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Are Nuclear Power Stations Environmentally Friendly?

The three explosions and a fire (ah – now there’s a second fire) at the Fukushima nuclear plant and the Japanese state of nuclear emergency have already started raising questions about the future of nuclear power. I’ve been wondering recently whether nuclear power is the way forward for us in the UK. It’s a complex and emotive subject with statistics to support pretty much any standpoint you may have on the matter.
radioactive Are Nuclear Power Stations Environmentally Friendly?

The Current Situation in the UK
Oil and gas production peaked in 1999 and has been declining since. The UK became a net importer of gas in 2004 and of crude oil in 2005. Our dependence on imports of gas are estimated to increase to between 45% and 70% within ten years.

The UK government’s current plans include:
1) 15% of all energy from renewables by 2020 (currently at 6.6%)
2) Increase energy efficiency to reduce demand (although demand is likely to increase)
3) Cut CO₂ emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050 (they are currently already 25% below 1990 levels, partly due to the recession, but I believe the other 55% will be much, much harder)
4) Reduce dependence on oil and gas imports
5) Develop and build a new generation of nuclear reactors (2010 National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power)

The UK Energy Mix
Below I have drawn two charts showing how much electricity comes from each fuel type in the UK and how much CO₂ each produces (per unit energy). These are based on current figures from the Dept. of Energy and Climate Change:
uk fuel mix Are Nuclear Power Stations Environmentally Friendly?

We get three quarters of our electricity from coal and gas at the moment and together, these are responsible for 97% of carbon emissions. The second graph shows how the carbon emissions from one kWhr of gas are approximately half that of producing the same amount of energy from coal. It’s worth noting, though, that the gas that escapes from our pipes and appliances actually means that total greenhouse gas effects are similar, as methane is a very potent greenhouse gas and the majority of natural gas is methane.

Electricity production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector and so this is the single largest contributor to climate change. If we switched all electricity production now to any combination of nuclear and renewables, it would have the largest positive impact on climate change of anything possible we could do. Neither of these energy sources produce any significant greenhouse gases.

Currently the UK gets 18% of its electricity from nuclear, compared to 25% for most of the 1990′s. France currently gets 80% from nuclear, Japan 30%, India 4% and China 1%. The majority of the UK’s nuclear power stations are due to close in the next 20 years. In his August 2009 report for the government, Malcolm Wicks MP recommends “an aspiration that nuclear should provide some 35% to 40% of our electricity beyond 2030 should be considered by Government.” and this seems to be forming the basis of current policy. Mr Wicks notes that “if the UK electrifies much of its transport and heating, demand for electricity in 2050 could be 50% higher than it is today”.

The “Environmentalists”
According to Greenpeace, “Despite what the nuclear industry tells us, building enough nuclear power stations to make a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would cost trillions of dollars, create tens of thousands of tons of lethal high-level radioactive waste, contribute to further proliferation of nuclear weapons materials, and result in a Chernobyl-scale accident once every decade. Perhaps most significantly, it will squander the resources necessary to implement meaningful climate change solutions.”

Nuclear Waste
James Lovelock puts a counter argument to this point of view in his book ‘The Revenge of Gaia’ and I find it interesting partly because James himself is a self-proclaimed environmentalist as well as being a very respected, outspoken scientist. According to Lovelock, “Burning fossil fuels produces 27 billion tons of carbon dioxide yearly … the same quantity of energy produced from nuclear fission reactions would generate two million times less waste”. This is due to the much higher energy density of nuclear fuel. He goes on “The carbon dioxide waste is invisible but so deadly that if its emissions go unchecked it will kill nearly everyone”. Nuclear waste does not contribute to climate change but there is a whole history of debate about how harmful it is to humans. Lovelock points out that sites of previous nuclear disasters are abundant with wildlife – because there are no humans there – and the best way to protect our surviving rainforests might be to put our nuclear waste in them to prevent humans developing or farming the land! Lovelock also notes that “The near 30% who die naturally of cancer keep us all reminded of the grim prospect of malignancy. It is important to keep in mind that any increase in cancer attributable to all nuclear activity since the Second World War is still too small to be detected among the fluctuations in the natural death rate worldwide from cancer.”

Isn’t Renewable Energy better than Nuclear?
Neither renewable energy nor nuclear energy have any significant affect on climate change so it really comes down to cost and safety. Renewable sources accounted for 2.5% of the UK’s total energy requirements in 2008. To achieve the 15% renewable target in 2020 will require a large investment in the UK over the next few years. Lovelock doubts the feasibility of wind to supply a significant proportion of the UK’s electricity: “To supply the UK’s present electricity needs would require 276,000 wind generators, about three per square mile, if national parks, urban, suburban and industrial area are excluded; also needed would be an efficient way of storing the energy they produce”. He says that wind energy is available 25% of the time, at best, in the UK. According to a Royal Society of Engineers report in 2004, wind energy in Europe is at least 2.5 times more expensive per kWhr than nuclear. But no-one’s suggesting the UK gets all its electricity from wind – and there’s also hydroelectric, wave, solar, tidal, biofuels, geothermal…

What about Carbon Capture?
According to the Dept. of Energy and Climate Change, “Carbon capture and storage has the potential to reduce CO₂ emissions from fossil fuel power stations by around 90%”. However, as James Lovelock points out, “The world’s annual production of carbon dioxide is 27,000 million tons. If this much were frozen into solid carbon dioxide at -80°C it would make a mountain one mile high and twelve miles in circumference. To sequester this much each year could not be achieved quickly – probably not sooner than twenty years from now”. So perhaps that isn’t the solution either?

The Future
Today (15th March), China and India have announced that despite the Japan crisis they intend to keep using their nuclear power plants and building new ones (China are constructing 27, India 5). The world’s stock of 443 nuclear reactors could more than double in the next 15 years, according to the World Nuclear Association. I can certainly see that we will struggle to get all our energy from renewables in the short-term and so I imagine we will follow this nuclear trend in the UK, despite the latest news from Japan. For me our priority has to be reducing carbon emissions as climate change seems a much greater threat than nuclear accidents or waste. We need a combination of renewables, nuclear and energy efficiency in order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels – and very fast. We are lucky in the UK, then, that we do not sit on a fault line.