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Sunday, October 7, 2007

Nuclear plants emit carbon

As energy sorce carbon is becoming more important than ever.
Many observers of the conversation on viable new energy sources point to an outdated source of electrical production — nuclear power. After a commentary was published in the Sept. 23 edition of the Sunday Rutland Herald and Times Argus, I felt compelled, with the aid of many sources including the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, to respond and clarify a number of points in this area.

The article points to the concern of carbon dioxide emissions, saying this source does not emit carbon dioxide and, therefore, does not contribute to the greenhouse effect. This is a perpetuation of a myth. It is with great amusement that I read, only occasionally, how someone convinces friends or relatives that commercial nuclear generation is somehow magically without pollution.

While atomic reactors are not surrounded by clouds of carbon smoke, the nuclear fuel chain is a major contributor to global warming. The nuclear fuel pellet fabrication process and the gaseous diffusion enrichment plants consume enormous amounts of carbon-producing, global-warming-contributing energy. In addition, krypton-85 builds up proportionately and causes modification of the atmosphere's electric field, which could affect the hydrologic cycle. So the next time you see a pretty picture of our local nuclear plant without carbon smoke above it, picture many plants miles to the southwest producing pollution soon to be drifting over our Green Mountains.

The article continues with comparisons to other countries. Stephen Thomas is a senior research fellow at the Public Services International Research Unit in the University of Greenwich, London. From 1979-2000, he was a member of the Energy Policy Programme at SPRU, University of Sussex. He is a member of the editorial board of Energy Policy (since 2000), the International Journal of Regulation and Governance, and he is a founding member of a network of academies in Northern European countries (the REFORM group) examining policy aspects of the energy systems. He was a member of the team appointed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to carry out the official economic due diligence study for the project to replace the Chernobyl power plant.

He points out, worldwide, the ordering rate for new nuclear stations has been at a low ebb for at least 20 years. One of the reasons behind this is the poor economic performance of many existing plants. This has occurred mainly because moves in the past decade to competitive electricity markets, which favor low-capital-cost generation options that are quick to build and for which the performance can be guaranteed, have characteristics that nuclear designs do not possess. He states further that nuclear generation capacity in Britain will continue to fall sharply in the next decade, reducing its contribution from about 25 percent of power needs to less than 10 percent. Also a number of major countries have actual or de facto nuclear phase-out policies, including Sweden, Italy, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.

There are also three reasons why forecasting the cost of power from a nuclear plant is difficult:

All experience of nuclear power suggests that unproven processes — decommissioning and waste disposal — have not been proven on a commercial scale and could easily cost more than expected, therefore incurring the strong risk that forecasts of these costs could be significantly too low.

There is no clear consensus on how provisions to pay for decommissioning should be arranged.

Perhaps most important, there is a lack of reliable, up-to-date data on actual nuclear plants. Utilities are notoriously secretive about the costs they are incurring.

Finally, he spoke to the issue of spent fuel disposal, which Vermont may soon have to deal with. The issue of spent fuel is difficult to evaluate. Reprocessing is expensive, but most importantly, the plutonium produced may be used for weapons-grade material. This is relevant in that recent Defense Department statements claim the "U.S. is awash in plutonium." A deadly thought! Reprocessing merely splits the spent fuel into different parts and does not reduce the amount of radioactivity to be dealt with.

In addition, reprocessing creates a large amount of low- and intermediate-level waste because all the equipment and material used in reprocessing becomes radioactive waste. The collapse of British Energy and our own West Valley, N.Y., facilities are good examples.

The author talks about "passive" safety features. Many in the scientific community, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, feel we are being lulled into a false sense of security by such claims. These new designs for nuclear power plants are susceptible to other types of serious accidents that could potentially lead tot he dispersal of radioactivity. This possibility is increased by the fact that, in order to save money, these reactors are proposed to be built without strong secondary containment structures that could serve as an additional barrier to radionuclide release.

The author mentions tests where the reactor has been shutdown, not an accident scenario. One such accident is the ejection of a control rod. As stated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, in the event a control rod was rapidly ejected from the pressurized reactor core, the sudden rapid rise in reactivity due to its loss, combined with the loss of gas coolant out of the hole where it used to be, could lead "to a very large release of radioactivity to the environment."

It is very imprudent to rush ahead with this whole generation of nuclear power plants, simply because we have investors clamoring for federal tax dollars. Renewables and conservation, not efficiency to be semantically accurate, remain the best viable options for global warming.

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