Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Net Positive of Mining Uranium

A team of Australian researchers has published a paper showing that mining uranium produces greenhouse gases. Yes, I know, it's a stop-the-presses moment:

The case for nuclear power as a low carbon energy source to replace fossil fuels has been challenged in a new report by Australian academics.

It suggests greenhouse emissions from the mining of uranium - on which nuclear power relies - are on the rise.

Consider what we might call the principle of net negatives: if getting from point A (greenhouse gas emitting plants) to point C (non-greenhouse gas emitting plants) takes you through point B (greenhouse gas emitting uranium mining), then see if the good outweighs the bad enough to accommodate it.

This sounds an awful lot like "the ends justifies the means" but no: our current reality just doesn't provide alternatives. How do you create greenhouse-free energy generators without producing greenhouse gasses? You have to use the tools you've got. (Al Gore got dinged for the energy suck of his big, electricity-guzzling house. Even though he found ways to mitigate the complaint, what did one expect: candles in the windows?)

Is the increased production of greenhouse gasses via uranium mining worth taking on if the end result replaces greenhouse producing energy sources with non-greenhouse producing energy sources? Luckily, the article, or at least one of its sources, answers this question for us:

"Even in the worst case scenario for CO2 emissions, the impact of nuclear on greenhouse emissions is still very small compared with fossil fuels," he explained.

"He" in this case is Thierry Dujardin, deputy director for science and development at the Nuclear Energy Agency. This is part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris; and France, more than any other country, finds nuclear energy incroyable.  (The OECD is intergovernmental, though, not French per se. We cannot even conclude that Monsieur Dujardin is French.)

So there you have it: a net positive. Let's ask Australian researchers to turn their minds elsewhere for awhile; on this subject, I'm just a little suspicious of their motives.

4 comments:

DV8 2XL said...

Uranium mining produces CO2 is new stick that the antinuclear movement is going to try and beat us up with now that most of their other lies have been exposed.

However I do not read this paper as being of much utility to the antinuclear movement as it does seem to supply reasonable base line numbers that can be applied to life-cycle greenhouse gas of nuclear issue, to show that indeed nuclear is among the lowest. To date we have missed this data, and it has prevented us from making real quantitative arguments on the subject.

Also this paper is notable for not invoking the van Leeuwen and Smith document which refreshing change for a study of the energy and greenhouse gas intensity of the nuclear fuel cycle.

robert merkel said...

It's worth reading the actual paper, which like dv8 points out, contains useful information. The two authors are known for their anti-nuclear views, but they're also academics and the journal is peer-reviewed.

The key information is the energy expenditure for mining and milling. In the worst case scenario published, assuming the assignment of the entire energy expenditure of the Olympic Dam mine to uranium production (it is mainly a copper mine), the emissions are a bit less than 400 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of uranium oxide produced.

If you need roughly 200 tonnes of ore per annum to get enough fuel for a 1 GW nuclear power station, that's 80,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum. By contrast, Hazelwood Power Station in Victoria, Australia, which has eight 200-megawatt coal-fired generating units, puts out roughly 17,000,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum...

Clearly, even assuming the use of low-grade ore (and Olympic Dam is very low-grade ore), the energy costs of mining will be manageable for the foreseeable future.

Ondrej Chvala said...

NEI, haven't you published some articles about that w.r.t. SLS controversy? I seem to remember energy payback time for a nuclear power plant to be about 18 months and another 18 months to pay back the energy needed for fuel fabrication etc. Within the (conservative) 40 years of the plant's life time this suggests EROEI=13 assuming 120 years lifetime EROEI=20. Is that correct?

David Bradish said...

ondrej,

Yes, we've published quite a bit on this subject. The latest was titled "Energy Payback Times for Nuclear." The data is based on this page from the World Nuclear Association and finds that the payback time for a nuclear plant including all stages is about one year.