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Why Oxford Research is Wrong on Nuclear Energy and Total Lifecycle Emissions

This morning, both Reuters and Business Week wrote lengthy features concerning the publication of a report by U.K.-based Oxford Research claiming that nuclear energy can't serve as a solution when it comes to climate change.

From Business Week:
Now, some scientists and other experts are beginning to raise a different question about nuclear power: Is it really as clean as supporters contend? A report, released on Mar. 26 by a British nongovernmental organization called the Oxford Research Group, disputes the popular perception that nuclear is a clean energy source. It argues that while nuclear plants may not generate carbon dioxide while they operate, the other steps necessary to produce nuclear power, including the mining of uranium and the storing of waste, result in substantial amounts of carbon dioxide pollution. "As this report shows, hopes for the climate-protecting potential of nuclear energy are entirely misplaced," says Jürgen Trittin, a former minister of the environment in Germany and a contributor to the report. "Nuclear power cannot be promoted on environmental grounds."
As I opened the PDF copy of Secure Energy? Civil Nuclear Power, Security and Global Warming, I couldn't help but be overcome by a sense of deja vu -- after all, the global anti-nuclear community has a habit of recycling old charges and using them over and over again in the hopes that nobody realizes the reports they issue aren't very new at all.

Sure enough, the section on total lifecycle emissions is authored by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, a man whose work David Bradish debunked here at NEI Nuclear Notes back in July 2005!

Here's what the World Nuclear Association said about Storm van Leeuwen's work in this area:
"The 2001 Storm van Leeuwen & Smith (SLS) paper dismisses arguments that nuclear energy is sustainable, either physically, environmentally or in terms of its energy costs, and this is repeated in the numerically-depleted May 2002 version. They purport to offer 'evidence'’ that building, operating and producing fuel for a nuclear plant produces as much carbon dioxide as a similar sized gas-fired plant. The foregoing WNA paper, quoting all the reputable studies we are aware of, shows that this is demonstrably wrong - there is a 20 to 50-fold difference in favour of nuclear. . ."

"Finally, it should be pointed out that, even on the basis of their erroneous assumptions and using their inaccurate figures, Storm van Leeuwen & Smith still are forced to conclude that nuclear power plants produce less CO2 than fossil-fuelled plants, although in their view "‘the difference is not large". Others might see a 20 to 50-fold difference (between nuclear and gas or coal) as significant."”
Once again, what really annoys me is that this is an old charge, one that the nuclear industry has answered over and over again. No matter, we'll keep knocking it down as long as they keep floating the same old trial balloon.


Jim Hopf said…
The best way to defeat these phony arguments is to call for a simple, even-handed carbon tax or cap-and-trade system. Any such system will effectively (and equally) tax all carbon inputs to any energy system, so that they accurately show up in their final price. This is obviously the right/best policy, and we do not need to figure out what the carbon emissions from each energy source are in order to implement it. The market will then accurately determine the net emissions of each source, and also determine the least expensive means of reduction.

Groups like the ones who put out these "studies" will not be able to argue against such a policy. If what they're saying were remotely true, the above policy would kill nuclear off. Of course, given that they're completely off base, we know (with certainty) that nuclear will not be affected at all, ever.

The one thing we cannot allow is for this to become a matter of who can convince politicians of the merits of their pet energy sources and then have a policy that decides, by fiat, which sources will be persued or supported. We need to limit carbon and then let the market decide what the best approach is. The main reason why this is so important that such even-handed, fact-based, wait-and-see policies act as a ultimate enforcer of truth, where bogus studies like this one are shown for what they are, and are not allowed to have any impact. Under such policies, nuclear will never suffer unless it actually does have significant net emissions (which it doesn't, and never will).
Robert said…
This is why you need a FAQ. said…
I am trying to reach a conclusion regarding the efficacy of nuclear power to a) meet our future energy needs and b) reduce global warming by replacing/decreasing the use of fossil fuel.
I cannot accept the argument that "the market" will establish any scientific proposition as more valid than another. Especially when huge government subsidies are involved to distort the financial results.
In fact the need for those subsidies will dictate that government is involved and it most certainly will be a matter or which group can convince politicians to adapt one policy over another. Make no mistake about that. Clearly hte Nuclear Power Industry has then inside track with government a this time.
However what are the facts? Why is the Oxford group wrong? Your position is I'm afraid, seems to be another version of not liking the message so shoot the messenger.
Eric McErlain said…
John -- please follow the links and read David Bradish's post detailing the areas where the original research by Storm van Leeuwen & Smith goes wrong.
Anonymous said…
If you are against nuclear because of so-called "subsidies", you should really, really, really be against so-called "renewable" energy sources, because those are much more heavily subsidized than any nuclear plant. In my state alone, if you put up a solar-based system, you'll get a very significant tax credit. If you have a PV system that feeds energy back into the grid, the state PUC requires the local distribution company to credit your bill at a rate substantially higher than the wholesale cost of electricity purchased from conventional sources. Now that's government involvement for you.
MCrab said…
The most definitive refutation of the Storm/Smith calumny is done at the nuclearinfo website. It not only contains an initial examination of the claims of Storm/Smith, but a series of rebuttals from van Leeuwen and responses from nuclearinfo.

In my opinion, van Leeuwen well and truly gets his ass handed to him in the debate. What's more is that he seems to agree, as he initially posted his rebuttals on his website but has subsequently removed them.
gunter said…
Interestingly enough, the environmental ministeries from Austria, Norway, Iceland and Norway all announced the same time the Oxford Research report came out that the "inherent risks and problems associated with the nuclear energy option remain and it can not therefore claim to be a clean alternative to fossil fuel use." So there are new voices in a growing choir.

Anonymous claims that renewables are getting more subsidies than nuclear. Simply not true. Since 1948 nuclear power has gotten the lion's share of government energy R&D according to the Congressional Research Service. If anonymous has a better source he should cite it.

Its not even really so much about the subsidies anyways, (even though this so-called "mature" industry can walk on its own) its about the demonstrated failure of what the n-industry did with it.

Despite the massive government financial involvment, industry still turned out $150 billion in cost overruns along with more than a hundred cancellations for what turns out to be 8% of the nation's energy output, or 20% of the electricity generating capacity.

In the meantime, they burned their bridge with private investment as a tremendous financial risk.

Moreover, the ultimate cost of long term nuclear waste management will eventually eclipse the cost of nuclear power generation.

Why one wonders does Charlie Brown even consider another kick at the football Lucy is holding out? We know he will wind up flat on his back again and again.

Now is not the time to have a nuclear relapse.

Gunter, NIRS
Brian Mays said…
Gunter wrote:

Interestingly enough, the environmental ministeries from Austria, Norway, Iceland and Norway all announced ... So there are new voices in a growing choir.

Indeed, the number of members of the choir must be growing quite large if they are allowed to count their members twice. Or does Norway have two environmental ministries? The Norwegians are quite rich from selling oil, so perhaps they can afford it.

Or maybe Gunter has something against the Irish. Ireland was the fourth partner in this example of extreme stupidity, but then again, they receive over 90% of their power from fossil fuels, so it is understandable if they oppose clean alternatives to their major source of energy.

For a less moronic take on this than what Mr. Gunter provides, look here.
Jim Hopf said…
First of all, it's unclear how relevent ancient history is to the merits of present-day energy options. Almost all of the govt. support Gunter refers to stopped 25-30 years ago. In the period since, nuclear has been the only major source that received almost no support, until the 2005 law, which merely gives it support similar to most sources.

That said, even if one takes all the govt. support received since 1948 and divides the the total kW-hrs produced to date, one gets a "subsidy" of less than 1 cent/kW-hr, which is less than all renewables receive today.

If one must define any sources as a failure, then renewables would be a better candidate than nuclear; having been studied for several decades, and having received tens of billions in research money and direct subsidies, w/o much at all to show for it. They still provide a fraction of a percent of electrical energy, ~1% of nuclear's contribution.

I'm quite sure that the ratio of govt. support (to date) versus electricity generated (to date) is far higher for renewables than it is for nuclear.
Anonymous said…
All I know is that in my state if you install any kind of solar heating or PV system, you can apply for a significant tax credit, in some cases up to 50% of the cost of the system. As far as I know nuclear plant operators do not get a similar tax break. In fact, nuclear plants pay a heckuva lot in taxes. I recall a number of something like 25% of the value of all the assessed commerical property tax in the state of Arizona is made up by the Palo Verde plant. No much of a tax break there.

Likewise on the resale of power back into the grid. There are laws on the books mandating a premium be paid to suppliers of electricity from so-called "green sources". As far as I know nuclear plants do not get a similar preferential treatment for supplying zero-emissions electricity at lower cost and considerably higher reliability than the greenies.
Anonymous said…
"Why one wonders does Charlie Brown even consider another kick at the football Lucy is holding out? We know he will wind up flat on his back again and again."
* * * * *
How many quotes from 1970s environmentalists like Amory Lovins about SOLAR power do I have to put up before this same argument applies to other renewable energies?
jim said…
I would agree that the Oxford Group overstated its case.

And I think that the suggestion of imposing a fair carbon tax on all industrial groups, including those in the energy field would be a practical and reasonable interim step.

I also think that your blog ought to prohibit ananymous posting. Just a thought.

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