The government of India is promoting nuclear energy as a solution to the country’s future energy needs and is embarking on a massive nuclear energy expansion




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2. Is Nuclear Energy Green?


Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (Aug 21, 2011): “I am convinced that nuclear energy will play an important role in our quest for a clean and environmentally friendly energy mix as a major locomotive to fuel our development process.” 5

Taking advantage of the growing crisis of global warming, political leaders, administrators and the global nuclear industry have launched a huge propaganda campaign to promote nuclear energy as the panacea for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

While it is true that nuclear reactors do not emit greenhouse gases in the same quantity as coal or oil powered generating stations, but to conclude that nuclear energy is “an environment friendly source of power” is a far stretch. Nuclear reactors do not stand alone; the production of nuclear electricity depends upon a vast and complex infrastructure known as the nuclear fuel cycle. And the fact is, the nuclear fuel cycle utilises large quantities of fossil fuel during all its stages, as discussed below.

Carbon Emission and the ‘Nuclear Fuel Cycle’


Uranium mining and milling are very energy intensive processes. The rock is excavated by bulldozers and shovels and then transported in trucks to the milling plant, and all these machines use diesel oil. The ore is ground to powder in electrically powered mills, and fuel is also consumed during conversion of the uranium powder to yellow cake. In fact, mining and milling are so energy intensive that if the concentration of uranium in the ore falls to below 0.01%, then the energy required to extract it from this ore becomes greater than the amount of electricity generated by the nuclear reactor. And most uranium ores are low grade; the high-grade ores are very limited.

The uranium enrichment process is also very energy intensive. For instance, the Paducah enrichment facility in the USA uses the electrical output of two 1,000 MW coal-fired plants for its operation, which emit large quantities of CO2.

The construction of a nuclear reactor is a very high-tech process, requiring an extensive industrial and economic infrastructure. Constructing the reactor also requires a huge amount of concrete and steel. All this consumes huge quantities of fossil fuel. After the reactor’s life is over, its decommissioning is also a very energetic process.6

Finally, constructing the highly specialized containers to store the intensely radioactive waste from the nuclear reactor also consumes huge amounts of energy. This waste has to be stored for a period of time which is beyond our comprehension—hundreds of thousands of years! Its energy costs are unknown.

Energy Balance


A study done for the Green parties of the European Parliament by senior scientists Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith in 2004 estimated that under the most favourable conditions, the nuclear fuel cycle emits one-third of the carbon dioxide emissions of modern natural gas power stations. They excluded the energy costs of transportation and storage of radioactive waste in their calculations, and also assumed high grade uranium ore is used to make the nuclear fuel. But these high grade ores are finite. Use of the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors would produce more CO2 emissions and nuclear energy’s green choga will no longer remain green.7

The concentration of uranium in India’s uranium ores is very low. From the total uranium mined in Jaduguda over the last 40 years, Dr. Surendra Gadekar has estimated that the ore quality at Jaduguda hasn’t been better than 0.03% for many years.8 At such meagre concentrations, it is obvious that the total CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle in India must be fairly high.

Actual Potential: Even Less


However, this represents only half the argument. Burning of fossil fuels is not the only factor responsible for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, though it is the largest (see Table 2.1). Obviously, nuclear power cannot help in reducing these other causes of GHG emissions, like use of fertilisers in chemical agriculture, industrial processes that emit GHGs, etc. Then again, fossil fuels are burnt for various uses, and nuclear power can replace fossil fuels only in large scale electricity generation, and not in its other uses, like in the transportation sector.

Worldwide, use of fossil fuels for electricity and heating contributes to only 25% of the total GHG emissions. Therefore, replacing burning of fossil fuels with nuclear energy can only bring about some reduction in this part of the total global GHG emissions. (And that too, assuming that the nuclear energy is generated using high grade uranium ore.)

How much reduction is possible? The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that even if nuclear energy contribution were to quadruple by 2050, it would reduce global CO2 emissions by only 4 percent!9 The crisis of global warming is very acute, and to tackle it, what the world needs is not a marginal reduction in GHG emissions, but deep cuts in them—40 percent by 2020 and 95 percent by 2050. Obviously, nuclear power cannot significantly contribute to bringing about these reductions.

On the other hand, implementation of this scenario would require construction of 32 new 1000 MW nuclear reactors every year from now until 2050. Investment costs for these 1,400 new reactors would exceed $10 trillion at current prices. That is huge! Given the enormous subsidies needed to build just one reactor (discussed in Chapter 5), that would bankrupt even the richest countries!!

Table 2.1: Contribution of Various Sectors to Global Warming10

Fossil fuel burning

66.5%

of which




Transportation

14.3%

Electricity and heat

24.9%

Other fuel combustion

8.6%

Industry

14.7%

Fugitive emissions

4%

Industrial processes

4.3%

Land use change

12.2%

Agriculture

13.8%

Waste

3.2%

Total

100%

What About Renewable Sources of Energy?


The above discussion compared CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle with that from gas- and coal-fired power plants. The nuclear lobby focuses on this comparison to make an argument for building nuclear power plants. But there is another facet to the whole issue, which the nuclear lobby very conveniently forgets: renewable energy sources emit less greenhouse gases than nuclear plants! In comparison to renewable energy sources, power generated from nuclear reactors releases four to five times more CO2 per unit of energy produced, when taking into account the entire nuclear fuel cycle.11

If the growing crisis of global warming is an argument in support of promoting nuclear energy as compared to electricity from burning fossil fuels, then, by an extension of this same logic, shouldn't renewable energy be promoted as compared to nuclear energy?
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