Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

” Nuclear’s CO2 cost ‘will climb'”.

with 5 comments

The BBC is reporting that:

The case for nuclear power as a low carbon energy source to replace fossil fuels has been challenged in a new report by Australian academics.

It suggests greenhouse emissions from the mining of uranium – on which nuclear power relies – are on the rise.

Availability of high-grade uranium ore is set to decline with time, it says, making the fuel less environmentally friendly and more costly to extract.

A significant proportion of greenhouse emissions from nuclear power stem from the fuel supply stage, which includes uranium mining, milling, enrichment and fuel manufacturing.

Others sources of carbon include construction of the plant – including the manufacturing of steel and concrete materials – and decomissioning.

You can read the rest of the original BBC article here.

Perhaps more significantly, you can download the original academic paper in question here.

I will quote a couple of paragraphs worth:

Overall, the data clearly show the sensitivity of sustainability assessments to the ore grade of
the uranium deposit being mined and that significant gaps remain in complete sustainability reporting and accounting. This paper is a case study of the energy, water, and carbon costs of uranium mining and milling within the context of the nuclear energy chain.

In summary, the extent of economically recoverable uranium, although somewhat uncertain, is clearly linked to exploration effort, technology, and economics but is inextricably linked to environmental costs such as energy, water, and chemicals consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and broader social issues. These crucial environmental aspects of resource extraction are only just beginning to be understood in the context of more complete life cycle analyses of the nuclear chain and other energy options. There still remains incomplete reporting however, especially in terms of data consistency among mines and site-specific data for numerous individual mines and mills, as well as the underlying factors controlling differences and variability. It is clear that there is a strong sensitivity of energy and water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions to ore grade, and that ore grades are likely to continue to decline gradually in the medium- to long-term. These issues are critical to understand in the current debate over nuclear power, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change, especially with respect to ascribing sustainability to such activities as uranium mining and milling.

So, to summarise exactly what the paper says:

There are some inputs of energy  associated with the nuclear fuel cycle on a whole-of-life-cycle during uranium mining and milling, and in practice at present there are some carbon dioxide emissions associated with these energy inputs.

As reserves of easily recoverable high-grade uranium ore decline, assuming that the greenhouse-gas intensity of the energy inputs into the mining operations remain comparable, the whole-of-life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions intensity of nuclear energy might be expected to increase somewhat.

I think we already know that. Everyone already knows that.

The lead author of the paper, Gavin Mudd, is an Australian academic with a background in geohydrological engineering. He is a nuclear energy skeptic – well, not so much a nuclear energy skeptic as someone who is skeptical of the ecological sustainability of current uranium mining practices. His main area of expertise and interest with regard to nuclear energy is uranium mining.

I use the term “nuclear energy skeptic” because it’s reasonably clear that he’s anti-nuclear-energy – but I think it’s almost uncharitable and unfair to put an academic who puts forward their arguments in terms of reasonably well constructed academic papers in peer-reviewed science journals in the same category as the likes of Wasserman, Gunter or Caldicott.

This paper does not at all say “nuclear energy is unsustainable” or “uranium mining is unsustainable” – once the journalists apply a little spin to it, however, it’s easy to see how many could try and apply this paper, and especially press articles like the above, towards evidencing such a conclusion.

Describing the fact that there are energy inputs associated with uranium – which we already know – doesn’t answer the real question at all – How does the whole-of-life-cycle greenhouse gas intensity per MWh of electricity generation actually quantitatively compare to the whole-of-life-cycle greenhouse gas intensity of other energy generation technologies?

Sure – it’s somewhat reasonable to suggest that these quantities will change over the long term, into the future. Quantitatively, how will they be expected to change?

I should add, finally, that this paper is notable for being – perhaps – the first ever nuclear-skeptical study of the energy and greenhouse gas intensity of the nuclear fuel cycle that does not invoke the work of van Leeuwen and Smith. In fact, in terms of the quality of the source material cited, this paper seems pretty good.

5 Responses

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  1. This is new stick that the antinuclear movement is going to try and beat us up with now that most of their other lies have been exposed.

    However I do not read this paper as being antinuclear, or of much utility to the antinuclear movement as it does seem to supply reasonable base line numbers that can be applied to life-cycle greenhouse gas of nuclear issue, to show that indeed nuclear is among the lowest. To date we have missed this data, and it has prevented us from making real quantitative arguments on the subject.

    That being said it is going to have to be pointed out that changes in both mining technology and reactor design are likely to have a huge impact on what is considered as a high yield deposit and also on the depth of the market itself. Work being done on sea-water extraction and in situ mining using bacteria which will have profound effect on these numbers and MSR’s can squeeze much, much more out of a gram of uranium than LWR, and can burn thorium as well, which will ameliorate demand.


    April 30, 2008 at 8:57 pm

  2. The same as said for uranium will apply to any minerals or elements available in low concentrations. Including those used for solar PV. However, it applies especially to energy sources that use a low density source like solar and wind. Copper refining for the much larger interconnection requirements (required in addition to the delivery) produces also increasing greenhouse gases. Same for aluminum for the CSP mirrors.

    Klaus A

    April 30, 2008 at 11:56 pm

  3. Luke:

    Before I go and read the paper, can you tell me if the analysis seems to use actual energy consumption figures from operating mines or computes expected energy use figures based on certain assumptions?

    Historically speaking, uranium ore grades have not steadily declined. We were successful in using low grade ores like those found in Florida in the phosphate mining areas many decades ago, but at the same time, we have discovered new deposits like some in Canada where the ore grade is far superior to some of the early deposits that we exploited.

    Finally, does the study mention the energy use of In Situ Mining?

    Rod Adams

    May 1, 2008 at 8:36 am

  4. Rod, I did read the paper and yes they used hard figures from operating mines where available, and there is mention of in situ mining in which it is found that it is comparable to open cut mining.

    This is not a negative paper, however the press wants to spin it, but a hard look at available numbers which I think in the long run will serve use better than harm us.


    May 1, 2008 at 11:25 am

  5. It’s only a so-so scientific paper as I just see it as a compilation of data but with no analysis of the data. It certainly does not put uranium mining in perspective to other industries which does not give me any insight to whether the issues they bring up are really a problem. The way they handle in-situ mining is odd in that they exclude data from the Beverly (in-situ) mine for some data compilation and they have a poor explanation for this.

    I do not understand a reputable scientist wanting to study something that is basically not really adding anything to our knowledge base. It’s like studying why children fall off of tricycles and the conclusion is “… musculo-coordinative efforts are not sufficiently developed to preclude gravity assisted injury”. In other words, some kids are klutzes. No-Duh!

    Now if this author would add to the same study those things expected to increase/decrease the “sustainibility” for coal, oil, gas and the manufacturing processes of solar and wind, I would have a little more respect.

    Larry Grimm

    May 1, 2008 at 6:53 pm

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