Power Lies (and truths (and rumors)) (I)

Sorry, but I just can’t leave the recent public discussion about Nuclear Energy (or maybe Nuclear Power would suit better) uncommented. So here comes my first comment/lament about what I’d like to call ‘Power Lies (and truths (and rumors))’.

First of all, for those who don’t know: I grew up in a rural area in the North of Germany, known for its almost untouched nature, its friendly farmers – and a number of facilities for handling radioactive waste. The whole project is under construction since the 70ies (ongoing), but the first containers named ‘CASTOR’ are already delivered since the mid-90ies.
As long as I can think (literally) I just know that Nucluear Power is not only dangerous, but also simply the wrong way to go.

That said I’ll now come to the first (and actually my favourite) ‘Power Lie’: the Carbon Dioxide Reduction Lie:
Yes, it is true that nuclear power plants can help to reduce the production of carbon dioxide – locally. Once a nuclear power plant is all built and then fed with fuel rods (those nasty parts that radiate very actively and that get so hot that you can boil water with ‘em – which makes a nuclear power plant what it is) a it will basically only emit hot water – and therefore it does not emit carbon dioxide directly.
But until a nuclear power plant is actually built and fed with fuel rods a lot of carbon dioxide is emitted – mostly in the countries where the fuel rods are produced. To compare the actual numbers a so called ‘Life Cycle Analysis’ helps to figure out, what the actual CO2-footprint of a technology is. The exact numbers seem to vary very much though – depending on what is actually compared – and also depending on who actually paid the research.
So.. – ..maybe next time you hear someone saying something like “Nuclear Energy helps reducing carbon dioxide emissions” you can add a little “locally!“.

please feel free to browse on:
-> pictures I took of the third ‘Castor-Transport’ to Gorleben back in 1997 (www.bilderbook.org)
-> Greenpeace’s campain page ‘End the nuclear age’ (www.greenpeace.org)
-> Elena’s Motorcyle Ride through Chernobyl (www.kiddofspeed.com)

5 thoughts on “Power Lies (and truths (and rumors)) (I)

  1. RobC

    Obviously, the fuel for the first reactors had to be prepared using a non-nuclear energy source. Here in the US the energy came from hydroelectric dams and therefore didn’t generate any greenhouse gases. But, if a country relies entirely on fossil fuels, then naturally the preparation of the fuel for its first reactors would generate greenhouse gases. The whole point of this is to get away from fossil-fired power plants. Once nuclear plants are operating and providing the necessary energy, then there won’t be any resulting greenhouse gases. Keep your eye on the prize.

    You may feel that nuclear energy is dangerous, but the record shows the opposite. Even the disaster at Chernobyl, which was due to an incredibly unsafe design, had consequences much less severe than Europe experiences every year from fossil-fired power plants. A better indicator of safety comes from the accident at Three Mile Island in the US, which totally destroyed the reactor but had no health consequences. What was the difference? A safe defense-in-depth design.

  2. till

    hi RobC,

    first of all: thank you very much for commenting on my power-lament..:] I just visited your website and found it very interesting indeed. I am close to delighted to see that the environment awareness is also spreading among more and more people in the USA and that makes me quite optimistic about things..

    But then I also just have to write a response to what you wrote: in my power-lament I was refering to the so called Life Cycle Emissions – which would of course actually include all the activities that are necessary.. Not only digging Uranium out from the ground is a highly energy consuming activity, but also shipping it around the world, building high tec facilities to handle it, then turning it into Fuel Rods, again shipping, building more high tec facilities to actually generate the electricity, then again shipping, more high tec facilities, more shipping, ….. And for nuclear energy just half the life cycle is actually known until now – as you know (you also wrote on your website) there is absolutely NO solution for storing the ‘left overs’ safely. One ‘concept’ is to dig holes into the ground, and hide the radioactive left overs for the next thousands of years.. which again demands for even more high tec facilities to be built and run for generations to come..
    Just one example: as I wrote earlier, close my hometown one of those holes is actually beeing dug into the ground – which means that there’s a Ø 7m ‘mine shaft’ going 840m under ground, constantly beeing cooled down so it won’t collapse. This gigantic ‘freezer’ eats around 10 GWh (GigaWattHours) per year (found from http://www.ffe.de) .. – ..only to dig this hole into the ground of which nobody knows if it is suitable for anything.. – ..and has now been running since the 80ies.

    Well – anyways – again: thank you for your response.. – ..and I’ll probably get back to this and continue lamenting rather sooninsh..:]

  3. RobC

    You’ve made some good points that have to be taken seriously. As you know, nothing comes free, and there will be mining, manufacturing, and transportation energy expended for all energy sources. These kinds of studies have been done; all the ones I’ve seen show nuclear has the same or less CO2 emissions than windpower and the same or less energy input (look at http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1998PhDT……..57W for an example).

    It’s hard for us to visualize these concepts. Let’s say a 700 KW wind turbine is typical for large installations. To get the same amount of energy from wind as you’d get from a 1000 MW nuclear plant would require over 4000 wind turbines (allowing for wind’s lower load factor). It’s not enough to say that a lot of energy goes into the nuclear plant. You also have to consider the energy that goes into 4000 wind turbines.

    I looked at http://www.ff.de but didn’t find anything about the mine shaft.

    I think you’re exaggerating the waste issue. People who are committed to oppose nuclear energy always do. I don’t see the situation as an absence of solutions so much as indecision over which solution to follow. Here in the US a long-term disposal site is being evaluated; the earliest we can expect the results is next year. My opinion is that long-lived wastes will be transmuted to shorter-lived materials. I think that’s true because the transmutation will yield energy and because storing the short-lived wastes will be cheaper than storing the long-lived ones. So I expect the depository to be used for spent fuel, but only until burner reactors are ready for them. That’s certainly decades away; perhaps a century.

    Of course, I could be wrong. I don’t know everything. What’s clear, though, is that the “waste problem” is amenable to practical solutions. The present alternatives all have problems without practical solutions. For example, wind turbines have to have either bulk energy storage, which doesn’t exist, or backup energy; if the backup is fossil-fired, they won’t make much of a dent in greenhouse-gas emissions. I think it’s a mistake to wait for silver bullets to solve our problems. We’ve been doing that for thirty years, with the result that global warming has become a serious threat.

  4. till

    hi Rob,

    glad you answered again – this is really getting interesting.. – ..especially since I’ve been thinking those things over and over – but mostly discussing with friends and neighbours with anyways have almost the same opinions as me..:]

    first things first: the number i quoted comes from this pdf, page 80..

    and now back to our discussion: I know very well that the production of windmills and solar panels also eats recourses – especially wind mills made from aluminium can have quite a ‘footprint’.. – ..but that’s not my point. My point, to which I only wanted to come in a later ‘power-lament’ is exactly what you already ‘almost’ said – if I may quote:
    “I think it’s a mistake to wait for silver bullets to solve our problems. We’ve been doing that for thirty years, with the result that global warming has become a serious threat.”
    That’s so much my point – somehow: all we’ve been doing since the ‘invention’ of fire is ‘burn things’ – and then ‘boil water’..:] No matter if it’s wood, oil, gas or uranium – the pattern remains the same..
    On the other hand there’s far more energy ‘in the air’ than we actually would need today – was it actually 10000-20000 times more energy we could harvest ‘only’ with solar collectors..? I’m not quite shure about the exact numbers now – but I’m quite shure it would be enough.
    It would be just soo brilliant if at this point we could decide that ‘burning things’ is not a good concept for the production of electric energy at all – be it coal, oil, or uranium – especially if you then still have to deliver the electricity from a rather centralized power plant to remote places, loosing up to half of the produced energy on the way..

    well – now I’m again at this point where I would just like to sit in a bar with you – and discus this subject all weekend long.. – ..but I guess I better continue working..:]

    greetz, till..

    ps: on the radio it was just said that the german government is planing to replace the electric power produced by german nuclear power plants by alternative power sources.. – ..and raise the percentage of alternative power sources from 4% to 16% within the next 12years.. – ..wow..! ..:]


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