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Setting the Record Straight on Nuclear Energy and Total Life-Cycle Emissions. Again.

In coverage of TVA's decision to complete the Watts Bar 2 nuclear reactor, we saw a familiar charge get aired by anti-nuclear activists concerning nuclear energy and total life-cycle emissions. First, here's an account from Knox News:
Anti-nuclear activists criticized the description of nuclear power as “clean,” pointing to the nuclear waste created and the energy-intensive process of mining and enriching uranium for nuclear fuel.

“Nuclear power is not clean, and the idea that you all found no significant impacts on your environmental impact statement is a joke,” said Earth First! activist John Johnson, referring to a federally required environmental study released in June.
Next, here's a familiar face in the Chattanooga Times Free-Press:
Helen Caldicott, president of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, is one of the most vocal critics of TVA's decision.

"I'm afraid this may be the beginning of a renaissance of nuclear power that will be extraordinarily dangerous and expensive for America," she said by telephone from her home in Australia.

Dr. Caldicott said radioactive wastes from such plants will linger for centuries, and nuclear plants contribute to global warming from carbons burned to mine, enrich, transport and dispose of uranium fuels.
Let's put aside the fact for the moment that completing Watts Bar 2 would mean avoiding the emission of 8 million tons of carbon dioxide per year by displacing the equivalent in coal-fired generating capacity -- that's 8 million tons per year for the entire lifetime of the reactor.

What both Johnson and Caldicott are referring to is total life-cycle emissions. In this case, they're claiming that despite the fact that nuclear reactors don't emit any greenhouse gases, the associated operations of the plant -- including the mining and enriching uranium -- cause more than enough carbon emissions to overwhelm any additional benefit in constrained carbon emissions.

Unfortunately for them, that's simply not the case -- something we've demonstrated over and over again here at NEI Nuclear Notes. In any number of cases, all reputable third-party studies concluded that total life-cycle emissions of nuclear energy are "comparable to renewable forms of generation, such as wind and hydropower, and far less than those of coal- or natural gas-fired power plants."

The study that is cited most frequently is probably Hydropower Internalized costs and externalized benefits, Frans Koch, International Energy Agency "Implementing Agreement for Hydropower Technologies and Programmes, 2000.

To download that view graph from the NEI Web site, click here.

In 2002, the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a study that came to a similar conclusion:

For that view graph, click here.

So what's the lesson? Don't believe everything you read. At least not before you check with us first.


Randal Leavitt said…
These comparisons between nuclear and wind are very misleading. The NEI should remove these charts from their web site. The chart implies that wind and nuclear are comparable as isolated components of a grid system. This is not the case. A wind turbine, or even a million wind turbines, is useless as a component of a grid system. Turbines are unreliable and cannot power anything on their own. Nuclear plants are reliable. This is a significant difference. A reasonable comparison would match a nuclear plant with a wind turbine backed up by coal generators. The backup has to run in idle mode releasing dangerous fossil fuel waste for the short periods that the wind turbine operates, and in full mode releasing even more dangerous fossil fuel waste when the weather restricted wind turbine is idle. Using this fair comparison we can see that wind turbines are almost as filthy as coal, and nuclear is much, much cleaner.
Fat Man said…
this is why you need to have a FAQ. If you had one, instead of answering this question repeatedly, all you would have to do is point to the FAQ.
Joffan said…
The picture for wind power is not as bad as randal suggests. While I agree with the point that wind and nuclear are markedly different quality of power, as-available vs. on-demand, wind is not coal, or close to it. I'd think the ideal use of wind is in a system with a good fraction of reservoir hydroelectric. Wind then would effectively extend the utility of the hydro by avoiding the need to empty the reservoir when wind is available.

Otherwise you could assume that the wind is backed by combined cycle gas, since that would answer the intermittant nature of backup required. It's certainly tough to produce a single figure that captures all these real-world choices.
Mike Oliver said…
Nuclear power plants in the U.S. are costly because our greens demonized these plants and are sabotaging their construction with endless lawsuits and other maneuvers. This discourage investment in these plants by Wall Street. Greens then use the high cost of nuclear power plants as a "reason" why they should not be built. They create the problem for their own use.

The green "alternatives" for energy would cause a real environmental problem if they were used to any meaningful extent. For instance, photo voltaic cells contnain poisonous materials and do not last for more than 20 to 30 years. If even 5% of our electric needs were provided by these cells, their residues would cover more volume than the residues of all our nuclear power plants combined multiplied by about 100.
Mike Oliver said…
U.S. nuclear power plants are costly because greens sabotage their construction by filing endless harassing lawsuits against them and by other untoward maneuvers. Having caused this problem in the first place, they than complain that these plants cost too much to build.

Remove that sabotage by launching counter lawsuit against the greens; remove government subsidies and government insurance; let private insurance companies insure these plants, as they insure countless other sturctures.

Let us realize that insurance companies will provide such insurance only if they are assured that no untoward lawsuits against these plants will be allowed by judges. Let us also realize that the insurance companies will then see to it that these plants will meet their safety standards, as they do with granting insurance to other large structures.

Under such conditions it is certain that the construction of a U.S. nuclear power plants will take only three to four years from start to finish. The U.S. completed even greater projects during World War II, and can do this during this World War III, as a necessity to remove our need fore foreign oil, and drastically reduce the flow of petrodollars to our enemies.

Greens oppose this because their leaders hate free enterprise and seek a collapse of our system. They would have it replaced with a totalitarian regime that they hope to dominate.
bvidalin said…
Its been clearly established that the environmental movement and anti-nukes do not share the same values. Environmentalists ARE questioning the false logic on CO2 and GHGs, and are finding the entire anti-nuclear argument lacking. PLEASE make a distinction between conservationists and anti-nukes. In the not too distant future, THEY will be inviting US to join with them.

Oooops, Its already happening, at least on an individual level.
Anonymous said…
"Environmentalists ARE questioning the false logic on CO2 and GHGs, and are finding the entire anti-nuclear argument lacking."

That's a vast overgeneralization, based primarily on the positions of a few high-profile former environmentalists (Moore, Brand and Lovelock) who are now on the payroll of the nuclear industry.
Anonymous said…
"U.S. nuclear power plants are costly because greens sabotage their construction by filing endless harassing lawsuits against them and by other untoward maneuvers."

Not true. Even the OVERNIGHT capital cost estimates, according to independent estimates such as MIT, are higher than coal and gas. That doesn't account for those horrible greens and their delaying tactics.

So what's your cost estimate? How much would a new NPP cost in the US if it were built to schedule, including timely NRC approval? It's easy to whine about environmentalists, tougher to back up the allegation.
Eric McErlain said…
I need to correct the record on this issue right now. Patrick Moore is a co-chair of the CASEnergy Coalition, an industry-funded group promoting the expanded use of nuclear energy. NEI has never tried to obscure this connection and has been very up front about it.

However, I can't see how Moore's connection to the industry obviates the need for others to have an honest debate with him about the issues.

As for Lovelock and Brand, they have no ties to the nuclear energy industry at all, outside of Brand's appearance at the 2006 Nuclear Energy Assembly.
Lisa said…

So are you saying that we should build gas and coal plants instead of nuclear because they're cheaper? If cost were the first priority we wouldn't even be considering renewables besides hydro.

Regardless, if you're quoting the 2003 MIT study that I think you are, you need to go back and look at the assumptions. Natural gas prices have tripled since then and the coal scenarios do not assume the cleanest available technology is used. The conclusions are no longer valid.

The flipping of priorities of anti-nukes never ceases to amaze me. Those that buy into Caldicott's farcical claims about emissions want to build up the case for renewables by espousing a philosophy of "we need to lower carbon and other emissions no matter what the price of the technology!" But when shown that the life-cycle emissions of nuclear are comparable to wind, suddenly the argument is "but nuclear is too expensive!"

Face it, no one, or even a handful, of technologies is going to solve all of our energy problems. Nuclear, being cleaner than everything but wind and hydro, and cheaper than everything but (perhaps) gas, hydro, and the dirtier coal technologies, needs to be a part of the mix.

And to the extent that they are deployed effectively and in a way that does not affect the stability of the grid, renewables like wind and solar must also be part of the mix.


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