Real Cost of Nuclear Energy
Ariana Bain, Industrial and Urban Ecologist, Eva Gladek, Industrial
Ecologist, Marten J. Witkamp, Strategy & Communication, Tom Bosschaert,
Director, Rebecca Blum
Nuclear energy has recently
seen national policies and public opinion turn in its favor. Governments
around the world, including Italy and Sweden, are lifting bans on new
plant construction. Not alone in the developing world, India and China
are pursuing ambitious expansions of their nuclear power programs.
According to a 2010
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, 20 countries without
nuclear power plants are expected to have nuclear power on line by 2030
(1). Headlines such as Nuclears Great Expectations
(2), Power up! The rise of the nuclear option (3) and Going
Nuclear (4) attest to a paradigmatic shift from looking at nuclear
(fission) energy as a 20th century problem towards seeing it as a 21st
century solution. In the Netherlands plans to construct two new nuclear
power plants are in an advanced stage, seemingly undeterred by the Fukishima
Stirring the debate
The last couple
of decades have given rise to a powerful coalition of nuclear industry
representatives and environmental lobbyists arguing that nuclear is
our only path forward if we wish to secure a stable energy future while
minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.
They point out the shortcomings
of renewable energy sources while insisting that once valid safety concerns
are overstated or even outdated due to advances in technology. Nuclear
energy has the allure of 'the easy way out' to the double bind of climate
change and energy-security challenges.
The public looks inclined
to accept this line of reasoning for lack of a believable alternative.
Fukushima is unlikely to change this, all blame having been placed on
its older plant technology. Because the discussion on the rights and
wrongs of nuclear energy has been held so often, and for so many years,
the public is in danger of conceding to the pro-nuclear lobbying simply
because they are tired of the debate.
That is understandable,
nuclear energy holds a vast promise that warrants serious consideration.
However, nuclear energy plants bear such fundamental risks that decisions
regarding its implementation warrant painstaking investigation, today
as much as 30 years ago.
If we choose to invest
in nuclear power, we should do so with a full understanding of its implications.
This article sets out five critical points of investigation that are
frequently missed or misrepresented, and touches on a long term perspective
on nuclear energy and its alternatives.
The primary 'environmental'
argument for nuclear power hinges on its low greenhouse gas emissions.
While it is true that its emissions are lower than from traditional
fossil fuels, wind and hydroelectric power still produce vastly less
Across the entire life
cycle of producing nuclear energy, typical LWR and HWR reactors lead
to an average of 65 g CO2 per kWh - or, in other words, about 250.000
ton of CO2 per year for 485 MW Borssele. Wind and hydroelectric power
cause on average 20 g CO2 per kWh, while coal and oil lead to 600-1200
g per kWh (5).
With the very challenging
carbon reduction schedules that we have ahead of us, and the life span
of nuclear power plants in mind, is nuclear's lower greenhouse gas emissions
low enough to mitigate climate change?
2. Fresh water
Some of nuclear power's
more serious impacts are found upstream in the fuel life cycle, in the
mining and ore refining stages.
One of the greatest resource
shortages of the coming decades is predicted to be fresh water access.
Nuclear power could exacerbate this issue, particularly in vulnerable
areas, since almost 60% of uranium is mined in drought sensitive nations
- most notably Australia, Kazakhstan, Namibia, and Niger.
During the mining process,
the extraction and purification of the uranium ore requires enormous
amounts of water. Subsequently, during operation, nuclear power plants
consume roughly 2.3 to 2.8 liters of water per kWh (6), or approximately
6-12 billion liters per year for a Borssele-sized plant (7), which is
20-83% more than coal-fired plants.
The direct impacts of water
consumption are augmented by the often overlooked impacts of contamination.
Greenpeace reports that water samples collected near a mine in North-eastern
Brazil, within what is officially termed the direct influence
area,, contained uranium levels seven times higher than the WHO-approved
3. Radioactive waste
Despite reports of 'safe
storage' by energy companies, there is no generally accepted method
for dealing with radioactive waste.
have been identified even by supporters of nuclear power technologies
as a serious stumbling block to sustainability. Nuclear energy leaves
behind a radioactive wake at every step of the process, from mining
to reactor operation to plant-decommission. The mining process leaves
behind radioactive dust tailings that contain isotopes
with half lives of up to 80,000 years (9).
Mining and milling results
in thousands of tons of tailings. Although much of this dust is unlikely
to cause significant damage to the skin, it is often inhaled, introducing
radioactive material into the body. Mining landscapes hence become unusable
for countless generations.
In most parts of the world,
laws are in place that commits companies that mine radioactive material
to clean and protect contaminated areas for hundreds of years. Interestingly,
mining companies have an unfortunate way of disappearing when the time
comes to start cleaning up. Central Asia and Eastern Europe are littered
with former Soviet uranium mines. Because the former state-owned mining
companies no longer exist, it is impossible to enforce the liability
for clean-up (10).
The problem is not confined
to the former Soviet Union. The United States' largest Native American
reservation, the Navajo Nation, has more than 500 open abandoned uranium
mines currently being assessed by the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (some estimates put the total number at over 1,000) (11).
The cancer death rate on
the reservation historically much lower than that of the general
U.S. population doubled from the early 1970s to the late 1990s,
even while the overall U.S. cancer death rate declined slightly during
that same period (12).
After mining, milling and
enrichment, which produces still more tailings, the story of radioactivity
becomes increasingly grim. Reactor operation results in contaminated
structural components. A typical 1,000 MW nuclear power plant annually
produces about 13 tonnes of medium level radioactive structural material.
Additionally, it results
in highly radioactive spent fuels the type that is currently
causing much distress in Japan that must be cooled down, reprocessed
and stored somewhere.
Finally, plant decommissioning
results in about 10,000 tonnes of medium to high level radioactive waste
and an additional 10,000 tons of low to medium radioactive waste, that
again must be disposed of.
The costly long-term commitment
to the storage and handling of radioactive waste is coupled with the
process of plant construction itself. The cost of a reactor is extremely
high, mainly because of measures to improve security.
It also, however, is dependent
on an unreliable supply chain, since the long pause in nuclear reactor
construction has led to a global shortage of sufficiently knowledgeable
and experienced engineers.
A multi-billion new French
reactor currently under construction was recently revised upwards by
twenty percent and faces significant delay. Meanwhile, the commissioning
of the Finnish Olkiluoto 3 reactor was recently postponed from 2009
to 2013, while its estimated price tag ballooned by fifty percent (13).
As Time magazine has so
succinctly summarized, no nuclear plant has ever been completed
In terms of potential severity
and irreversibility of impact, a nuclear disaster outweighs almost any
other kind of industrial meltdown. For that reason, insurance companies
refuse to take up nuclear power plants as clients.
It has been estimated that
a Chernobyl or Fukushima type disaster in Germany could cost the country
as much as 5 trillion euros, almost twice the GDP (14). Who is to carry
that liability? Indeed, it is the state, who thereby heavily subsidizes
While nuclear plants are
certainly designed to never let such a disaster occur, history has shown
us that the unthinkable does happen in industrial management.
5. Nuclear uses finite fuels
Nuclear energy, which is
entirely dependent on the mining and use of a particular uranium isotope,
is not a renewable source of energy.
Estimates vary over how
long the world could keep splitting uranium atoms to keep its nuclear
plants running. If we choose to invest in nuclear power and significantly
increase its output, it is possible that we will fall short of the 200
year depletion projection (15).
Without a doubt, however,
we will be locked into a vulnerable, centralized energy infrastructure
that finds its finite fuel on just a few places on earth and that must
be secured through foreign policy, massive investment, long supply chains
and intensive technological processing. In short, it will lock us into
where we already are.
A long term view
We have spent the last
one hundred years living in a bounty of almost infinite energy. The
fossil fuel bonanza of coal, oil, and natural gas has allowed our global
society to develop at an unprecedented rate, with our population and
consumption booming to match.
It is impossible to ignore
the benefits of concentrated energy. But it is also impossible to ignore
the fact that we will eventually need to adjust our patterns of consumption
to fit renewable energy fluxes. Right now, we are faced with a choice
that will define the next 50 years of energy policy. Do we choose to
invest in nuclear energy, or do we want to invest in renewable energy?
Nuclear energy, although
it emits far less greenhouse gases than coal and gas powered plants,
comes with a high price: the fresh water use, radioactive tailings,
the potential for catastrophic accidents, its radioactive waste and
the permanent need for heavy state subsidies.
Also, it needs a centralized,
costly, vulnerable and politicized infrastructure.
Better than renewables?
Renewable energy sources,
meanwhile, emit similar or even lower levels of greenhouse gas. They
hardly use any water, are not radioactive, can typically cause only
small scale accidents and will only need state subsidies for as long
as coal, gas and nuclear are also still subsidized.
More fundamentally, the
move to renewable energy represents a choice for a more decentralized
energy supply. One that can be harvested anywhere in the world, that
supports local autonomy and that creates a more resilient energy supply
and, consequently, society.
This 'resiliency' is a
major a factor of energy security, therefore while some renewable energy
sources have variable energy output profiles, their society-level security
is higher than any centralized power source, be it gas, coal, fission
or even fusion.
It is clear that the end
of our fossil fuel bonanza poses us difficult questions. How do we want
to go forth from here? Investing in nuclear power is a long-term commitment,
that will tie up limited resources and bind us to a 50 year long path
of action that is risky and costly at best, catastrophic at worst.
Is that really what we
want? The dearth of public discourse surrounding this major decision
is worrisome. Nuclear power is offered as a way to achieve the short
term goals governments have set, but it does not offer long term perspective.
It seems that, if all things
are considered properly, and the true value for society is taken into
account, Nuclear power cannot be seen as a way forward.
Eva Gladek M.E.M., Tom
Bosschaert M.Sc. M.Arch., Rebecca Blum M.Sc., Marten Witkamp M.Sc.,
Ariana Bain M.E.Sc
1 - IAEA, "International
Status and Prospects of Nuclear Power" , Report by the Director
2 - IAEA, 2008, http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2008/np2008.html
3 - CBC, 2006, http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/energy/rise_nuclear.html
4 - "Washington Post"
5 - Manfred Lenzen, Life
Cycle Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Energy: A Review,
Energy Conversion and Management 49 (2008)
6 - Jim Green, Impacts
of Nuclear Power and Uranium Mining on Water Resources, Friends
of the Earth Australia,
2 May 2010, http://www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/water-nuclear/nph2o/
7 - Guy Woods (Department
of Parliamentary Services), December 4, 2006, "Water requirements
of nuclear power stations", Research Note no. 12, 200607,
ISSN 1449-8456 www.aph.gov.au/Library/pubs/rn/2006-07/07rn12.pdf
8 - Greenpeace, Cycle of
danger: impacts of nuclear fuel production in Brazil, (October 2008),
Greenpeace International, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Briefing available
online at http://weblog.greenpeace.org/nuclearreaction/2008/10/breaking_news_drinking_water_c.html
9 - Peter Waggitt, Residual
Safety in the Uranium Mining Cycle. Waste Safety Section, IAEA, (October,
10 - Simon Webster and
Jan Vrijen, The Legacy of Uranium Mining in Central and Eastern Europe.
International Symposium on the Uranium Production Cycle and the Environment,
(October, 2000), Vienna, Austria.
11 - Francie Diep, Abandoned
Uranium Mines: An 'Overwhelming Problem' in the Navajo Nation
(December 30, 2010), Scientific American, available online at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=abandoned-uranium-mines-a
12 - Judy Pasternak. The
Peril That Dwelt Among the Navajos, Los Angeles Times, November
19, 2006, 1. Accessed August 31, 2009. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-navajo19nov19,0,1645689.story
13 - James Kanter. In Finland,
Nuclear Renaissance Runs Into Trouble, The New York Times, May 29, 2009.
14 - Lalon Sander, Nuclear
Power is Not the Way Forward, BD News 24, Mar 30, 2011 http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2011/03/30/nuclear-power-is-not-the-way-forward/
15 - Steve Fetter, How
long will the world's uranium supplies last? Scientific American, 29
Jan 2009, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-long-will-global-uranium-deposits-last