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Point Refuted a Thousand Times: “Nuclear is not low-carbon”

by Luke Weston

This is a rebuttal to Barnham’s recent opinion piece in The Ecologist titled, False solution: Nuclear power is not ‘low carbon’.

So, it’s 2015 and we’re still having to go back over Storm van Leeuwen and Smith, again?

This was debunked and done to death and put to bed over 10 years ago, back somewhere around the time everyone was complaining how John Howard is a terrible Prime Minister. But apparently it’s the pseudoscience that just won’t die!

The meme that nuclear energy is bad because it has poor whole-of-lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, or poor EROEI, that are not comparable to wind energy, hydroelectricity and other climate-change-friendly energy technologies, but are in fact comparable to greenhouse-gas-intensive fossil fuel combustion is perhaps one of the oldest, most comprehensively debunked PRATT concerning arguments that emerged during the resurgence of public debate in the early 2000s about the importance of nuclear energy.

If you find any anti-nuclear energy activist who makes this claim, and you trace its roots back to the source (in the rare cases where they’re trying to be remotely credible and are actually citing reference material), in 99% of cases you’ll find that this argument originates from exactly the same place: just one pair of authors and their non-peer-reviewed website.

Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Phillip Smith’s original essay “Nuclear power – the energy balance“, which is where all this stuff originates from, has never been published in a scientific journal or subjected to any kind of formal peer-review process. In fact, it has only ever been published on the authors’ own website.

Their work has been widely debunked and discredited for many years, with some of the more egregious errors and assumptions discussed here:

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Van Leeuwen’s work was included three times in a mean of 19 studies in a meta-analysis on the lifecycle greenhouse has emissions from nuclear power by Benjamin Sovacool, who is also quite a popular source in the anti-nuclear-energy activist community.

The University of Sydney’s Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis, in their report on the lifecycle analysis of nuclear energy “Life-Cycle Energy Balance and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Energy in Australia“, mentions that “contrary to Storm van Leeuwen and Smith’s assessment, we argue that multiplying the costs of the entire reactor with an economy-wide average energy or greenhouse gas intensity is not an appropriate method to assess the energy and greenhouse gas embodiments of a nuclear power plant.” Section 3.6 of the ISA report goes on to criticise, at some length, the flaws of this method, the AEI method, for energy accounting in lifecycle analysis.

Indeed, the ISA paper includes an entire section dedicated to “main areas of disagreement with Storm van Leeuwen and Smith’s study”, where several examples of the literature critical of van Leeuwen and Smith, including the work of Martin Sevior and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne, as well as analyses by the World Nuclear Association, are mentioned.

The ISA report goes on to state “there are a number of energy analyses of reactor construction that proceed similarly to Storm van Leeuwen and Smith’s process analysis, i.e. via a material inventory. While Storm van Leeuwen and Smith’s inventory is realistic, none of these studies yield energy embodiments that are anywhere near their 97 PJ or 27,000 GWh.”


Claim: “I have trawled the literature and found that there is no scientific consensus on the lifetime carbon emissions of nuclear electricity.”

The IPCC doesn’t seem to agree with this. Neither does NREL, nor the World Nuclear Association, nor James Hansen.


Having a meta-analysis which includes realistic error bars does not mean “no scientific consensus”. That sounds like a statistics fail. If you don’t have any uncertainty, you don’t have any error bars, then that’s not science – that’s religion.

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, US NREL (Click to enlarge)

Furthermore, cherrypicking your literature “trawl” can give you a “scientific consensus”, or lack thereof, which says whatever you believe it should say at the beginning. Picking, say, the maximum error limit in a set of data, and ignoring the range and median of the data set is also statistical comprehension fail.

Data from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (See figure to the right) shows that the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions intensity of nuclear energy has its median and 75th percentile slightly higher than those of wind power and slightly lower than those of both thermal and photovoltaic solar energy conversion. These values, for each of these three energy technologies, are all about 50 g/kWh CO₂ equivalent. The maximum data point given for nuclear energy is about the same as those for solar energy.

NREL’s systematic review finds that “nuclear power exhibits a similar interquartile range and median as do technologies powered by renewable resources.

The World Nuclear Association also provides a rich source of data, discussion, primary source material and analysis that deals with these issues and answers these questions, in terms of material balance, energy investment and EROEI, and greenhouse gas analysis across the entirety of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Of course, some may kick and scream that the World Nuclear Association is a biased source, or that they’re a part of the big conspiracy of lies, or whatever – but you can read their material, investigate whether it makes sense, check it against other literature, look at the sources they’re using, and see if the source material stands up to peer review.

from “Renewable Energy in the Context of Sustainable Development”, in IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Cimate Change Mitigation, Ch. 9

This dataset (figure on the left) from the IPCC shows that the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear energy are slightly better than those of solar photovoltaics, and slightly higher than but very close to the figures for concentrating solar power, wind energy and hydropower, and about the same as geothermal energy, when the mean and interquartile range are compared. When comparing only the maximum data points given, the figure for nuclear energy is about the same as that of solar photovoltaics.

Hansen and Kharecha, in the paper mentioned below, find “that global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning”. This is published in a credible scientific journal, and it stands up to peer review.

So I ask the anti-nuclear activists… is the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientifically incompetent? Or, are the IPCC and all the eminent climate scientists around the world engaged in some sort of conspiracy to manipulate the data, to misrepresent the science and to lie to us about it, covering up the true dangers of nuclear power?

Some literature review of the life-cycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear energy and other energy technologies is given by Nicholson, Biegler and Brook in their 2011 paper “How carbon pricing changes the relative competitiveness of low-carbon baseload generating technologies” (Energy, Volume 36, Issue 1, January 2011, Pages 305-313.) Energy has an impact factor of 4.159.

The 2013 paper “Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power“, by eminent Goddard Institute climatologists Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen, was published in the journal ‘Environmental Science and Technology’,
which has an impact factor of 5.48.

This paper also looks at the greenhouse gas intensity of nuclear energy, and concludes that the climate-protection credentials of nuclear energy are well established and are comparable to the IPCC conclusions.

On the other hand, Keith Barnham’s analysis of nuclear energy has been published in ‘The Ecologist’, but this is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It’s really no more credible, in terms of expert peer-review process, than your personal blog or a newspaper opinion piece.  ResearchGate lists the impact factor of ‘The Ecologist’ as, well, 0.00.

Given that Keith Barnham is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Imperial College London, I have to wonder why his analysis of nuclear energy is not being published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, alongside Kharecha and Hansen and Nicholson et. al?

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, one of Australia’s leading marine biologists, and one of the most outspoken scientists in the world world on the issue of climate change and coral reefs – and a lead IPCC AR5 author, by the way – has said in a recent opinion column, “let’s go nuclear, for the reef’s sake“. Is he also just part of the big pro-nuclear biologist/climatologist conspiracy lying about the science?

Nuclear energy is recognised by most of the world’s expert climatologists, scientists and engineers as an incredibly valuable, important tool for climate protection.

About 71 percent of climate science experts surveyed in a recent poll (a poll that specifically looked at climatologists) agreed that nuclear power will play a crucial role in any plan to stabilize the effects of anthropogenic CO₂ emissions. At the same time, 67 percent agreed that “renewable” energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass would not scale up fast enough to meet the world’s expected power requirements with a safe CO₂ budget.


Claim: “Using 0.005% concentration uranium ores, a nuclear reactor will have a carbon footprint larger than a natural gas electricity generator. Also, it is unlikely to produce any net electricity over its lifecycle.”

This just keeps us coming back to the Storm van Leeuwen and Smith study.

50 ppm is extremely low grade for a uranium ore, and would be unlikely to be considered an economically attractive resource for commercial mining operations under most conditions.

Claim: “Nuclear fuel preparation begins with the mining of uranium containing ores, followed by the crushing of the ore then extraction of the uranium from the powdered ore chemically. All three stages take a lot of energy, most of which comes from fossil fuels.”

This reads like classic Helen Caldicott style anti-nuclear pseudoscience, explaining that you’re mining uranium ore and then crushing the ore, and then milling and uranium extraction etc… it sounds all knowledgeable and sounds very scientific to a layperson audience, but doesn’t actually demonstrate the point being discussed, and doesn’t actually provide any evidence and science where it matters.

Claim: “The inescapable fact is that the lower the concentration of uranium in the ore, the higher the fossil fuel energy required to extract uranium.”

Claim: “According to figures van Leeuwen has compiled from the WISE Uranium Project around 37% of the identified uranium reserves have an ore grade below 0.05%.”

The total terrestrial reserves of any mineral or element, whether it’s nickel or neodymium, will obviously be mostly present in the form of very dilute mineral dispersed through the entire Earth. Any rock or soil contains essentially any mineral you choose at a small concentration, and ores which are commercially desirable because they contain a very high concentration of a somewhat pure mineral are relatively rare. If you imagine a continuous curve of mineral concentration on the vertical axis and amount of ore on the horizontal axis, stretching out asymptotically as dilute minerals extend out to the entire mass of the Earth, then it should be obvious that most of the mineral, the integrated area under the curve, is within the long tail region.

But this doesn’t actually tell us anything meaningful.

Claim: “On the basis that the high concentration ores are the easiest to find and exploit, this low concentration is likely to be more typical of yet to be discovered deposits.”
Claim: “A conservative estimate for the future LCA of nuclear power for power stations intended to continue operating into the 2090s and beyond would assume the lowest uranium concentration currently in proven sources, which is 0.005%.”

And based on what evidence is this realistic? There is no evidence or justification for this at all. How about we assume the uranium is in the form of stockpiles of once-used LWR fuel which is 96% uranium, or stockpiles of depleted uranium and decommissioned weapons HEU, which are 100% uranium?

Claim: “The Beerten re-analyses also confirm that the carbon footprint of nuclear power depends strongly on the concentration of the uranium in the ore. This was first identified by Storm van Leeuwen, an author of the LCA in reference [9].”

Reference [9] cited by Barnham is Van Leeuwen and Smith’s essay, “Nuclear Power: The Energy Balance” – as mentioned, not peer reviewed, only ever published on Van Leeuwen and Smith’s own website, and widely debunked for methodological and arithmetic errors.

Namibia’s Rössing mine, for example, extracts uranium from an average ore concentration of about 200 ppm, which is low-grade ore.   The energy input into this mining operation is about 0.2% of the energy output of the uranium produced – assuming once-through, inefficient partial use of that uranium in an existing light-water power reactor, without the recycling of that fuel or the use of fast reactors and modern advanced fuel cycles.

The use of a modern fuel cycle increases the energy output from the same amount of uranium input by a factor of about 200, meaning Rössing’s energy input would be about 0.001% of the nuclear energy output from the uranium produced. The use of a modern fuel cycle also makes it possible to consume existing large stockpiles of “depleted” uranium, once-used LWR fuel, and fissile fuels from the decommissioning of nuclear weapons stockpiles – these fuel stockpiles are already “free”, are extremely energy dense, and require no mining.

We can use mined uranium in a light-water reactor today, and then safely store this once-used fuel for decades if we want to, and then go and recover the remaining 99.5% of that energy value from the stored fuel tomorrow, or a century from now.

Assuming a linear relationship, we might expect that if the Rössing mine was extracting uranium from an ore with a concentration of 50 ppm we could extrapolate the energy input to the mining operation to be about four times what it is, or about 0.8% of the energy output from inefficient, once-through uranium use in an existing LWR.

To put it another way, the total non-nuclear energy investment required to generate electricity for a plant lifetime of 40 years is repaid in 5 months. Normalised to 1 GW of electrical power capacity, the energy input required for both construction and decommissioning of the plant, which is 4 petajoules of total primary energy according to Vattenfall’s independently audited Environmental Product Declaration, is effectively repaid in about 6 weeks.

The energy investment required to dispose of the plant’s used nuclear fuel is also about the same – 4 PJ, repaid in 6 weeks.

Under Swedish government policy, this fuel is moved to interim storage and packaged for safe and environmentally friendly permanent disposal in a deep geological repository. However, this permanent disposal of once-used LWR fuel is a terrible waste of valuable, useful energy-rich fuel which is about 97% unchanged, unreacted uranium as well as plutonium and the minor actinides formed in the fuel within the reactor – this is a terrible waste of clean energy which can be avoided through the efficient recycling of the fuel.

In total, this whole-of-lifecycle energy investment for construction, decommissioning and fuel disposal is less than 0.8% of all the electrical energy produced by the nuclear power plant over its lifetime.

At a polymetallic orebody such as the Olympic Dam project in South Australia (1.98% Cu, 490 ppm U, 4.01 ppm Ag and 0.69 ppm Au), uranium (as well as Au and Ag) is profitably extracted from what would otherwise be the waste, the tailings, of a large copper mine.

In a case like this, the extra cost, effort and energy investment (and lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions) for the extra extraction circuit are almost negligible for the amount of value that is generated – and enormous amount of clean energy that is generated – using crushed rock that has already been mined and subjecting this powdered rock (tailings) waste to an extra chemical extraction step to recover its valuable uranium content. The “byproduct” extraction of uranium, gold and silver adds very little to the overall energy consumption of the mine and processing plant – a great deal of energy goes into the natural-gas fired furnaces at Olympic Dam, for example.

The mining and processing of natural uranium oxide from relatively low-grade (490 ppm) ore at Olympic Dam presently supplies enough uranium for the generation of about 26 gigawatt-years of electrical energy each year from nuclear power plants, assuming inefficient once-through uranium use in older light-water reactors without recycling or advanced fuel cycles, and including the uranium needed to supply the energy required for uranium enrichment. The energy consumption at the Olympic Dam mine is about 220 megawatt-years of energy each year, or 0.85% of the electrical energy produced. This includes all the energy input required for the mining, smelting and electrorefining of Olympic Dam’s huge copper production, which accounts for by far the majority of the energy inputs.

There are very large global reserves of uranium that have not yet been mined or even fully mapped out around the world in the range of 200-500 ppm uranium concentrations, including the Olympic Dam deposit. Furthermore, the world possesses enormous stockpiles of useful, valuable nuclear fuel that has already been mined and is waiting to be used – this includes so-called depleted uranium, once-used LWR fuel waiting to be recycled, and the growing stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium or very highly enriched uranium from the decommissioning of nuclear weapons, which is downblended into MOX or LEU fuel for energy generation in nuclear power stations. Furthermore, how long does the world need to continue to expand and to use nuclear fission power stations for before nuclear fusion power stations become widespread? 50 years? Let’s be pessimistic, maybe 100 years? These timescales are short compared to the lifetimes of existing assured uranium reserves at reasonably high concentrations well above 50 ppm.

In short, the implication that worldwide nuclear power, and uranium mining, will soon be forced to move to very, very low concentration (50 ppm) uranium ores is completely without evidence. It’s just not demonstrated and backed up at all.

Namibia’s Rössing uranium project produced 3037 tonnes of uranium oxide in 2004, which is sufficient for the generation of about 15 gigawatt-years with once-through inefficient use in a light-water reactor. The energy input that goes into the mining and milling of this uranium is about 3% of one gigawatt-year, thus making the energy produced by this uranium about 500 times the energy input required to operate the mine.
Extrapolating this, for a uranium mine to produce no net energy gain, we would expect it to have a uranium concentration in the ore of no more than about 0.4 ppm. But this is less than the average concentration of uranium in the Earth’s crust! Therefore, we might expect that a positive energy gain is possible, even with once-through LWR fuel use, from the energy content of every single bit of dirt and rock on Earth!

But even this doesn’t give us the whole story. A typical nuclear power reactor generating 1 gigawatt of electrical power actually generates about 3 gigawatts of thermal power, and two gigawatts of this is dissipated to the heatsink due to the realities of thermodynamic energy conversion that any coal-fired, solar-thermal, nuclear or geothermal power plant is subject to.

If we measure the energy inputs into the lifecycle of nuclear energy, for example into uranium mining, as primary thermal energy, then we should also measure the energy that this uranium generates as primary thermal energy. Although this is not widely done at most nuclear power reactors today, we can and we should (because it’s more efficient) use heat from nuclear reactors to supply district heating, to heat buildings, and to power industrial and chemical processes operating at appropriate temperatures.

3000 tonnes of natural uranium oxide converted to energy in a light-water reactor with once-through fuel use actually gives us about 45 gigawatt-years of thermal energy. If the energy input required for the uranium mine is 30 megawatt-years of primary (thermal) energy, then the true “energy gain” factor for this system is actually 1500.

Van Leeuwen and Smith give a rather pessimistic assessment of the energy lifecycle of nuclear power, and they assume a far larger energy investment to construct and decommission a nuclear power plant than Vattenfall’s Environmental Product Declaration does – 240 PJ of primary energy in van Leeuwen and Smith’s report versus 8 PJ in Vattenfall’s analysis – the figure claimed by van Leeuwen and Smith is 30 times the Vattenfall figure!

The difference is that Vattenfall actually measured their energy inputs whereas Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Smith employed various theoretical relationships between dollar costs and energy consumed – this relates to the flawed assumption of the AEI method, as discussed above. Their study also grossly over-estimates the energy cost of mining low-grade ores and also that the efficiency of extraction of uranium from ores would fall dramatically at ore concentrations below 0.05%.

Employing van Leeuwen and Smith’s models leads to the prediction that the energy cost of extracting the Olympic Dam mine’s yearly production of 4600 tonnes of uranium oxide would require almost 2 gigawatt-years of energy investment – that is, a two-gigawatt power station, comparable to Victoria’s Loy Yang plant or a two-unit nuclear power plant, just to supply energy for uranium extraction. As well as being an order of magnitude larger than the measured energy inputs, this modelled value also happens to be greater than the entire electricity generating capacity of South Australia. So it’s probably not true.

The discrepancy is even larger in the case of the Rössing uranium project, which has an even lower uranium concentration than Olympic Dam. However, since it is an orebody and mine from which only uranium is extracted, it should be easier to accurately use Rössing to quantify the energy investment into low-grade uranium mining without getting confused by energy attribution across the different metals produced.

In the case of Rössing, van Leeuwen and Smith predict the mine should require 2.6 gigawatt-years of energy investment for the mining and milling of one year of uranium production. This should be compared to the total annual consumption of all forms of energy in Namibia, which is 1.5 gigawatt-years. (The energy input to the mine itself is, of course, much less than the total energy demand of the entire country.)

Furthermore, the total cost of supplying Namibia’s total energy demand is over a billion dollars a year while the value of the uranium sold by Rössing was, until recently, less than 100 million dollars per annum. The annual energy usage of the Rössing mine is reported to actually be 30 megawatt-years, or a factor of 80 less than that predicted by van Leeuwen and Smith.

Additionally, van Leeuwen and Smith predict that the yield of uranium extracted from ores will fall to zero at concentrations of 2 ppm. However, this is absurd because there is no such thing as “uranium ore” with a concentration of 2 ppm – the average uranium concentration in the entire Earth’s crust is 3 ppm! Therefore, there is an infinitely large resource of uranium “ore” available at 3 ppm – every bit of dirt and rock on Earth!

It is interesting to see what effect using Vattenfall’s more accurate energy investment figure of 8 PJ for the construction, decommissioning and waste disposal from a nuclear power plant, along with the measured energy consumption of the Rössing mine has within the methodology of van Leeuwen and Smith. If we assume that the energy cost of extraction scales inversely with concentration, and employ the Rössing data as a benchmark, ore concentrations as low as 10 ppm provide an energy gain of 16.

This also (unrealistically) assumes no further progress in mining technology or efficiency improvements in nuclear power operations over the course of hundreds of years. There is an estimated 1 trillion tonnes of uranium at concentrations of 10 ppm or higher within the Earth’s crust.

This provides a resource size that is a factor of over 300 greater than that predicted by van Leeuwen and Smith to be recoverable. So, once the correct energy cost for plant construction and mining operations are used, the own work of van Leeuwen and Smith show that resource exhastion will not be a problem for nuclear power for the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, how many decades do we need to continue to use light-water reactors fuelled by natural uranium for anyway, before efficient fuel recycling, use of existing stockpiles, efficient nuclear fuel consumption in fast reactors, and/or nuclear fusion power plants are in widespread use?

The arguments and data I’ve outlined above are taken from the work of Martin Sevior, Adrian Flitney and a number of their colleagues at the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne, from their website as linked above. Van Leeuwen and Smith have published their rebuttal of this argument. Sevior and his colleagues have responded in detail to the questions raised by van Leeuwen and Smith, and van Leeuwen and Smith have published a rebuttal to their response, with a further answer to this from Sevior et al.

You can read all their discussions at the following links.

“Remarkably, half of the most rigorous published analyses have a carbon footprint for nuclear power above the limit recommended by the UK government’s official climate change advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).”

Is this actually true? Does credible evidence actually exist for this statement? This depends on a suspicious cherrypicking of “most rigorous” published data, and a suspicious reliance upon non-credible source material from anti-nuclear activists such as van Leeuwen and Sovacool – and also fails to consider how many analyses of, say, wind energy or solar energy will find that they’re also coming in above the the 50g/kWh mark when the same standards and methodologies of life-cycle analysis are applied in a consistent way.

Compared to about 1000 g/kWh of greenhouse gas emissions from coal combustion, just at the power plant stack (without lifecycle analysis) there is absolutely no doubt or lack of scientific consensus that nuclear power, solar power, wind power and hydroelectricity are all clean, green, climate-friendly technologies with near-negligible greenhouse gas emissions.

Right now Ontario’s electricity grid is generating 61.5% of its supply from nuclear power, with an overall grid greenhouse gas emissions intensity of 30g/kWh CO2-equivalent – well under 50g/kWh, which is where the IPCC recommends we need to be for all new sources of stationary energy generation beyond 2030 to have the best chance of mitigating the worst effects of anthropogenic climate forcing.

However, it is utterly pointless to debate exactly where the error bars lie, and exactly how much statistical confidence we have, regarding the very similar life cycle analysis of these clean technologies – the important thing is to use these technologies to actually replace our existing coal-fired power stations in a realistic way, whilst maintaining the same reliable amount of electricity generation that these coal-fired plants supply, and to do this as quickly and as cheaply as possible, choosing the most realistic, scalable, reliable and cost-effective technologies to do this job. Taking any technologies that can achieve this job off the table just because that error bar may peek up above a strictly enforced whole-of-life cycle 50 gCO2/kWh limit is silly – and if this standard was actually applied consistently to other technologies such as solar power, without the double standards and cherry picking that the author applies to nuclear power, these technologies would be excluded from use as well.

Ontario burned their last bit of coal for electricity generation in 2013, and they’ll never burn coal again – largely thanks to nuclear power.

The overall greenhouse gas emissions intensity of EDF’s energy generation infrastructure across mainland France was about the same in 2013 – just 35 g/kWh, and this is mostly thanks to nuclear energy. This is also well below where the IPCC is telling us we should be moving for stationary energy generation by 2050 in order to meet safe climate targets.…/…

“They also point out that the estimates depend strongly on the assumptions made about the carbon footprint of the energy that has to be supplied, in particular in extraction, preparation and enrichment of the fuel.”

We might assume that the enrichment of low-enriched uranium to supply the needs of a typical LWR nuclear power station generating one gigawatt-year of electrical energy will require about 10^5 Separative Work Units (SWU) of enrichment capacity. (This assumes that all the fuel supplied is natural uranium that requires enrichment, and that downblended weapons-grade uranium, MOX fuel, or natural uranium in CANDU reactors, are not used.) Enrichment of natural uranium in a gas centrifuge to the typical levels used in LWR fuel requires an electrical energy input of about 50 kWh per SWU.

Therefore, about 5 GWh of electrical energy goes in to the nuclear fuel cycle at the enrichment plant stage, and 8766 GWh (a gigawatt-year) of electrical energy comes out. The energy cost of enrichment is 5 gigawatt-hours out of one gigawatt-year.

The United States Enrichment Corporation’s uranium enrichment plant near Paducah, Kentucky operates using electricity generated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and supplied via the normal electricity grid. The TVA supplies energy to the electricity grid using a diverse mix of energy sources – 11 fossil-fuel plants, six combustion turbine plants, five nuclear reactors and 29 hydroelectric dams. In 2006, 35% of TVA’s generation capacity – which we can reasonably assume corresponds to 35% of the energy supplied to the Paducah enrichment plant – was provided by these non-greenhouse intensive hydroelectric and nuclear generation technologies.

The Eurodif consortium’s uranium enrichment site in Pierrelatte, France, is supplied with the entirety of its energy needs from the nearby Tricastin nuclear power station, with no energy coming from other energy supplies, fossil-fuelled or otherwise. So the lifecycle greenhouse gas accounting looks pretty good in this case!

“The intention is that fuel rods of the EPR will remain longer in the core than in today’s reactors in an attempt to reduce the cost of the electricity. This will mean that the spent fuel will be more radioactive resulting in new challenges in dismantling reactors and in dealing with the waste. Inevitably, this will lead to higher carbon footprints.”

When a fission product is formed in a nuclear reactor, it is formed at a rate dependent on the fission rate in the reactor and the branching ratio for the formation of that particular fission product. That constant formation rate, combined with radioactive decay of the fission product at a certain rate (for radioactive fission products) and destruction of the fission product by neutron-capture transmutation (dependent on neutron flux) governs the inventory of a particular fission product and how it evolves over time.

When you put all that together, and solve a whole bunch of differential equations, you find that fission products tend to reach equilibrium after a while, in a fission reactor that is operated at a constant power. The setup and solution of these complex systems of coupled differential equations, along with libraries of relevant data such as capture cross sections, is basically at the heart of computational nuclear burnup codes such as ORIGEN.

It is by no means demonstrated here that the used nuclear fuel from a modern nuclear power reactor, which is likely to have increased burnup and to have generated more energy over its lifetime in the reactor, is going to be significantly different to any existing, familiar used nuclear fuel. It will be very radioactive when discharged from the reactor, as all used fuel is, but it won’t be anything radically different.
“The report is from the company Ricardo-AEA, formed in 2012 when Ricardo acquired AEA Technology, itself a spin-out from the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. Their analysis makes the astonishing assumption that both the EPRs at Hinkley Point C will operate at 1 GW above their design power for 85% of every year over a 60 year lifetime.”
Really, 1GW of power output above the reactor’s design power? Show us the evidence.

Show us the source material.
“In my book, The Burning Answer: a User’s Guide to the Solar Revolution, I discuss a simple comparison of the LCAs of the EPR and a large dam (or probably dams) producing the same amount of power.”

So, hang on a minute. If we’ve got the “Solar Revolution”, tell us again why we need large, ecologically destructive, hydroelectric dams? I also note here that the author is citing his own popular book, not his paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and he is promoting the book which, of course, it is implied that you should go out and purchase.

“The EPR is far bigger and more complex, than any existing nuclear reactor, or indeed any electricity generating system ever built.”

There is no real reason to believe that, in terms of lifecycle analysis, the modern European Pressurised Reactor design will look particularly different to any other existing light water reactor. In fact, modern LWR designs aim to be more cost effective (and more energy efficient across the whole lifecycle) by minimising the amount of steel and concrete required for construction whilst also maximising safety and maximising efficiency and fuel burnup.

“The contract will commit the UK public to paying heavy subsidies and may be signed before it is known if the prototype works or what its environmental impact will be.”

It’s a pressurised light-water nuclear power reactor. It’s a modern design, with improvements in safety, efficiency and economics compared to older designs – but it’s still just a LWR, it’s nothing radically new. So, yes, we have quite a good idea that it will work and what a large coal-replacing environmental boon will be.

“Note that thanks to long construction times for the EPR design and a forthcoming legal challenge, it’s entirely possible that the planned Hinkley C reactor will not be completed until 2030 or beyond.”

“The likely delay due to the Austrian appeal against the European Commission’s decision on the EPR subsidy offers an opportunity for a full, independent and peer reviewed assessment of the environmental impact of this complex and expensive new technology.”

“The likely Austrian appeal against the European Commission’s approval of the subsidy may delay the contract signing beyond the 2016 completion date for the EPR.”

So why do these delays exist? The author says it right there himself – these delays exist because of legal challenges from activists.

“As all six are either above, or have error bars that reach above, the CCC’s 2030 threshold of 50 gCO2/kWh, the balance of the evidence of the six most robust LCAs is that the carbon footprint of nuclear power is above the CCC’s recommended limit.”

Even without the cherrypicking of “robust” studies, this is an absurd abuse of statistics and an abuse of the maximum uncertainty limits (error bars) given on those data sets.

“First let’s compare the construction costs. The cost of building the first 1.6 GW EPR at Hinkley Point is around five times higher than the cost of building the hydropower dams which provide the same electrical power. This higher price suggests higher carbon emissions.”

“This approach was first suggested by Hans Bethe, the physics Nobel Prize laureate, in the 1960s, and has been widely used by both companies and governments as a first estimate of their carbon footprints.”

Is a citation provided? No? Didn’t think so. And, by the way, this wouldn’t be the same Hans Bethe who wrote “The Necessity of Fission Power”, would it? “Many of these additional costs for the nuclear option result from burning fossil fuels directly in manufacture or transport or in the generation of electricity in all stages of construction. The fact that the EPR costs five times the hydropower option suggests the construction could result in up to five times larger carbon emissions than dams that give the same power.”

“As we have seen, the EPR’s very high cost suggests considerably higher emissions in the construction stage.”

This is a non sequitur. It is not demonstrated, it does not follow from the starting point, and it is not backed up by any kind of meaningful reasoning or any credible evidence.

This assumption that cost tracks lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions is a meaningless assumption, and it relates back to the flawed AEI methodology for lifecycle analysis that is used by van Leeuwen and Smith, and discussed above.

2 thoughts on “Point Refuted a Thousand Times: “Nuclear is not low-carbon””

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