Nuclear cannibals

Mar 04, 2008

Nuclear energy production must increase by more than 10 percent each year from 2010 to 2050 to meet all future energy demands and replace fossil fuels, but this is an unsustainable prospect. According to a report published in Inderscience's International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology such a large growth rate will require a major improvement in nuclear power efficiency otherwise each new power plant will simply cannibalize the energy produced by earlier nuclear power plants.

Physicist Joshua Pearce of Clarion University of Pennsylvania has attempted to balance the nuclear books and finds the bottom line simply does not add up. There are several problems that he says cannot be overcome if the nuclear power option is taken in preference to renewable energy sources.

For example, the energy input required from mining and processing uranium ore to its use in a power plant that costs huge amounts of energy to build and operate cannot be offset by power production in a high growth scenario. There are also growth limits set by the grade of uranium ore. "The limit of uranium ore grade to offset greenhouse gas emissions is significantly higher than the purely thermodynamic limit set by the energy payback time," he explains.

In addition, nuclear power produces a lot of heat as a byproduct and this directly heats the Earth. This is only a relatively small effect, but as energy consumption grows it must be taken into consideration when balancing the energy equation.

However, it is the whole-of-life cycle analysis that Pearce has investigated that shows nuclear power is far from the "emission-free panacea" claimed by many of its proponents. Each stage of the nuclear-fuel cycle including power plant construction, mining/milling uranium ores, fuel conversion, enrichment (or de-enrichment of nuclear weapons), fabrication, operation, decommissioning, and for short- and long-term waste disposal contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, he explains.

Nuclear may stack up against the rampant fossil-fuel combustion we see today, but only by a factor of 12. This means that if nuclear power were taken as the major option over the next forty years or so, we would be in no better a position in terms of emissions and reliance on a single major source of energy than we are today given the enormous growth nuclear required over that timescale.

Pearce's analysis is based on current practice in the United States with regard to the mining and enrichment of ore. He suggests that rather than abandoning nuclear power, efforts should be made to improve its efficiency considerably. First, we could start utilizing only the highest-concentration ores and switch to fuel enrichment based on gas centrifuge technology, which is much more energy-efficient than current gaseous diffusion methods.

Nuclear plants might be used as combined heat and power systems so the "waste" heat is used, rather than allowing them to vent huge quantities of heat to the environment at the end of the electricity generation cycle. Pearce also suggests that we could "down-blend" nuclear weapons stockpiles to produce nuclear power plant fuel.

Source: Inderscience Publishers

Explore further: A model capable of simulating power fluctuations in large grids of photovoltaic power stations is patented

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Fresh nuclear leak detected at Fukushima plant

Feb 22, 2015

Sensors at the Fukushima nuclear plant have detected a fresh leak of highly radioactive water to the sea, the plant's operator announced Sunday, highlighting difficulties in decommissioning the crippled plant.

Telescopes give shape to furious black hole winds

Feb 19, 2015

NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and ESA's (European Space Agency) XMM-Newton telescope are showing that fierce winds from a supermassive black hole blow outward in all directions—a ...

Improving energy efficiency one atom at a time

Feb 17, 2015

Paul Simmonds looks at his molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) system the way other guys do a candy apple red Porsche. The sci-fi looking machine used to design and create new materials at the atomic level lights ...

Recommended for you

Demonstration of "CrystEna" energy storage system

Feb 26, 2015

Hitachi America, Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of Hitachi, Ltd. and Demansys Energy, Inc. ("Demansys"), a smart grid technology company with offices in Connecticut and Troy, New York, announced today that ...

Creating the energy Internet

Feb 26, 2015

It only takes a power outage of a few minutes in the middle of a busy workday to drive home the hazards of relying on an energy infrastructure rooted in the Industrial Age. Without the electricity delivered ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Argiod
1 / 5 (1) Mar 05, 2008
Not only is Nuclear Energy the dirtiest way to produce power; it also produces a waste product that not only remains highly toxic for millions of years, but provides a target material for terrorists. The more we produce, the more likely it is to fall into the wrong hands.
SongDog
1 / 5 (1) Mar 07, 2008
Yet another "solar will solve all our problems" snakeoil pitch.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.