ISIS Report 29/09/08
The Nuclear Black Hole
New studies confirm that the nuclear option is inherently unsustainable
as well as unsafe and uneconomic Dr.
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New studies confirm nuclear unsustainable
Veteran ecologist Peter Bunyard was spot on in his article  Deconstructing
the Nuclear Power Myths (SiS 27), which showed that nuclear is
not a renewable energy, and apart from being extremely uneconomical and unsafe,
it is highly unsustainable in terms of savings on energy and greenhouse emissions;
in fact, worse than a gas-fired electricity generating plant as high grade
uranium ore is depleted and available ore falls below 0.02 percent. This has
been amply confirmed by studies carried out since.
A report published in 2008 [2, 3] shows that in order to replace
fossil-fuel energy use and meet the future energy demands, nuclear energy
must increase by 10.5 percent each year from 2010 to 2050. This large growth
rate creates a “cannibalistic effect”, where nuclear energy must be used to
supply the energy for future nuclear power plants.
Joshua Pearce, a physicist at Clarion University of Pennsylvania,
finds he cannot balance the books if nuclear power option is taken in preference
to renewable energy sources. The enormous amounts of energy needed for mining
and processing uranium ore, building and operating the power plant simply
cannot be offset in a high growth scenario. In particular, growth limits are
set by the grade of uranium ore available, confirming earlier studies 
As is well known, on account of safety reasons and scale of operation,
nuclear plants are far away from users and transmission over long distances
incur a loss of at least 6 percent of the electricity generated. For the same
reasons, most of the heat produced, 60 percent or more, is also wasted. This
waste heat, Pearce reminds us, directly warms the earth.
The lifecycle assessment (LCA) Pearce carried out shows that
nuclear energy costs between 16 to 55 g CO2e/kWh, based on current
practice in the United States with regard to mining and enrichment of uranium
ore, and does not include reprocessing or decommissioning, but includes spent-fuel
disposal and the deconversion of depleted uranium (back to U3O8).
It falls short of a genuine “cradle-to-grave” LCA  (see Which Renewables, SiS
The estimated energy payback time and the emissions payback time
– the time it takes to generate as much energy as is used and to save as much
CO2e as was expended in the complete lifecycle – are very dependent
on the grade of uranium ore and on the energy mix of the area where the nuclear
plant is located. For example, the energy pay back time is between 5.5 years
and 92 years with the US energy mix, while 1.5 to 12 years are estimated for
the European energy mix for a high ore grade of 0.1 percent; the corresponding
figures for an ore grade of 0.01 percent are 7 years to infinity (no payback)
in the US and 4 to 46 years in Europe. Clearly, these figures are way out
of line with those of renewable, sustainable options such as wind and solar
[4-6] (Solar Power to the Masses,
Getting Cleaner Fast, SiS 39), which are immediately available
and rapidly gaining ground.
Pearce suggests efforts to be made to improve efficiency of nuclear
power, using only the highest concentration ores and switch to fuel enrichment
based on gas centrifuge technology instead of gaseous diffusion, use of combined
heat and power generation for nuclear plants and down-blend nuclear weapons
stockpiles containing highly enriched uranium to produce nuclear power plant
fuel (though that too, is a limited stock).
Nuclear contribution to world energy use insubstantial
For all the fuss about nuclear energy, it actually accounts for a mere 2.1
percent of the energy used globally in 2006  (see Table 1). The nuclear
contribution to the world electricity generation was 14.8 percent; and has
been slowly declining from a peak of some 17 percent in the early 1990s.
Hence, as pointed out by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, Senior
Scientist of Ceedata Consultancy in Chaam, The Netherlands, nuclear energy
cannot reduce the world’s greenhouse emissions (or fossil fuel use) by more
than 2.1 percent. This sums up the absurdity the “nuclear renaissance”, and
all the more so when the sums are worked out in detail.
Table 1. Energy available globally
Lifecycle assessment of nuclear energy
By far the most thorough LCA on nuclear energy has been carried out by Jan
Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith originally in 2005 , and subsequently
updated and extended by the first author  partly in response to critics
from the nuclear industry.
The only natural element that undergoes nuclear fission from
which nuclear nuclear power can be harnessed for use in a reactor is uranium-235
(U-235). This radioactive isotope accounts for 0.71 percent of natural uranium,
the remaining is U-238.and with traces of U-234, neither of them fissile (capable
of being split). In an operating nuclear reactor, a part of the abundant U-238
is converted by neutron capture into plutonium-239, which is fissile.
There are two kinds of nuclear reactors: burners and breeders.
In a burner reactor, no more than 0.6-0.7 percent of the atoms in the natural
uranium in the fuel can be split. The rate at which U-238 converts into fissile
plutonium is less than that at which U-235 and Pu-239 are split. When the
fissile content of the fuel in the reactor falls below about 0.8 percent,
the fuel has to be replaced by fresh fuel.
In a breeder reactor more fissile Pu-239 and Pu-241 are formed
than are split. Theoretically, some 30-60 percent of the natural uranium could
be split in this way. But breeder reactors remain technically unfeasible.
A breeder reactor is not just a single structure, but involves a reprocessing
facility and a fuel fabrication plant in addition; and all three components
have to be operating flawlessly and continuously, exactly tuned to the others.
If one component fails, the whole collapses. None of the three components
has ever been demonstrated to operate as required, and that after 50 years
of intensive research efforts and hundreds of billions of dollars invested
in 7 countries: USA, UK, France, Germany, former USSR and now Russia, Japan
and India. Technical hurdles are not the only problems, also safety, economy
and the risk of nuclear proliferation and terrorism.
More than 88 percent of world’s nuclear reactions are light water
reactors, and achieve a lifetime uranium utilization of less than 0.6 percent,
which means that for every kg of uranium delivered by the mine, 994 g leave
the nuclear reactor as depleted uranium in highly radioactive spent fuel.
Advanced ‘Generation III’ reactors and the Pebble Bed Reactor  (Safe
New Generation Nuclear Power? SiS 29) may reach uranium utilization
slightly higher than 0.6 percent, but that remains speculative.
In the once-through mode, no uranium and plutonium are recycled, so spent fuel
is not reprocessed. Several studies have concluded that the reprocessing and
the use of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel are unjustified on grounds of safety, efficiency
and risks of proliferation [1, 11] (see Nuclear
Industry’s Financial & Safety Nightmare, SiS 40)
The world’s nuclear power capacity is 370 GW, which is roughly
equivalent to 400 reactors of 1 GW each. A LCA was therefore carried out on
a ‘reference reactor’ which is a 1 GW light water reactor of current design
operating without plutonium recycling for a lifetime of 30 years at an average
load factor (ratio of output over capacity) of 0.82. The lifetime and load
factor assumed are considerably better than what real reactors have achieved
The stages in the nuclear chain at which energy inputs are required
are depicted in Figure 1 .
Figure 1. Simplified nuclear chain
for lifecycle assessment
The ‘front end’ processes include mining and milling of the uranium
ore U3O8, conversion into UF6, enrichment
by gaseous diffusion or gas centrifuge and fabrication of the fuel assembly.
The ‘reactor’ processes include construction of the power plant
and operation where the fuel is burnt and the heat produced used to drive
a turbine/generator to produce electricity. Operation costs includes controlling
the fission process so it doesn’t go ’critical’ as in an atom bomb , and
making up materials and chemical and non-radioactive waste management.
The ‘back end’ processes are the most demanding, and also often
ignored. They include first of all retrieving spent fuel, deconversion, and
storing it at the reactor site for further reprocessing or disposal. Nuclear
wastes from power stations will remain dangerous to humans for generations,
which is why they have to be stored permanently. Also included is decommissioning
the power plant once its useful and safe lifetime is over.
The nuclear industry is effectively ignoring decommissioning,
which involves a long drawn-out and demanding series of step. First, the reactor
has to be cleaned up and safeguarded for a cooling period of 30-100 years
after closedown. The radioactive parts of the nuclear island have to be dismantled
after cooling, and the radioactive scrap and rubble packaged to prevent the
illegal trade in radioactive scrap, which is already a problem today. The
spent fuel removed from the reactor has to be stored for at least 30 years
in heavily protected and safeguarded facilities, bearing in mind that one
reactor produces during its lifetime an amount of radioactivity equal to about
10 000 exploded nuclear weapons; and corrosion and leaking fuel pins may pose
a problem in addition to protection against terrorist attacks. The spent fuel
then has to be packaged in containers able to last for many thousands of years
in contact with hot and salty water under continuous nuclear radiation. A
stable geological repository has to be constructed to isolate the spent fuel
from the biosphere for hundreds of thousands of years. Over a period of decades,
the canisters with the spent fuel will be placed into boreholes in the floors
of the numerous galleries in the repository, and when fully occupied, the
galleries and access tunnels have to be filled up with bentonite and closed
The reference reactor for the LCA produces about 20 Mg spent
fuel a year. Assuming a lifetime of 30 years, each reactor produces about
600 Mg spent fuel.
Assuming the world nuclear fleet to be 400 reference reactors,
8 000 Mg spent fuel has to go into storage each year worldwide. Even if exceedingly
large repositories will be constructed, larger than the planned Yucca Mountain
repository in the USA, a new repository has to be opened every ten years,
and a full one closed up.
In addition, the uranium mine has to be reclaimed, an area of
up to about 100 km2. The tailing, containing large amounts of chemically
and physically mobilized radioactive species, have to be isolated from the
groundwater and the air. Existing reprocessing plants such as Sellafield in
the UK and La Hague in France will have to cleaned up and dismantled. This
activity will be extremely demanding. In the UK, the estimated costs are about
£73 billion and rising .
None of the decommissioning processes is operational at this
moment, and no satisfactory practical solutions for a number of the problems
have been found during the past 40 years. Geological repositories exist still
only on the drawing boards.
So, the energy requirements and CO2 emissions of the
back end decommissioning processes are estimated by comparison with similar
industrial processes where data do exist.
Figure 2 presents the summary of LCA for a uranium ore grade
of 0.15 percent, which is the mean value of available uranium ore grade for
the world in 2005 
Figure 2. The lifetime CO2
emission for the reference nuclear system
As can be seen, the lifetime greenhouse emission is well over
85 g CO2e/kWh or more. And this is likely to go up considerably.
Lifetime costs in energy and greenhouse emissions go up exponentially as ore
grade goes down
The grade of uranium ore used is critical in determining the lifetime greenhouse
emissions and energy savings. The yield of uranium (proportion of available
uranium extracted from the crude ore) decreases roughly linearly as the ore
grade goes down; the amount of energy needed for extracting in mining and
milling, however, goes up exponentially, as does carbon emission. This
is summarised in Table 2, based on empirical data 
Table 2. Energy and CO2 costs of mining and milling as a function
of uranium grade for soft (top) and hard (bottom) ore
Eth refers to thermal energy, Ee
refers to electrical energy.
According to the Oxford Research Group , just keeping up
with the existing nuclear capacity would deplete the high grade ores so that
by 2016, the mean uranium ore grade available would reach 0.1 percent or less.
And at some time between 2066 and 2076, when average ore grade decreases to
0.02 percent or less, uranium fuel reactors would fall off the ‘energy cliff’
i.e., consume more energy than they generate, and produce more CO2
emissions than a gas-fired power plant