Could Nuclear Power Offer the Solution?

Although not a fossil fuel, nuclear energy provides 5% of our current energy need.1 However, it produces just a fraction of the emissions. Consequently, could nuclear energy offer a climate change solution?

Q1 // What Exactly Is Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear energy is the energy that holds atoms together.2 This energy can be released one of two ways, by splitting the atoms into smaller atoms (nuclear fission) or by combining atoms together to form a larger atom (fusion).3 When either of these changes takes place, an enormous quantity of heat is released. In a nuclear power plant, this release occurs within a nuclear reactor, and the resulting heat is used to create steam from water.4 Much like in a fossil fuel power plant, the steam then spins a turbine connected to a large magnet to generate electricity.5

Today’s nuclear power plants need huge bodies of water to keep the equipment cool.6

Currently, nuclear fission is the only type of nuclear power available,7 and it uses a specific uranium isotope, U-235, as this isotope contains an unstable atom that is easily split apart.8 U-235 is found in uranium ore, which, like gold and silver, can be mined in specific places around the world.9 This includes Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia.10 The biggest problem with nuclear energy is that conventional reactors only extract around 1% of the energy available in uranium, which means that 99% of the energy contained in the uranium is wasted.11 To stop this waste, another type of fission reactor – known as a fast neutron reactor – is currently being developed.12 This reactor reprocesses the waste produced by a conventional nuclear reactor to generate up to 60 times more energy.13 Unfortunately, fast neutron reactors are still very much under development, with the first commercial reactor not anticipated to be in operation until 2025.14 As such, there seems little likelihood of being able to supply any meaningful amount of our energy demand using fast neutron reactors by 2050.

Q2 // How Much Do We Currently Use?

We currently generate around seven million GWh of nuclear power.15 This amounts to approximately 23% of our electrical production.16

Superphénix, the world’s only commercial fast neutron reactor was shut down in 1998 due to high running costs.17

Q3 // How Much Does Nuclear Energy Cost?

On average, electricity from nuclear fission costs around 9.5¢ per kWh.18 This is around the same price as electricity generated from coal, and around 25% more expensive than electricity generated from natural gas.19 The extra cost is mainly due to the complex processing that uranium requires.20

Q4 // So Why Do We Like Nuclear So Much?

The primary attraction of nuclear energy is large quantities of energy it produces in proportion to the amount of fuel required.21 This means countries with limited access to natural gas, coal, or crude oil don’t need to import huge reserves at premium prices to meet their energy demand.22 Sadly though, for some countries, developing nuclear power is also seen as an opportunity to covertly develop the technologies required to manufacture nuclear weapons.23

Uranium is a silvery-white radioactive metallic element.24

Q5 // How Much Carbon Dioxide Does It Emit?

The generation of electricity within the power plant does not produce any carbon dioxide emissions, however, the mining, refinement, enrichment and transportation of the uranium does.25 On average, this consists of around 107 grams of carbon dioxide for every kWh generated.26 That’s just 20% of the carbon dioxide emitted by electricity generated from natural gas. In total, nuclear energy is responsible for nearly one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year, enough to fill the Great Pyramid of Giza nearly 170,000 times over.27

Q6 // So Why Are People Apprehensive About It?

Different nations have very different levels of concern about nuclear power. Some countries, such as France, generate the majority of their electricity using nuclear power.28 Others, including Switzerland and Germany, are planning to Different nations have very different levels of concern about nuclear power. Some countries, such as France, generate the majority of their electricity using nuclear power.29 Others, including Switzerland and Germany, are planning to decommission their existing fission reactors.30 However, there are as many as 45 countries that are keen to embark on a new nuclear power program.31 This includes the UAE, Turkey, Vietnam, Belarus and Poland.32 For the countries that do have concerns, these generally stem from two key areas. The first is the impact nuclear waste has on the environment, and the second is the potential damage that could be inflicted if a nuclear power plant was attacked, or damaged in a natural disaster.33

A typical nuclear power plant can produce around 25,000 times more energy per tonne of fuel than a coal power plant.34

Q7 // What Impact Does A Nuclear Power Plant Have On The Environment?

Each 1000-megawatt nuclear power plant produces about 30 tonnes of radioactive waste each year.35 The waste consists of the exhausted fuel that’s removed from the reactor core. Incredibly, the waste is so highly radioactive that it could kill a person standing a metre away in just a few seconds.36 To prevent this from happening, the waste is buried in anti-corrosive flasks, some 500 metres underground in remote geographic areas around the world.37 Here, the waste will remain toxic for over 100,000 years.38 Generally, people’s biggest concern is what happens if something goes wrong, a concern that’s not without good cause. In 1986, design flaws and negligence led to a level 7 meltdown (the maximum on the International Nuclear Event Scale) at Chernobyl nuclear plant in Russia.39 There, 400 times more radioactive material was released than during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which contaminated a land area two-thirds the size of Italy.40 More recently, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan also suffered a level seven meltdown after being hit by a combination of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.41 This resulted in a 30-kilometre radius evacuation area around the nuclear power plants.42 Fortunately, the situation was contained quickly and efficiently, although the sale of rice grown within many parts of the Fukushima region was banned as a result of the radiation.43

Q8 // Is The Use Of Nuclear Energy Likely To Slow Down Anytime Soon?

Nuclear energy use is not likely to slow in the foreseeable future. As greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel prices increase, nuclear power is likely to become more and more popular. In fact, electricity generation from nuclear power is expected to double by 2035.44

Uranium mines are securely sealed off to limit the risk of radiation poisoning.45

Q9 // Okay, So There Are Disadvantages, But If Everybody Used Nuclear Wouldn’t We Dramatically Reduce Carbon Emissions?

Unfortunately, if everybody did switch to nuclear, we might only have seven years of supply remaining.46 This is because we only have around six million tonnes of uranium which can be feasibly mined for nuclear fuel production.47 Sadly, even based on our current nuclear demand, we only have 90 years of nuclear energy.48

Nuclear Power in a Nutshell

To summarise, using nuclear energy results in much less carbon dioxide than using fossil fuel. This means switching to nuclear energy could help us stop climate change. However, nuclear energy is still relatively expensive and if everybody switched to nuclear our uranium reserves would likely be depleted in less than a decade. As a result, nuclear energy does not offer us a viable global solution. Let’s see if thorium can provide us with one.

Image Credits

Title image ‘Yellow Cake Uranium‘ taken by Nuclear Regulatory Commission, released on Flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.

Image of a nuclear power plant on the coast taken by Kletr and reproduced under license from Shutterstock.

Image of the Superphénix (Superphénix) taken by Yann Forget, released on Wikimedia Commons and reproduced under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0.

Image of uranium taken by Africa Studio and reproduced under license from Shutterstock.

Image of nuclear reactor hall taken by josefkubes and reproduced under license from Adobe Stock.

Image of fenced mining area (Kakadu National Park Uranium Mining Controlled Area) taken by Alberto Otero García, released on Flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.

General Notes

For the total landmass of the UK, a figure of 248,532 square kilometres has been used. The figure has been sourced from UK Office for National Statistics – 'The UK and Its Countries: Facts and Figures' – www.ons.gov.uk.

Barrels of oil equivalent based on 1628.2 kWh of energy being contained within each barrel. Data sourced from Unit Juggler – 'Converter: Barrel of Oil Equivalent to Kilowatt-Hour' – unitjuggler.com.

Article Endnotes

  1. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – 'World: Balances for 2012' – www.iea.org.
  2. U.S. Energy Information Administration – ‘Nuclear Explained’ – www.eia.gov.
  3. Diffen – ‘Nuclear Fission and Fusion’ – www.diffen.com.
  4. World Nuclear Association – ‘How A Nuclear Reactor Makes Electricity’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  5. EDF Energy – ‘How Electricity Is Generated Through Nuclear Power’ – www.edfenergy.com.
  6. Union of Concerned Scientists – ‘Got Water?: Nuclear Power Plant Cooling Water Needs’ – Page 1.
  7. UXL Encyclopedia of Science – ‘Nuclear Power’ – www.encyclopedia.com.
  8. World Nuclear Association – ‘What is Uranium? How Does It Work?’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  9. World Nuclear Association – ‘What is Uranium? How Does It Work?’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  10. World Nuclear Association – ‘What is Uranium? How Does It Work?’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  11. Pearce, Fred – ‘Are Fast-Breeder Reactors a Nuclear Power Panacea’ – e360.yale.edu.
  12. World Nuclear Association – ‘Fast Neutron Reactors’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  13. World Nuclear Association – ‘Fast Neutron Reactors’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  14. Based on 2016 data sourced from World Nuclear Association – ‘Fast Neutron Reactors’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  15. Calculated using 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org. Figure includes both electric plants and combined heat and power plants.
  16. Calculated using 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org. Figure includes both electric plants and combined heat and power plants.
  17. Status of fast neutron reactor sourced from World Nuclear Association – ‘Fast Neutron Reactors’ – www.world-nuclear.org. Reason for closure sourced from Schneider, Mycle – ‘Fast Breeder Reactors in France’ – Page 36.
  18. Based on June 2015 data for an advanced nuclear power plant. Sourced from U.S. Energy Information Administration – ‘Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2015’ – Page 6.
  19. Based on June 2015 data for an advanced nuclear power plant. Sourced from U.S. Energy Information Administration – ‘Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2015’ – Page 6.
  20. World Nuclear Association – ‘The Economics of Nuclear Power’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  21. Based on uranium producing 139 GWh of heat per tonne and coal producing 5.74 MWh per tonne. Uranium heat energy sourced from World Nuclear Association – ‘Energy for the World – Why Uranium?’ www.world-nuclear.org. Coal heat energy based on 2014 data sourced from U.S. Energy Information Administration – ‘Monthly Energy Review, January 2016’ – Page 191.
  22. Based on nuclear power offering a cost effective energy source for countries with limited access to fossil fuels. Sourced from World Nuclear Association – ‘The Economics of Nuclear Power’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  23. Goldschmidt, Pierre – ‘The Increasing Risk of Nuclear Proliferation: Addressing the Challenge’ – www.iaea.org.
  24. Encyclopaedia Britannica – ‘Uranium (U)’ – www.britannica.com.
  25. Diesendorf, Mark and Christoff, Peter – ‘CO2 Emissions from the Nuclear Fuel Cycle’ – Page 2.
  26. Median figure based on a range of 84 grams to 130 grams per kWh. Figures sourced from van Leeuwen, Jan Willem Storm – ‘Nuclear Power, Energy Security and CO2 Emission’ – Ceedata Consultancy – Page 55.
  27. Calculation based on the Great Pyramid of Giza having a volume of 2.42 million cubic metres. Figure sourced from Levy, Janey – ‘The Great Pyramid of Giza : Measuring Length, Area, Volume and Angles’ – Page 17.
  28. World Nuclear Association – ‘Nuclear Power in France’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  29. World Nuclear Association – ‘Nuclear Power in France’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  30. Details of Switzerland’s plans to decommission reactors sourced from World Nuclear Association – ‘Nuclear Power in Switzerland’ – www.world-nuclear.org. Details of Germany’s plans to decommission reactors sourced from World Nuclear Association – ‘Nuclear Power in Germany’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  31. World Nuclear Association – ‘Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  32. World Nuclear Association – ‘Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  33. For Dummies – ‘Concerns About Nuclear Power’ – www.dummies.com.
  34. Based on uranium producing 139 GWh of heat per tonne and coal producing 5.74 MWh per tonne. Uranium heat energy sourced from World Nuclear Association – ‘Energy for the World – Why Uranium?’ www.world-nuclear.org. Coal heat energy based on 2014 data sourced from U.S. Energy Information Administration – ‘Monthly Energy Review, January 2016’ – Page 191.
  35. Hughes, John – ‘Nuclear Waste’ – Page 55.
  36. Hughes, John – ‘Nuclear Waste’ – Page 55.
  37. Hughes, John – ‘Nuclear Waste’ – Page 55.
  38. Rose, Steve – ‘Nuclear Waste: Keep out – for 100,000 years’ – www.theguardian.com.
  39. General data sourced from Black, Richard – ‘Fukushima: As Bad As Chernobyl?’ – www.bbc.com. Design flaws sourced from World Nuclear Association – ‘RBMK Reactors’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  40. Amount of radiation sourced from International Atomic Energy Agency – ‘Ten Years After Chernobyl: What Do We Really Know?’ – Page 8. Area affected based on the spread of radioactive material deposits from Chernobyl meltdown covering 200,000 square kilometres and the land area of Italy being 294,140 square kilometres. Radioactive material deposits sourced from World Health Organisation – ‘Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident’ –www.who.int. Land area of Italy based on 2014 data and sourced from The World Bank – ‘Land Area (SQ. KM)’ – data.worldbank.org.
  41. Encyclopaedia Britannica – ‘Fukushima Accident’ – www.britannica.com.
  42. Encyclopaedia Britannica – ‘Fukushima Accident’ – www.britannica.com.
  43. Based on the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurring in 2011 and rice sales being banned due to contamination until 2014. Sourced from Saito, Mari – ‘Fukushima Rice Passes Radiation Tests for First Time Since Disaster: Official’ – www.reuters.com.
  44. Onstad, Eric – ‘Nuclear Expansion on Track Despite Fukushima: OECD Report’ – www.reuters.com.
  45. World Nuclear Association – ‘Occupational Safety in Uranium Mining’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  46. Based on a global energy demand of 104.4 million GWh, estimated uranium resources of 5,902,900 tonnes recoverable for less than $130 per kilogram, one tonne of uranium containing 139 GWh and a nuclear reactor operating at a 92% efficiency. World energy demand based on 2012 data and sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org. Uranium resources sourced from OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency – ‘Uranium 2014: Resources, Production, and Demand’ – Page 20. Energy contained within uranium sourced from World Nuclear Association – ‘Energy for the World – Why Uranium?’ – www.world-nuclear.org. Nuclear reactor efficiency sourced from Nuclear Energy Institute – ‘Quick Facts: Nuclear Energy in America’ – www.nei.org.
  47. World Nuclear Association – ‘Uranium Mining Overview’ – www.world-nuclear.org.
  48. World Nuclear Association – ‘Supply of Uranium’ – www.world-nuclear.org.

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