Sunday, July 13, 2008

Shall we all go nuclear?

After Chernobyl, I must say that I had my doubts about the nuclear option, but that was before global warming started showing its damaging effect.

Nuclear power has two advantages: it reduces dependence on oil producing countries, and, more importantly because nuclear power plants do not burn fuel, they do not emit carbon dioxide (CO2), the chief greenhouse gas. And no matter how much cleaner coal power plants may become, they still reject too much CO2. As for other greener forms of power productions (wind, solar, hydro, etc…) they depend largely on local conditions and are not yet dependable on a massive level. Those technologies thus need massive improvement.

In 2005, it was estimated that 86% of primary energy production in the world came from burning fossil fuels with the remaining non-fossil sources being hydroelectric 6.3%, nuclear 6.0%, and other (geothermal, solar, wind, and wood and waste) 0.9 percent. (source EIA)

Nuclear power is one of the few instances where France has been, leading the way, as a Newsweek article recently reminded its readers:

France now emits only about half the greenhouse gas per unit of GDP of the United States (about the world average), which propels France to near the top of Yale's and Columbia's Environmental Performance Index (EPI).

20% of electric consumption is produced by nuclear power in the US; 80% in France. (in the US, coal generates 54% of its electricity, and is the single biggest air polluter in the nation). (IAE)

The excitement about plug-in hybrid vehicles makes no sense for the environment if the electricity needed for them comes from burning coal.

The two major questions as regard to nuclear power are of course safety and the management of the fuel cycle, from uranium ore to enriched fuel to waste for disposal. Then, there is also fear of uranium shortage in the 30 years or so. But there are reasons to be optimistic :

To prevent that possibility, France is now doing the R&D on a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors, called breeders, that can produce new fuel for itself or other reactors. Rather than burying its waste permanently and then facing a fuel shortage, France will be in an enviable position of having a virtually unlimited supply of fuel.

The breeder technology that France expects to have ready for commercialization in 30 years addresses these concerns. The reactors could be used to destroy the long-lived radioactive components of spent reactor fuel, creating a new way of disposing of this hazardous material more effectively and safely than is now possible. Waste treated by an advanced breeder would need to be buried only for a thousand years, greatly simplifying the safeguards needed in a repository. (Newsweek)

I still shrill at the idea of a new Chernobyl of course, and it seems to me that nuclear makes sense as of now. Then in the longer term, what will certainly be needed is diverse means of electric production (Because of its choice of nuclear energy, France has unfortunately underinvested in new technologies of production of renewable energy.), but nuclear power seems to be the only immediate ready-to-use technology for western countries as well as for China (China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. ) and India (India is right behind China in stepping up its construction of coal-fired power plants).

And in any case, coal burning should really be more and more a thing of the past.

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