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Alternative Energy Sources

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Nuclear Power

 

Main final use form: electricity
EPR: 4

The use of nuclear power causes...approximately one-third as much CO2 -emission as gas-fired electricity production. The rich uranium ores required to achieve this reduction are, however, so limited that if the entire present world electricity demand were to be provided by nuclear power, these ores would be exhausted within three years. Use of the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors would produce more CO2 emission than burning fossil fuels directly.

This statement comes from an important website on nuclear power and which shows how it might not be the panacea it is often claimed to be. Nuclear power as it exists at the moment involves nuclear fission, splitting uranium or plutonium, which releases immense energies. Nuclear fusion is the other type of power source but is not yet available and will not be for many years, if ever.

Nuclear power is explored more fully in The Beginner's Guide to Nuclear Power

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Nuclear Fission

The first self-sustaining controlled nuclear reaction occurred in 1942 in Chicago and it only took 14 years for that entirely new technology to be transformed into an integrated power station at Calder Hall in England. Since then, nuclear power has grown quickly so that, by 2004, it produced 6% of the world's electric power. But it is rather localised; because nuclear power can lead to nuclear weapons, it is difficult for poorer countries to get hold of the technology. Consequently, if you look at the spread of nuclear power, in 2004 there were the three countries of North America, two countries in South America, eighteen in Europe and Eurasia, six in Asia, just one in Africa and none in the Middle East apart from Israel. In total there are 441 commercial nuclear plants in the world with about 30 being constructed.

The principle of nuclear fission is very simple; like fossil fuel power stations, water is heated, turned to steam and then directed to turn turbines which generate electricity. The difference is that the fuel is not burnt to generate the heat. The fuel is uranium-235 which is a radioactive element. When it absorbs an extra neutron (a building block of its atom), it splits into two ('fission' meaning to 'split' or 'cleave' as in 'fissure') and releases energy. If a chain reaction can be initiated, then this continuous heat can be used to produce steam.

There are several problems with nuclear power which could prevent it becoming the answer to our energy fears.

1. Limited Fuel

The current R/P ration for nuclear power is about 15 years if we consider suitable high-grade ores. This would drop to three years if we were able to produce all electricity from nuclear. The only way to avoid this is to use fast-breeder reactors which reprocess spent fuel to create more fuel. Unfortunately this fuel is plutonium, one of the most toxic materials known and a basis for nuclear weapons. Few fast-breeders have been constructed and they have been extremely expensive due to the high safety standards needed. Breeder reactors will not become available for large-scale power generation within the next three decades.

2. Cleanliness

It has long been claimed, and still is by many, that nuclear power emits no carbon dioxide, thereby making it a superior choice for future power with the threat of climate change. It is true that the process of generating heat and steam from nuclear materials does not produce carbon dioxide in itself, but to ignore all of the other processes used in nuclear power is either ignorant or disingenuous. It is rather like claiming that a pumped storage hydroelectric plant is a power creator; it is only if you ignore the fact that more electricity is used to pump the water up in the first place than is generated when it falls.

Large amounts of carbon dioxide are emitted during the building and decommissioning of the power plants, and during the mining, refining and enriching of the uranium. Since you can hardly have nuclear power without the plants or the uranium, that carbon dioxide is as much part of the emission from nuclear power as the direct releases from fossil fuels. (To be fair, this also applies to renewable sources since turbines and solar cells have to be constructed, transported and built, and then maintained. But the amount of carbon dioxide emitted is far less than nuclear.)

The other pollutant that is produced by nuclear is, of course, radioactive waste. The waste includes 1,000 tonnes of high- and low-level waste per year per plant, waste that includes parts that remain dangerous for hundreds or thousands of years. Uranium mill tailings can amount to much more. The problem of dealing with this waste has still not been solved.

3. Safety

The disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl created deep-rooted fears in the minds of the public. While the possibility of a plant exploding like a nuclear bomb are virtually nil, and the number of accidents is low, the dangers created by even one accident have far more serious consequences than an accident happening in a fossil fuel or renewable generator.

Today, with the increased menace of terrorism (and considering the resource wars and threats that are likely to come), the danger of theft of radioactive materials or attacks on power plants is genuine. It would only take a small amount of waste exploded inside a conventional bomb (the 'dirty bomb') in a city centre to create havoc.

4. Cost

It is often suggested that the electricity produced from nuclear power is cheap, but this, like carbon dioxide emissions, is only true if you concentrate on the operating costs only. When you include research, development, construction, decommissioning and storage/disposal of waste, nuclear is the most expensive conventional energy source. In the UK, for example, the government had to step in and bail out British Energy which had been crippled by the costs of nuclear power.

Consumption (World)

AN1. World Uranium Reserves

One reason often giving for switching from oil to uranium is that the source is in 'safer' countries. The chart above shows that, at the moment, most of the countries with the largest reserves are in what we (in the West) would consider more reliable countries. Whether they would remain so when oil begins to decline and the cost of uranium rises remains to be seen.

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The Future

It makes sense for the nuclear plants that are already in existence to be continued and extended if possible, since the cost and pollution from their construction has already occurred. But it would not be wise to go down the road of building new power stations for what can only be a short-term solution (if it is a solution). It would be better to plough the vast costs that would be needed into increasing energy efficiency and renewable sources.

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Nuclear Fusion

Nuclear fusion was once considered (and still is by some) the answer to our energy needs, a source of free, clean and abundant power. Unfortunately, years and millions of pounds of research have not brought that source within sight.
As its name suggests, fusion involves the bringing together of atoms rather than the division, and differs in many other ways from fission. It does not use radioactive material but deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen. Neither does it produce radioactive waste. It is the source of both the power of the sun and thermonuclear weapons.

The problem with fusion is the sheer difficulty of achieving the act. Atoms have a very strong repulsive force and it takes high temperatures and enormous amounts of energy to bring them close enough together to fuse. And this must be maintained for long periods to produce electricity. We have been researching fusion for over four decades and spent many millions of dollars, pounds and euros. It is possible that more money and time could produce successful fusion in another decade or so, but it may never be achievable. It would be wiser to spend that time and money on something which we know will succeed such as renewables.

It is said of nuclear fusion that is is the energy source of the future, and always will be.

Further Information
Nuclear Power - the Energy Balance

 

Remember there is a table of disadvantages on the Alternative Energy Sources page.

 

Unconventional Oils : Natural Gas : Coal : Nuclear : Renewables : Hydrogen

 

Contents

Nuclear fission

The future

Nuclear fusion

 

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