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Is Nuclear Power Low on Carbon?

A nuclear power plant may lack the tall exhaust stack that always accompanies coal-fired plants. But does that mean that nukes are carbon free?

No. Nuclear power is not carbon free or even low on carbon.

We have touched on ’s nuclear power plants before. This time, let’s look at the oft-stated claim that nuclear power is ‘carbon free.’

A nuclear power plant may lack the tall exhaust stack that always accompanies coal-fired plants. But does that mean that nukes are carbon free?

The nuclear energy life cycle contains plenty of carbon emitting steps. 

To quote “Ask Pablo” here: “Nuclear energy cannot be considered truly renewable because it relies on a fuel. One that is not only highly processed and refined, but also one that is not replenished by incoming solar energy or biological processes, like wind, solar, tidal, and biomass are.”

Nuclear plants are far from carbon free. They may emit less than fossil fuel plants, but certainly do cause considerable pollution.

A nuclear power emits about 15.42 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (greenhouse gas) for every 1 gigawatt-hour (GWh) of power produced. Surprisingly, about two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions, 9.6 tons per GWh, come from the production of the heavy water necessary to the process. The rest comes from the considerable carbon cost of mining, milling, and fuel enrichment for the uranium, the construction of concrete domes, and plant operation and maintenance (Have you ever seen a nuclear plant without a considerable fleet of vehicles?). 

In 2010, Entergy’s Indian Point 2 plant produced net energy of 7,326 gigawatt hours and Indian Point 3 produced 8,995 gigawatt hours, according the 2011 Gold Book issued annually by the New York Independent System Operator.

That annual production means these plants emitted a collective 16,321 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents into our air in 2010 alone if we include the actual "fullly loaded" cost of all the steps in the nuclear power process. If the Ford Focus weighs 2 tons, that is the equivalent of suspending 8000 cars worth of emissions in the atmosphere in one year. 

Actually, we have omitted one: disposal of the spent nuclear fuel rods. 

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Paul Rode March 03, 2012 at 10:50 PM
Paul Rode Leo, appreciate your concern, and argument made here for contrasting Nuclear driven electric energy production with renewables. I disagree with the premises that we would not be vastly better off from a global carbon balance perspective if we were to have a larger percentage of our nations power produced from nuclear fuels versus conventional carbon fuels, or even solar (wind and pv). There are many new nuclear designs coming to market using vastly improved fissionable products and new reactor designs, not to mention this industry is the precursor to fusion (admittedly 50+ years away - but I like to think both short, and long term). I am in this business and will go through my technical resources to provide and or validate the data you have put in your article, and I look forward to doing so, I might learn something after all. I will post my finding here.
Greg Tart March 05, 2012 at 02:02 AM
thanks Mr.Rode, it will be interesting
brian March 07, 2012 at 08:50 PM
It would also be interesting to see the carbon footprint of the average wind turbine in comparison to its energy output, given the energy-intensive activities of mining ore, smelting it into usable metal, and forming it into the final, operational product.
Leo Wiegman March 08, 2012 at 07:09 PM
@Bill Kellner: In the comparison of coal plant to natural gas plant to nuclear plant for each unit of electricity produced, the cleanest coal fired technology is dirtier (863 gCO_2e/kWh_el) than the cleanest natural gas technology (577 gCO_2e/kWh_el), which in turn is dirtier than the cleanest nuclear power technology (60 gCO_2e/kWh_el). I haven't yet found a good comprehensive, current review for US based plants, but the link I posted above is relevant and the source for the data in prior sentence.(http://www.isa.org.usyd.edu.au/publications/documents/ISA_Nuclear_Report.pdf Lenzen, M. (2008) Life cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear energy: A review. Energy Conversion and Management 49, 2178-2199. )
Leo Wiegman March 08, 2012 at 07:33 PM
@Paul Rode: Thanks for the comment. I look forward to any resources you locate! Yes, nuclear power is cleaner than coal or gas from iife cycle carbon footprint (greenhouse gas emissions) perspective. From an economic perspective, in terms of the cost to build and operate per unit of net energy produced, nuclear power is much more expensive and not getting any cheaper. From an energy return on investment (EROI) perspective, nuclear is about level now with newer photovoltaics. But estimates for nuclear's EROI vary quite widely. Here is a thoughttul review of EROi from Tom Konrad's blog: http://cleanenergywonk.com/category/eroei/eroi/

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