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Nuclear power is dirty April 20, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Nuclear Power, Sustainable Living.

Advocates of atomic energy love touting nuclear power as a source of clean and green electricity, but how clean is it really?

Below, is some information from the December 2006 issue of Elements – An International Magazine of Mineralogy, Geochemistry, and Petrology, which is published jointly by several North American and European scientific societies. The issue is entitled The Nuclear Fuel Cycle – Environmental Aspects and contains a series of articles by scientists who are described as “recognized leaders in their fields”.

Manufacturing fuel for nuclear power stations produces radioactive waste at every step of the process, but the largest volume of waste consists of mine and mill tailings (i.e. material that’s left behind after uranium ore has been mined and processed).

Mining of about 17 000 tonnes of 1% uranium ore is required to produce enough uranium to fuel a 1 GW(e) nuclear reactor for one year. To date, worldwide mining of uranium ore has generated approximately 938 million cubic meters of tailings from more than 4000 mines. In most cases, the tailings are disposed off by “near-surface impoundment” (i.e. burial) near the mine or mill.

With levels of radioactivity ranging from less than 1Bq/g to more than 100Bq/g, catastrophic or continuous release of contaminants from these disposal sites can have substantial impacts on the environment.

The principal radiation risks from uranium tailings are radon gas, windblown radioactive dust dispersal and gamma radiation. Mill tailings are also frequently associated with elevated concentrations of highly toxic heavy metals which are a major source of groundwater and surface water contamination.

Improper disposal of mill tailings in the past has led to substantial water and soil contamination and disposal sites with no effective containment of the tailings are widespread. Hundreds of incidents of containment failure, resulting mostly from slope instability, earthquakes, seepage and overtopping, have been reported (here’s an example that’s been in the news recently).

The most notorious of these sites is probably at Mailuu-Suu, the site of a former soviet uranium plant in Kyrgyzstan, which was recently voted to be one of the world’s ten most polluted places.

A typical 1GW(e) nuclear reactor generates approximately 20 metric tonnes of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel waste per year. In the USA, the current “inventory” of this type of material stands at about 62 000 metric tonnes and is projected to at least double by the end of the operating life of currently active nuclear plants.

At the moment, there are 443 atomic energy plants in operation worldwide (with some 24 more under construction). The current global inventory of spent fuel is about 270 000 metric tonnes.

Proponents of nuclear energy argue that for atomic power to have a significant impact on greenhouse gas reduction, a three to ten-fold increase in worldwide nuclear electricity generation is necessary by 2050.

The ten-fold increase scenario requires about 3500 new 1GW(e) atomic power stations to be built, which would produce some 100 000 metric tonnes of radioactive spent fuel every year.

The three-fold increase scenario would involve a new 1GW(e) plant to be constructed every several weeks and the high level waste generated would necessitate opening a waste storage site similar to the one proposed at Yucca Mountain in the USA every three to four years.

There is currently no long-term disposal site for high-level nuclear waste anywhere in the world. About US$7 billion have already been spent on researching the viability of the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain (with an envisaged capacity of 70 000 metric tonnes equivalent of spent nuclear fuel), but the US government has not yet granted a license for this facility.

The point I’m trying to make here is, of course, that even though we are regularly told that nuclear energy is a very clean source of energy, this is certainly not the case if one considers the industry in its entirety.

The atomic energy industry generates wast amounts of toxic and radioactive waste that has already contaminated parts of our planet and much of which we have no idea what to do with as yet.

Doesn’t sound all that clean to me!


1. Peter Jones - April 21, 2007

I agree wholehearedly – and of course there is an alternative to nuclear energy – clean, carbon free and unlimited, if only those who make decisions about fuel sources could only see it!
I refer of course to ‘concentrating solar power’ (CSP), the technique of concentrating sunlight using mirrors to create heat, and then using the heat to raise steam and drive turbines and generators, just like a conventional power station. It is possible to store solar heat in melted salts so that electricity generation may continue through the night or on cloudy days. This technology has been generating electricity successfully in California since 1985 and half a million Californians currently get their electricity from this source. CSP plants are now being planned or built in many parts of the world.

CSP works best in hot deserts and, of course, there are not many of these in Europe! But it is feasible and economic to transmit solar electricity over very long distances using highly-efficient ‘HVDC’ transmission lines. With transmission losses at about 3% per 1000 km, solar electricity may, for example, be transmitted from North Africa to London with only about 10% loss of power. A large-scale HVDC transmission grid has also been proposed by the wind energy company Airtricity as a means of optimising the use of wind power throughout Europe.

In the ‘TRANS-CSP’ report commissioned by the German government, it is estimated that CSP electricity, imported from North Africa and the Middle East, could become one of the cheapest sources of electricity in Europe, including the cost of transmission. That report shows in great detail how Europe can meet all its needs for electricity, make deep cuts in CO2 emissions, and phase out nuclear power at the same time.

Further information about CSP may be found at http://www.trec-uk.org.uk and http://www.trecers.net . Copies of the TRANS-CSP report may be downloaded from http://www.trec-uk.org.uk/reports.htm .

Peter Jones

2. Hard Rain - April 23, 2007

Hopefully the worst parts of nuclear energy (the whole mining scenario) could be made redundant along with fission technology if projects like ITER manage to get us sustainable hydrogen fusion reactions.

3. Andreas - April 24, 2007

Among a host of other problems,ITER will cost billions and will take far too long to help us much. Besides, it’s not needed – we can do the job safely now with renewables and energy efficiency…

4. Ingela Richardson - April 26, 2007

Hi again

Do you have an email contact address for people who are fighting the biodiesel issue in the Eastern Cape?

Also the nuclear issue – since they want to build a nuclear reactor (PBMR) at Coega, according to Alec Erwin. Did you know Coega is built on a seismic fault line? They had an earthquake along this line in Uitenhage in 69. They say they are “monitoring” this at Coega.

Doesn’t matter though – since if they intend building over 20 – there will hardly be an area in SA not affected.

Did you know about their plans to mine uranium in the Magaliesburg and now they have bought farms in Beaufort West for uranium mining – a UK mining company, Brinkley.

Please send me info relevant to the above if you can.


5. Andreas - April 26, 2007

Hi Ingela and thanks very much for the interesting information. I didn’t actually know that one of the PBMR was planned for Coega, but I guess that makes sense. Like you say, they’ll be all over the country if government and the nuclear industry have their way.

I know that there is a lot of new activity in uranium exploration and mining, but hadn’t heard about the new SA developments yet. This is obviously all in anticipation for the coming nuclear boom we are being set up for.

I’m afraid I don’t know anyone in the Eastern Cape working on environmental issues, but Earthlife Africa should be able to help I would think.

6. Jim McDonald - May 2, 2007

You end your article with

“The atomic energy industry generates wast amounts of toxic and radioactive waste that has already contaminated parts of our planet and much of which we have no idea what to do with as yet.

Doesn’t sound all that clean to me!”

The problem isn’t nuclear power it is your logic. You say quite correctly that the fuel is removed from the ground. The most toxic parts of this ground is removed to be used as fuel, then return the tailings to the ground. Using this logic you would accuse someone that removes oil slicks from the ocean to burn in his car “environmentally dirty” because he returns the clean water to the ocean.

The real fact is that in a breeder reactor even the tailings could provide enough power to replace all energy produce from oil for several thousand years.

Now tell the truth, your site is financed by some oil company isn’t it.

7. Andreas - May 2, 2007

Talk about logic, Jim! Uranium ore in the ground is generally not toxic or particularly radioactive to the environment. The concentration of uranium is too low (although there are some “natural reactors” these are very rare). The problems arise when the naturally occurring uranium ore is concentrated and enriched by human beings.

Your oil slick analogy is nonsensical. You make it sound as though the nuclear industry is doing us all a favour by removing “toxic” uranium ore from the ground, extracting fuel for nuclear power plants and then returning the cleaned-up, no longer toxic tailings to the ground. That is simply not true.

Billions of dollars have been spend for the last few decades by the most “advanced” industrial countries in trying to develop breeder technology. None of them have succeeded. None of the so-called breeders actually breed. The French and Japanese “breeders” have been out of operation for years and the Russian one has had a history of big and serious accidents. If these things ever work, they will also be a source of weapons-grade plutonium.

Ok, you got me, Jim. I admit it, I really live in the Bahamas and fund my lavish lifestyle from Big Oil slush funds.

8. Michael Stuart - May 4, 2007

CSP is no substitute for nuclear energy!

Concentrating Solar Power (or CSP) is inefficient, expensive, and has notable environmental impacts.

According to the California Energy Commission ( http://www.energy.ca.gov/electricity/gross_system_power.html ), all of the utility-generated solar power in the state amounts to two-tenths of one percent of the state’s electricity production. Because of the limited availability of sunlight, these systems have notoriously low capacity factors and therefore cannot be relied upon for baseload power.

According to the California Energy Commission ( http://www.energy.ca.gov/electricity/comparative_costs.html ), at 13 to 42 cents per kWhr, solar power is *the* most expensive way to generate electricity. In a time when energy prices are skyrocketing, few people can afford a large-scale conversion to solar power. What’s more, due to its low capacity factors, solar capacity must be backed up with additional stand-by power generation, which adds to the overall cost of solar.

Environmental impact
Solar collectors also require a huge area of land, which must be dedicated to solar generation. Even in the desert, this could disrupt the delicate ecology. Additionally, in order for the salts to remain molten at night, CSP requires fossil fuels to be burned for heat. According to a US Department of Energy study ( http://www.nrel.gov/docs/gen/fy98/24496.pdf ), these systems are “hybridized” with up to 25% natural gas. Ironically, this renewable technology is a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions!

Nevertheless, concentrating solar technology, along with many other renewable power sources such as wind, tidal, and geothermal, should continue to be supported in hopes that a breakthrough will someday allow them to be a significant source of energy generation. Today however, CSP is no replacement for baseload energy generation sources. In the medium term, we cannot abandon the proven, effective, and efficient source of low-emission energy that nuclear power has to offer. To learn more about the benefits of nuclear energy, check out http://www.nei.org/index.asp?catnum=1&catid=11 and http://www.casenergy.org/WhyNuclear/TheBasics/tabid/66/Default.aspx

Michael Stuart

9. Anonymous - January 10, 2009

Pro-Nuclear = Anti-Christ

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