Nuclear power and greenhouse gas emissions

A recent argument against nuclear power which I have now heard too many times is that nuclear power is almost as bad as natural gas because there are such great quantities of greenhouse gas emissions in the enrichment process. The authors of the arguments, Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith (the rebuttals standardize the paper as SLS), have not used the normal process used by those who want to be heard by scientists: get your arguments together for peer review journals, and then wait for the judgment of experts. They have gone directly to the public: Nuclear power – the energy balance.

A major thesis is that utilities are devoting tremendous energy to refining the uranium (but presumably don’t realize it or they would find economic alternatives). They argue the following:

• Rich ores are near exhaustion and the energy costs of lesser ores are enormous, indeed, they may be greater than the energy produced by the nuclear reactor.
• The “energy debt” to be paid for decommissioning nuclear power plants is significant.
• The energy costs of waste disposal are enormous.

I may have heard this argument only recently, but it’s been around long enough for knowledgeable people to respond.

Physicists from the University of Melbourne in Australia point out that the SLS paper produces energy assessments using theoretical relationships between money and energy, while other analyses use measured energy. The SLS paper assumes 30 times as much energy for building and decommissioning as is actually the case. The energy used at the Olympic Dam mine, according to SLS calculations, is more than the actual electricity production of south Australia. The Rossing mine, with its lower quality ore, costs more than $1 billion to operate yearly, according to SLS analysis, though the actual cost is less than $100 million. The SLS paper overestimates actual energy use by a factor of 80. See the whole article for more details. This group also addresses nuclear mistakes and proliferation.

There are a number of other analyses, see for example Nuclear Energy Institute.

The SLS site points to the World Nuclear Association.

I addressed earlier the question of whether there is Enough Uranium in slightly less detail but with a good reference.

The WNA and NEI sites are pro-nuclear sites, but they go through a review by people who appear to care about getting numbers right.

Occasionally there are questions as to whether estimates of greenhouse gas emissions include the total GHG emissions from mining to decommissioning and waste disposal. All (almost all?) analysis today for all activities is life cycle analysis, needed by governments and businesses to make valid choices.

According to the WNA site, GHG emissions from nuclear power are 2.7% those of coal power. The NEI site comes in around 2%. The analysis is for different countries.

Details on life cycle costs of driving in a future post.

One Response to “Nuclear power and greenhouse gas emissions”

  1. catharine Lucas says:

    With this title, I was hoping for something more comprehensive — I assume you have posted elsewhere/earlier on nuclear power and GHG emissions — will keep looking!