Monday, 6 December 2010
Nuclear power - only twelve years cheap uranium left
Paul Mobbs Green Health Watch (12134)
Could a shortage of economically-viable uranium be the 'Achilles' heel' of the nuclear energy industry’s bid to save the world from global warming?
Uranium is as common as tin or zinc, but current nuclear energy plants use, and are costed on the basis of, high-grade uranium, which is far cheaper to refine than low-grade uranium. Most estimates suggest that the planet has 4-5 million tonnes. More cautious authorities, like the European Commission, are reckoning on 2.8 million tonnes. At the current level of high-grade uranium consumption (67,000 tonnes per year) and given no improvement in nuclear energy technology (which looks unlikely within the timescale needed) known viable resources would last 42 years. If one also included the second-hand high-grade uranium available from the Military as they update their nuclear armouries, nuclear energy would only be available for 72 years.
However, this presupposes that nuclear energy plants will continue to produce electricity at their current modest level (16% of global electricity, 3.6% of UK final energy consumption). If it is to have an impact on global warming or, for that matter, replace the planet’s dwindling oil, coal and gas resources, significantly increased production will be needed, perhaps a six fold production. In that case, those 72 years would become 12 years, making all of that investment and building rather pointless, not to say, from a capitalist viewpoint, a poor investment.
This demonstration of economic absurdity is only one of four compelling arguments not to build new nuclear energy plants. The others are (i) their terrorist potential as ‘nuclear bombs’, (ii) their higher than reported carbon emissions, (iii) the unsolved problem of disposing of their radioactive waste.
The Government must be aware of these facts, but persists in keeping the nuclear energy option open. Why? It cannot be the nuclear energy lobby. The 20% of the UK’s electricity needs the industry provides is costing the Government a fortune. Some suspect it may be the Military lobby, which still thinks it needs an independent source of the radioactive by-products of refining uranium for its nuclear bombs and depleted uranium weapons.
Whatever the reason, alleging that nuclear energy is the most powerful weapon immediately available to the UK is a clever way of rehabilitating the industry in the eyes of the public.
A deceptive dead duck Nick Anderson. Green Health Watch (12484)
Politicians worldwide lack the guts to invest in new solutions to the long-predicted problem of global warming. The UK Government is no exception. Already well behind the modest CO2 emission-reduction targets it set itself, it is desperate to be seen to be doing something, however pointless and whatever the long term implications. Rather than invest in energy conservation and the development of clean, sustainable energy sources, it has decided to prioritise the building of more dirty, unsustainable nuclear power stations.
In the previous article Paul Mobbs argues that insufficient world resources of high-grade uranium made nuclear power at best a short term source of energy. Writing in The Ecologist, Jon Hughes gives more reasons why the rationale for nuclear power simply does not add up.
Building a nuclear power station With global warming self-evident, and the prospect of rising sea levels and greater coastal erosion, the first problem is where to build them. The average nuclear power station requires around 30 million gallons of water a day to cool its reactors, the reason all current stations are sited on the coast. This, as a confidential Nirex* report implies, is no longer an option. Future nuclear power stations will have to be built further inland, presenting major and costly logistical and safety problems which will themselves generate huge volumes of CO2 emissions. Will new roads have to be built to supply all the building materials and reactor components, and rivers dammed and populations re-sited to provide adequate water supplies?
The UK Government has prioritised nuclear power as a swift and sure response to global warming when building new nuclear power stations is unlikely to be either swift or sure. No-one has built a nuclear power station in Europe for ten years or in the US for twenty years. The new European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR), the model of reactor most likely to be favoured by the Government, has never been built nor its ‘innovative’ computer management systems proven. The prototype is currently under construction in Helsinki (Finland), where construction is already a year behind schedule after only one year’s work. The Government has boasted that new nuclear power stations could be built in five years but, all of the above aside, the nuclear power industry is infamous for missing deadlines by miles while costs spiral. Ten years would be a more likely timescale, but that would only be if the current design of EPR is adopted.
Although opponents of nuclear power have long highlighted the potential of nuclear power stations for terrorists to make impressive statements, the current design of EPR ignores what nuclear engineering consultants John Large now considers “a probability, no longer a possibility”. John Large estimates that it will take ten years to develop and incorporate adequate protection.
In short, even if the UK Government were able to find geologically ‘safe’ sites, and ‘streamline’ (i.e. run rough shod through) any local consultation or planning processes, and go ahead with nuclear power stations vulnerable to terrorist attack, it would probably still take at least ten years before the first Watt of alleged CO2 - saving nuclear electricity left the stations. During that time, construction of the new stations would have pumped CO2 into the atmosphere while global warming got worse.
At present, nuclear power supplies 20% of the UK’s electricity wants. The current facilities are ageing and must soon be shut down then decommissioned (another source of CO2 emissions). To provide the same amount of electricity, ten new power stations will have to be built, at a cost of £20 billion and bequeathing radioactive pollution to current populations and generations for thousands of years to come. At the end of it all, in terms of CO2 emissions from electricity production, the UK would have stood still. Imagine, on the other hand, what £20 billion across 10 years invested in energy conservation and renewable energy sources could achieve. The UK Association for the Conservation of Energy states that energy efficiency measures alone could save 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. In the same period, the German Government will have invested 10 billion euros in upgrading 75% of its pre-1978 housing stock to 2006 standards. Meanwhile, the UK Government, with seven million sub-standard homes, has so far only committed itself to 150 million euros.
Notes (i) In his report, Nuclear Power: the Energy Balance, Dutch nuclear expert Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen states (a) that the current grade of uranium ore being mined will be exhausted by 2034, and (b) that the increased cost of mining and processing lower grade ore will cause nuclear power to become increasingly inefficient and expensive. The more intensive processing will also dramatically increase carbon dioxide emissions attributable to nuclear power.
(ii) In a letter to The Ecologist (1.9.06), Peter Bunyard notes that the French Government assesses that, using the currently available high grade uranium ore, the generation of one megawatt/hour of electricity with one of their Pressurised Water Reactor nuclear power stations* emits 29 tonnes of carbon dioxide. France should know. It is the country with the most experience of nuclear power in the world. Its 60 reactors are responsible for 9% of its carbon emissions. When or if lower grade ore is used, those figures will be much higher.
(iii) The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament states that, from cradle to grave, a nuclear power station causes as much CO2 emission as a modern gas-burning power station.
(iv) The Sustainable Development Commission (March 2006), states that a natural gas-burning power station emits 356 tonnes per megawatt/hour, a coal-burning power station 891.
(v) Only a third of the UK public supports the building of new nuclear power stations in Britain (Financial Times 20.11.06).
* In pressurised water reactors the water surrounding the core is kept under pressure. When the pressurised water is heated by the reactor, it is sent to a heat exchanger and it boils water which is kept at a lower pressure. This steam is then sent to a turbine to generate electricity
Uranium mining. Dr Gordon Edwards. Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (reported in Green Health Watch (12470)
Nuclear energy and reprocessing plants are leaving growing stockpiles of radioactive waste around the planet which will threaten the health of both people and planet for hundreds of thousands of years. But so does uranium mining, at great human and financial cost now and the future, a factor usually ignored in the debate about continuing with nuclear power.
Miners Excessive levels of disease in uranium miners were first reported in Schneeberg, Germany in 1546 and continued for several centuries. In 1879 it was demonstrated that about half of the cases were lung cancer, giving the miners a lung cancer rate four times higher than in the general population. The same grim statistic was later found among the miners in Joachimsthal, Czechoslovakia. The ores being mined in both cases happened to be particularly rich in uranium. Uranium miners around the world currently experience similar rates.
Local populations Once mined, the uranium ore is crushed into a fine sand and the uranium extracted using a wide range of chemicals, many toxic. The remaining sand is stored in huge dust ‘reservoirs’ called ‘tailings’. The radioactivity of these ‘tailings’ is still 85% of the original ore, including thorium-230 and radium-226, and they give off at least 10,000 times more radon gas than the original ore.
Fallout from uranium mines Every uranium mine is a slow nuclear bomb, spreading deadly radioactive poisons over vast areas of the Earth, as surely as the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and the Chernobyl disaster did. Helped by a light breeze, radon gas can travel a thousand miles in just a few days. Being much heavier than air, it travels low to the ground, depositing radioactive fallout on vegetation, soil and water, and entering the food chain.
Radioactive homes Many homes and schools near mines were built using the sand-like uranium tailings as a construction material. As a result, some of the buildings ended up with levels of radon gas and radioactive particles even higher than those permitted in the mines.
In the US alone there are 220 million tons of uranium tailings, in Canada 150 million tons. The tailings will remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Everyone agrees that, like the waste from nuclear power stations, these materials are too dangerous to leave on the surface of the earth, yet no one has devised a satisfactory method for permanently containing them. Even at a very modest rate, say $10 per ton, and if ever we devise a safe method, it will cost billions of dollars to dispose of these wastes.
Notes (i) The tailings also contain heavy metals, acids, ammonia and salts.
(ii) In 1979, a new tailings reservoir dam at Churchrock (New Mexico, US) collapsed. The resulting spill was the greatest accidental release of radioactive material into the environment prior to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Posted by Reg Illingworth at 21:11