Nuclear energy is greenest choice


Times & Transcript | Guest Commentaries

Article published: Jan 28, 2005


To this dedicated environmentalist, it is a paradox that some environmental groups such as Greenpeace, World Watch, the World Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club are opposed to nuclear energy. They say they are concerned about health, safety, and the protection of nature. In these respects nuclear energy is superior to the alternatives burning fossil fuels (coal, petroleum and gas), the use of solar cells and wind turbines for the production of electricity, and biomass (growing crops to be burned and burning crop residues).

Let me begin with the fundamental fact that the growth of the world's population and world-wide expectations of an improved standard of living are leading us to an energy crisis which is not being met; and which cannot be met in the long term, say in the lifetime of our children and grandchildren, without recourse to nuclear fission. Well-designed, well-constructed, well-operated and well-maintained nuclear energy is clean, safe, durable and competitive.

Let me explain why as I discuss the following environmental, economic and social considerations: pollution and the greenhouse effect, alternatives such as conservation and renewable energies, nuclear waste, durable supply, safety, competitiveness, fear of radiation and radioactivity, and proliferation. Let's start with some environmental and economic facts.

Nuclear power produces little carbon dioxide and no sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides. On the other hand, these gases are produced in vast quantities when fossil fuels are burned. The products of combustion are simply sent up the stack: about 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year; millions of tons of sulphur dioxide from burning coal and oil, which produces acid rain, and nitrogen oxides, which cause respiratory difficulties.

Solar cells, wind turbine farms and growing biomass require large areas. On the other hand, a nuclear power station is very compact; it occupies typically the area of a football stadium and its surrounding parking lots.

There are those who urge us to conserve energy and I agree, of course, that conservation is highly commendable, even essential, especially for those advanced countries which now depend upon massive imports of fossil fuels. But in the face of the growth of the world's population and the improved standard of living that people expect (notably in China and in India, which account for about 35 per cent of the world"s population), and in the face of finite fossil fuel resources, conservation can only delay the crisis by a few years or a few decades.

Many people are attracted by the simplicity of solar cells and/or the pristine elegance of wind turbines. However, they refuse to accept the observation that these alternatives are quantitatively incapable of supplying the energy required by an urban and industrial civilization. I do not mean to say that these renewable energies should be excluded; they are useful and have important niche roles to play, in remote locations and under special circumstances, but they can make only a marginal contribution to the energy needs of our industrial society.

At the present rate of consumption, coal will last a few centuries; but it is much used in China and India, which make up over a third of the world's population and have the fastest growing economies. So the coal will not last that long. Oil and gas are expected to run out (or at least become extremely rare and expensive) in a few decades. If we limit our consumption of uranium to the fissionable U 235 and throw away or bury the fertile U 238, then uranium won't last very long either. However, the next generation of nuclear reactors will convert fertile U 238 to fissionable plutonium and provide well over 50 times more energy from a given quantity of uranium and make it possible to exploit more dilute resources of nuclear energy. According to some calculations, they are limitless.

All energy is subsidized in one way or another and it is hard to sort out the true costs, but nuclear electricity is in general competitive with fossil fuel electricity. In France, 80 per cent of the electricity is nuclear and 15 per cent is water power. French electricity is the cleanest and cheapest in Europe and a good deal of it is exported to neighboring countries. In the near future, nuclear energy will also be the key to desalination of sea water and hydrogen production.