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Nuclear Power

There are roughly 1100 nuclear reactors operating today around the world (over 430 larger reactors generating electricity).

Nuclear reactors are powered by the element uranium, a nonrenewable resource in the Earth's crust that appears to have been formed in super novae some 6.5 billion years ago.

The Advantages of nuclear power:

  1. Uses much less material than coal: The Uranium Information Centre says, in a one million kilowatt power station, 25 tonnes of uranium would produce as much electricity in a year as around 2.3 million tonnes of coal. This is a factor of about 100,000-1,000,000. In reality, only .71 % of uranium ore is U-235 (fissible), so the true weight factor over coal is more like 1,000-10,000.
  2. Lower emissions than coal: Uranium as a fuel, its advocates say, creates far fewer waste products: About one tonne of high level radioactive waste (after reprocessing), as opposed to about seven million tonnes of gases - mostly carbon and sulphur dioxides - and around 150,000 tonnes of solids - including ash and sulphur (this estimate ignores emissions due to mining and milling).

The disadvantages of nuclear power:

  1. Radioactive waste: Currently, reactor waste is stored in the canisters, but no decision has yet been taken on what to do with it. According to the Uranium Information Centre, the most widely accepted plan is to bury the waste deep underground inside steel canisters, or to encapsulate it in corrosion resistant metals such as copper or lead.
  2. Uranium and nuclear proliferation: Spent fuel from reactors contains large quantities of plutonium: The French Superphoenix Reactor alone is estimated to produce about 330 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium each year, enough to produce about 60 bomb. Can one seriously doubt that a key motivation of many governments for acquiring nuclear power is to position themselves to develop nuclear weapons capability?

    Centrifuge plants are compact and readily concealed. A country possessing a centrifuge plant can switch quickly from the production of reactor-grade to bomb-grade fuel: Roger Richter was an inspector in the IAEA. He told the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee that: ``Since the entire reactor can be emptied within days, you as an inspector, fact the fact that by the time you arrive to verify the declared inventory of fuel elements, which power the reactor, all the evidence of illicit irradiations [to obtain plutonium] could be covered up.''
    A study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that: "Most of the world's enrichment plants are not now safeguarded and seem highly unlikely to come under IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards for the foreseeable future."

  3. Impacts of Uranium mining: Uranium mining results in millions of tons of radioactive tailings or waste. Uranium tailings contain around 85% of the radioactivity of the original ore body and pose a major waste management problem. The majority of the in-situ leaching (ISL) projects for obtaining uranium have used sulphuric acid and the residual leaching solutions from ISL mines have migrated away from the mining zones. At some sites, notably in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, these solutions have led to contamination of good quality groundwater systems that are used by nearby towns for their water supply or by local residents as their primary drinking water source. In some cases, the contaminated solutions have been demonstrated to reach these wells and valleys. If viewed as countries, New Mexico and Wyoming would rank fourth and fifth in the free world in uranium production over the past years. Wyoming had 10 billion pounds of known reserves in 1980. New Mexico has produced 325 million pounds, but will challenge Wyoming as the current production leader if ISL works here.

  4. Indirect CO2 emissions: Refining and shipping processes has been estimated to release 4-5 times more CO2 than equivalent power production from renewable sources.

  5. Safety problems: The Chernobyl nuclear accident contaminated 160,000 square kilometres of land, displaced at least 400,000 people and led to the premature deaths of incalculable numbers of people. Claims by the nuclear industry that the 'safer' western-style reactors are not prone to Chernobyl-like disasters are dubious, given the near disasters at Windscale-Sellafield in the UK, Three Mile Island in the US and at the Monju reactor in Japan. Even if nukes can be made relatively safe in times of financial well-being doubtful they would remain safe in times of financial unrest.

  6. A history of financial boon-doggles: Nuclear power plants simply require a level of care in construction and maintenance far greater than that of a hydroelectric plant, or of most other types of generating facilities. This fact is what also created the financial boon-doggles associated with nukes.


    Summary Statement: Although it is probably true that there have been significant advances in reactor design in the past two decades, it would appear that claims to the effect that nuclear energy is the answer to global warming must necessarily be based on a number of questionable assumptions about the economics of nuclear power plants, the impacts of uranium mining, waste storage, safety, and nuclear proliferation.

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