Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Nuclear's carbon footprint

This was sent as a letter to the editor of the New York Times.
Re: “Nuclear: Carbon Free, but Not Free of Unease, “ December 23, (

I agree with assessment of Sharon Squassoni, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, that nuclear power – in the US and abroad - “is going nowhere quickly.”

However, it is misleading, as the headline does - along with subsequent letter from former New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg (Dec.25 ) and article by Matthew L. Wald “E.P.A. Wrestles With Role of Nuclear Plants in Carbon Emission Rules” (Dec. 26)   present nuclear power as “carbon-free.”
To assess the nuclear industry's environmental impact, the whole uranium fuel cycle, from exploration, mining, milling, processing and fuel fabrication - as well as final spent nuclear fuel management after the fuel has been burned in the reactor- needs to be evaluated for its carbon emissions.

Thus life-cycle analyses are essential to assess the true impact of the entire processes.

A number of such studies have examined CO2 emissions - commonly expressed as CO2 equivalents per kWh - for different methods of producing electricity. The most comprehensive model has been created by the Öko Institut, ( which advises the German environment ministry, and by Professor Jan Willem Storm Van Leeuwen  and the late Professor  Philip Smith and at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands.

Both studies conclude that the nuclear fuel cycle can emit relatively large amounts of CO2. The lower the uranium concentration in ore, the more CO2 generated; Using sensible assumptions, Professors Jan Willem Storm Van Leeuwen and the late Professor Philip Smith ( ) determined that nuclear generation produced about a third as much CO2 per kWh as conventional mid-sized gas-fired electricity generation.

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