The Good, Bad & Ugly Side of Nuclear Power
THE unfolding situation with nuclear plants in Fukushima, Japan has underscored the grave safety concerns with the so-called clean energy source of power. But nuclear has never had a laudable environmental record. Even climate change – an issue the nuclear industry has been quick to rally around – does not bode favourably for new nuclear plants. Reprocessing and enriching uranium require a substantial amount of electricity, often generated by fossil fuel-fired power plants. Uranium milling, mining, leaching, plant construction and decommissioning all produce substantial amounts of greenhouse gases.
By Benjamin K. Sovacool in the Straits Times (17 March 2011):
THE unfolding situation with the Fukushima No. 1 and Fukushima No. 2 plants in Japan has underscored the grave safety concerns with nuclear power, which has never had a laudable environmental record.
South-east Asian planners, including those in Singapore, often forget the serious environmental impact associated with other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, especially those relating to uranium mining and climate change.
For example, the uranium needed to fuel all reactors, including those in Japan, is mined in three different ways: underground mining, open-pit mining and in-situ leaching. Each is hazardous, and bad for people and the environment.
Underground mining extracts uranium much like other minerals such as copper, gold and silver, and involves digging narrow shafts deep into the earth.
Open-pit mining, the most prevalent type, is similar to strip mining for coal, where upper layers of rock are removed so that machines can extract uranium.
Uranium miners perform in-situ leaching by pumping acid or alkaline liquid solutions into the areas surrounding uranium deposits.
In Australia, the third-largest producer of uranium, a detailed investigation of the environmental impact from the Rum Jungle mine found that it discharged acidic liquid wastes directly into creeks that flowed into the Finniss River.
The Roxby Downs mine has polluted the Arabunna people’s traditional land with 80 million tonnes of annual dumped tailings, in addition to the mine’s daily extraction of 30 million litres of water from the Great Artesian Basin. The Ranger mine has seen 120 documented leaks, spills and breaches of its tailings waste, which has seeped into waterways and contaminated the Kakuda wetlands. The Beverley mine has been fined for dumping liquid radioactive waste into groundwater.
In China, the country’s largest uranium mine, No. 792, is reputed to dump untreated radioactive water directly into the Bailong River, a tributary of the Yangtze.
In India, researchers from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai found that underground uranium mines at Bhatin, Narwapahar and Turamdih, along with the uranium enrichment plant at Jaduguda, discharged mine water and mill tailings contaminated with radionuclides such as radon and residual uranium, radium and other pollutants directly into local water supplies.
Such examples have not been chosen selectively, with scores of serious documented incidents also at uranium mines in Brazil, Canada, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, South Africa, Tajikistan, the United States, Uzbekistan and a slew of African states – virtually every major country where it is produced.
Even climate change, an issue the nuclear industry has been quick to rally around, does not bode favourably for new nuclear plants. Reprocessing and enriching uranium require a substantial amount of electricity, often generated by fossil fuel-fired power plants. Uranium milling, mining, leaching, plant construction and decommissioning all produce substantial amounts of greenhouse gases.
When one takes into account the carbon-equivalent emissions associated with the entire nuclear life cycle, nuclear plants contribute significantly to climate change – and will contribute even more as stockpiles of high-grade uranium are depleted.
An assessment of 103 life-cycle studies of greenhouse gas-equivalent emissions for nuclear power plants found that the average carbon dioxide emissions over the typical lifetime of a plant are about 66g for every kilowatt hour (kwh), or the equivalent of about 183 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2005.
If the global nuclear industry were taxed at a rate of US$24 (S$31) per tonne for the carbon-equivalent emissions associated with its life cycle, the cost of nuclear power would increase by about US$4.4 billion per year.
A secondary impact is that by producing large amounts of heat, nuclear power plants contribute directly to global warming by increasing the temperature of water bodies and localised atmospheres around each facility.
The carbon-equivalent emissions of the nuclear life cycle will only get worse, not better, because, over time, reprocessed fuel is depleted, necessitating a shift to fresh ore, and reactors must utilise lower-quality ores as higher-quality ones are depleted.
The Oxford Research Group projects that because of this inevitable shift to lower-quality uranium ore, if the percentage of world nuclear capacity remains what it is today, by 2050, nuclear power would generate as much carbon dioxide per kwh as comparable natural gas-fired power stations.
These two factors – the environmental degradation with uranium mining, and the associated greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power facilities – mean that regardless of whatever happens in Japan, nuclear power is in no way clean, green or carbon-free.
The writer is an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.