Energy Balance of Nuclear Power Generation - Life Cycle Analysis of Nuclear Power: Energy Balance and CO2 Emissions

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Energy Balance of Nuclear Power Generation

Energy Balance of Nuclear Power Generation

This study provides information on the energy expenditure for nuclear power production over the whole life cycle. It looks into the following key issues: Which factors including the ore grade have the biggest influence on the excess energy? At which ore grade no excess energy is generated any more? Can increased use of nuclear power contribute to climate protection? For most steps of the nuclear fuel cycle a bottom-up moder was used.

Newly constructed nuclear power plants are supposed to have an operational life time of 60 years and a lead time between planning and operation of a facility of 10 to 19 years. Nuclear power plants which are currently being planned, would reach their end of expected life time in the period of 2080 - 2090; power plants now starting to operate, would be shut-down at the end of 2070. If the WNA low growth scenario is assumed as a starting point, the currently operated uranium mines would be exhausted between 2043 and 2055. If we assume this scenario to occur, it would not be possible to supply a nuclear power plant built now with uranium until the end of its lifetime.

The contribution of nuclear power to climate protection is relativized when taking into account the declining ore grades: Nuclear power can be referred to as “low-carbon” when the ore grade are high (0,1 bis 2 %). However, ore grades around 0,01 % make the CO2 emissions increase up to 210 g CO2/kWhel. Those emission values are still lower than those of coal or oil (600–1200 g/kWhel), but significantly higher than for wind (2,8–7,4 g/kWhel), hydropower (17–22 g/kWhel) and photovoltaics (19–59 g/kWhel). Moreover it would be costly and slow to use nuclear power as means for reducing green house gas emission; it would take decades, until a net reduction of GHG would have occurred (Pasztor 1991; Findlay 2010). The CO2 avoiding costs of nuclear power are than for any other possible technology except traditional coal fired power plants. Wind power stations and cogeneration of heat and power are 1,5 times more cost-effective in reducing CO2 than nuclear power, energy efficiency measures are 10 times more cost-effective.

Further problems of nuclear power generation remain unsolved:

  • Accident liability is unsolved. Worldwide, nuclear power plants are legally exempt from the liability for catastrophic accidents.
  • Health risks from radiation of nuclear power plants cannot be excluded. In Germany, a study conducted by the German Deutschen Kinderkrebsregister (German Paediatric Cancer Registry) proves increased leucemia rates for children in the surroundings of nuclear power plants. (Kaatsch et al. 2007).
  • While the Operationable uranium resources will not last longer than this century, the highly radioactive waste has to be stored safely for thousands of years. No storage concept was developed yet for the 245.000 tons of spent fuel elements nuclear power generated already worldwide.
  • Nuclear power used for electricity generation is the biggest driver of proliferation of fissile material. Without nuclear power generation, proliferation attempts could be identified undisputedly, because each effort to acquire fissile material would clearly serve military purposes.
  • Nuclear power leads to higher electricity prices, because direct and indirect subsidies cover up the enormous costs of nuclear energy. Worldwide no reactor was built, where private investors would have carried the financial risk. If nuclear power in a liberalised market would actually lead to low electricity prices, it should not be a problem to find private investment to build new reactors.

Nuclear power is a high-risk technology due to the risks connected with it. However, in connection with the need of protecting the climate, this energy form is also called “lowcarbon”.

While nuclear power using uranium with high ore grades produces lower green house emissions than coal and oil, the resources of rich uranium ores and uranium in general are – as fossil fuels – limited. Because in future a decreasing ore grade in the available resources has to be assumed, the CO2 emissions of nuclear power can reach up to 210 CO2/kWhel.