip Smith, 15 July 2004

 
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Last updated: April 10, 2005