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The difficulties of going pro-nuclear

Cross-posted from Heliophage

Atomkraft -- Ja bitteMark Lynas, whose Six Degrees (Amazon UK | US) has been a great success, had a piece in the New Statesman last week about nuclear power. It was a pretty standard, pretty well executed I’m-a-green-who’s-much-more-freaked-out-about-climate-than-about-nukes piece, much in the long travelled Lovelock vein, not that unlike some things George Monbiot has recently been writing. As such it obviously got up the noses of some greens. I thought it was pretty sensible, myself; but there’s a depressing kicker.

Encouraging our optimism, Mark writes:

It is worth remembering the contribution that nuclear power has already made to offsetting global warming: the world’s 442 operating nuclear reactors, which produce 16 per cent of global electricity, save 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year compared to coal, according to the IPCC. Blees [Tom Blees, author of Prescription for the Planet (Amazon UK | US)] agrees that “the most pressing issue is to shut down all coal-fired power plants” and urges a “Manhattan Project-like” effort to convert the world’s non-renewable power to IFRs by the thousand. This sounds daunting but it is not unprecedented: France converted its power supply to 80 per cent nuclear in the space of just 25 years by building about six reactors a year.

That French expansion was indeed spectacular. France makes almost all its electricity with nukes, when a generation and a bit ago it made almost none. If you go back a little before the graph on the right starts, you’ll find that growth in French nuclear power from 1977 to 2003 was an extraordinary 4000%. France now exports nuclear power to other parts of Europe; its generating industry has an excellent safety record, and it has made EDF a very big powerful company capable of buying up the UK’s nuclear industry (by weird coincidence, I was just interrupted by one of its meter readers as I wrote this). It has, that said, cost a great deal, especially in its sometime commitment to MOX fuels. But it’s the most impressive remaking of a nations generating infrastructure I know of. (I’m happy, as always, to learn better.)

So what did that extraordinary national rebuilding actually achieve? According to the Stern review fossil fuel emissions in France during the 25 years of that 4000% increase fell, on average, by less than 1% a year. Emissions from the generating sector dropped 6% a year, which is about 80% over the 25 years, which is great — but the rest of the economy kept growing and burning fossil fules in cars and heating systems and factories and all that. So the carbon saving overall was 0.6% a year, which I make to be 14% over 25 years. Best anyone’s ever done and it was pathetically small.

In fairness, things could be different if people were going nuclear as part of an economy-wide thrust for carbon reduction, with more and more nuclear electricity replacing fossil fuels for cars and so on. But something which was only as good as the great French nuclear leap forward — a remarkable achievement — would be nowhere near good enough.

Images: Atomkraft badge from, chart from wikimedia commons


  1. Report this comment

    Francis Massen said:

    According to the Annual European Community Greenhouse Inventory (6/2008) France’s emissions are 4% lower than it’s Kyoto burden sharing agreement. From the EU-15 states only Sweden and the UK do better. France contributes about 1/8, UK 1/6 and Germany 1/4 to the total GHG emissions of these 15 states. What would this have been without France going nuclear?

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    Kooiti Masuda said:

    Atomkraft? Nej tak.

    (I remember it since 1970s. Is this Swedish?)

    I think that expansion of use of nuclear fission of uranium or plutonium with currently available techniques will not be a way to mitigate environmental problems.

    There are two horns: to recycle or not to recycle spent fuel.

    To recycle, we need to chemically reprocess the fuel. Radioactive isotopes of gaseous (e.g. krypton) or volatile (e.g. iodine) elements shall escape. Also we will have a lot of radioactive material in a form chemically hazardous as well (e.g. solved in strong acids).

    Not to recycle, we will soon face the “uranium peak” similar to the oil peak. We are forced to use ores with lower and lower uranium content, so the energy return per energy input will decline. Also there will be more and more weakly (but not negligibly) radioactive earth exposed near the mines.

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    Tom Blees said:

    Kooiti, with IFRs you recycle the spent fuel on-site, so actinides never leave the plant. The iodine can be left in a salt form and entombed in glass (vitrified) along with whatever other fission products we don’t use (for medical applications, etc). Krypton gas can be combined with fluorine and then the resulting solid can be combined with an industrial acid to likewise form a salt that can then be vitrified. Xenon is the only radioactive gas that will be left to deal with, and it has such a short half-life that it can be simply held on-site until it’s decayed.

    The vitrified waste will only be radioactive for a few hundred years, yet nothing will leach from the glass for several thousand years. So it will be a simple matter to either bury it on land or at sea. All of the long-lived actinides will be used as fuel and never leave the power plant except in the form of electricity.

    It’s all in my book, with a whole lot more that goes far beyond nuclear to lay out a blueprint for a post-scarcity future.

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    Kooiti Masuda said:

    I understand that spent fuel is excepted to be reprocessed in melted state in the system of Integral Fast Reactor.

    So the question is that whether we can keep the dangerous matter stably in a certain high temperature in the operational (rather than experimental) situation. What will happen with an external shock such as an earthquake, or simultaneous failure of several critical parts. I do not expect nuclear explosion, but I do expect chemical explosion which blasts radioactive materials.

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    Tom Blees said:


    You may be familiar with probabilistic risk assessment, the science that studies the chances of such accidents. Every reactor design is required to have this quite complex study done and has to meet stringent criteria (a major accident like Three Mile Island, for instance, every 10,000 years). Of course if you build 1000 reactors that starts to look less comforting, for you have to divide that and you find you have the chance of an accident every 10 years. Every imaginable circumstance is considered, including (of course) earthquakes.

    The risk assessment studies of the PRISM (the commercial incarnation of the IFR) are so fantastic that I decided to calculate how often we could expect a major accident even if all of the energy humanity is expected to need in 2050 were to be produced solely by thousands of these reactors. The result? Even at that, you could expect such an accident once every 435,000 years! Considering that Neanderthal man died out about 30,000 years ago, it gives you some idea of the safety of these reactors. Even if the risk assessment is off by a factor of ten thousand—highly unlikely—that would still mean a major accident once every 43 years if we got all our energy from PRISMs. Bottom line: It’s not an issue. There’s nothing that comes close to this in terms of safety. They make today’s nuclear plants look like nitroglycerin on a roller coaster in comparison.

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