Will nuclear-produced electricity be low carbon?

Faced with the problems of oil supply and environmental factors, it seems quite certain that many of our transportation options in the future with be powered by electricity. Methods of supplying the necessary electrons are legion but all seem to involve costs and problems of one kind or another. With power from coal, there is not only the well known CO2 emittance problem, but also incredible amounts of mercury and a host of other poisons that get unleashed upon us and our environment. The popular, though increasingly expensive, natural gas option - while definitely cleaner than coal - is still a fossil fuel which gives off CO2, NOx, PM, SOx, not to mention VOCs. Renewables, while having many benefits, also have their limitations. Hydroelectric dams are habitat destructive, block fish migration and can contribute to releases of methane and mercury. Wind power and solar are intermittent and would require energy storage solutions to be in place before they could supply baseload electricity. The cost of solar is projected to decrease significantly over the coming decade though. That leaves us with nuclear power. See how it fares after the break.

Nuclear energy is often touted by its supporters as being cheap, clean and plentiful. It's often stated in articles on the subject that Patrick Moore, purported co-founder of Greenpeace, is in favor of increased nuclear plants. In fact, there are about 30 new American nuclear plants currently on the drawing board. So, does nuclear live up to the claims of its supporters? Well, for one, it might not be as cheap as we've been told. Two reactors planned for Levy County, Florida may clock in at more than twice their original estimate at $10 billion. You can install a lot of distributed solar capacity for that kind of money. In fact Moody's Investor Services gave an estimate in October of $6,000 per kilowatt that Jim Hempstead (a senior credit officer at Moody's) stated in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal has been "blown by" after reviewing recent estimates from a handful of "experienced different nuclear operators".

As far as it being plentiful (we won't even go into the whole "peak uranium" thing), that appears to be tied to the question of its carbon intensity. A report recently published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology makes the case that greenhouse gas emissions from uranium mining are rising. As the easy to reach, high-quality reserves are tapped out, extracting the ore will become more expensive and carbon intense as mining operations are forced to dig deeper and move more material as the deposits worked become lower quality. This lower grade ore will also require more refining which will produce, you guessed it, more greenhouse gases. The lead author of the report, Gavin Mudd, of Monash University in Australia, is quoted in an article on the BBC website discussing the findings as saying, "The rate at which [the average grade of uranium ore] goes down depends on demand, technology, exploration and other factors. But, especially if there is going to be a nuclear resurgence, it will go down and that will entail a higher CO2 cost,"

How high that cost goes will depend on many things, including the speed with which safer and cheaper alternative energy sources are developed, as well as the rate of increases in efficiencies, which in turn, reduce power demands. So, although it appears the future of transportation may be electric, it is too early to say whether or not that electricity will depend heavily on nuclear sources.

[Source: BBC]

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