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Nuclear Power Not Emissions Free, Not Sustainable

Besides the pesky little problem of where to stash nuclear waste, there are a few other issues with nuclear power. When they say “emissions-free,” for instance, what do they actually mean? If you’re talking about the few months the nuclear rods are installed and active, then yes, no emissions. But read the fine print. How did those rods get from the ground to the nuclear plant in the first place? What kind of emissions-spewing, energy-hungry refinement process produced them? And what happens to them after they’ve outlived their usefulness?

Environmental policy examiner Ben Williams explains the true cost of “emissions-free” in this article from the Manchester Examiner.

It’s funny.  People really believe that nuclear power is emissions free.  Powering cities with nuclear, they propound, is the panacea to climate change.  And yet, if you really take a look at the fuel cycle, it is obvious nuclear energy is, in fact, emissions intensive.

First off the ore needs to be mined.  This involves drilling, explosions, heavy equipment.  Even at the EPA standard of 15 grams of carbon per break horsepower engine hour, this translates to a lot of carbon.  Then the ore needs to be shipped to a processing facility, or mill. 

Here, twenty-four hours a day, heavy equipment loads the ore into a hopper, the intake into the semi-autogenous grinding mill.  This grinding mill uses electricity (coal) to turn an enormous steel drum filled with metal tumbling balls.  Additionally, tons – yes tons – of concentrated sulfuric acid are needed to help leach the uranium from the ore, among quantities of other highly caustic chemicals, all of which must be prepared on industrial scales and shipped to the facility.

After a number of other mechanical operations, all of them energy intensive, the ore must be dried in an oven, where, twenty-four hours a day, countless kilo-watt hours are burned heating the rock to temperature.

Finally, the processed ore, now ‘yellow cake’, has to be boxed up, sealed in steel drums (refined and produced industrially), and then shipped to market. 

Then, of course, it needs to be reacted with hexaflourine, or some other chemical, to be refined and turned into the uranium rods that are used in the reactor core.  Only now can the power be said to be emissions free:  once the rods are installed and operational, powering generators with their nuclear heat. 

Of course, after a few months the rods are spent.  They then need to be safely disposed of – or, more accurately, buried somewhere where no one will notice them, contained for 1,000 years, after which they become someone else’s problem (probably the DOE or EPA).  They must be safely interred for over four billion years.  Yes, they need to be baby-sat for an amount of time that exceeds the current age of the Earth.

Read the whole article here.


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