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Climate: The Nuclear Option

File photo of the Hanford nuclear reactor, Washington. In 2000, the EIA estimated that all U.S. powerplants released 641.6 million metric tons of carbon. This means nuclear power saved five years' worth of U.S. carbon emissions.
by Dan Whipple
Boulder (UPI) June 13, 2005
The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is creating pressure for a variety of potential technological solutions, some new, and some old - like nuclear-powered electricity generation.

On the credit side of the account ledger, electricity from nukes offers a considerable potential benefit, at least as far as greenhouse gas emissions are concerned.

A 2001 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that a single 1,000 megawatt nuclear powerplant could displace the equivalent of about 2.1 million tons of carbon from a coal-fired powerplant, 1.6 million tons from an oil-fired plant and 1.0 million tons from a natural-gas plant.

Furthermore, the report said, if it had not been for nuclear power, between 1960 and 2000, an additional 3.1 billion metric tons of carbon would have been generated by U.S. electric plants.

In 2000, the EIA estimated that all U.S. powerplants released 641.6 million metric tons of carbon. This means nuclear power saved five years' worth of U.S. carbon emissions.

With coal-fired powerplants becoming the generation technology of choice - particularly in coal-rich developing countries such as China and India, as well as the United States - the potential of virtually carbon-free nuclear energy to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is impressive.

President George W. Bush has called for building more nuclear powerplants to meet future energy demand and fight increasing greenhouse gases. His proposal has been supported, tentatively, by groups that focus on global-warming issues, and opposed by many environmental groups traditionally suspicious of nuclear power.

"We've been among the most active groups in raising concerns about safety and regulation in the current fleet of nuclear reactors," Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told UPI's Climate. "There are a whole host of issues that have to be addressed."

The most cost-effective way to address carbon emissions, Meyer said, is not more nukes, but "energy efficiency in every end-use sector ... We need to look at nuclear power in the context of all these other issues. Given the safety and proliferation risk, the question is, 'Do you want to take those risks, given the availability of other alternatives?'"

Others acknowledge those risks, but also are not so quick to give up on the idea, because of its large potential.

"Nuclear power can contribute to solving the climate-change problem, if it can solve its own problems," Judith Greenwald, director of innovative solutions for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, told UPI's Climate.

"It's worth trying to solve, but we can't just assume that it's going to be solved. There are issues of cost, waste disposal and proliferation. We need to work on all three of these fronts for nuclear power to be able to play a role."

In a presentation at the Oxford Energy Forum in May, Greenwald said: "Each of these represents a significant barrier alone, and in combination has stymied the U.S. nuclear industry for over the last two decades. Of particular concern to many in the international community right now is the threat of increased proliferation risk caused by continued and expanded production of certain types of nuclear materials."

In August 2004, Robert Socolow, an engineering professor at Princeton University, and a colleague proposed the concept of "stabilization wedges," to try to solve the climate problem over the next 50 years using current technologies. One of the 15 wedges they proposed to try to level off carbon-dioxide concentrations, at 500 parts per million by 2125, was nuclear power.

"Ultimately, I think it could play a very large role in the ways we make energy," Socolow told Climate. "We could replace many coal plants with nuclear plants."

He acknowledged that many pesky problems would arise, however.

"What troubles me most is that the international system is broken in my view," Socolow said. "The (Bush) administration has a problem on its hands, in that it is simultaneously urging that we go faster with nuclear power domestically, but that the rest of the world go slower under ground rules that are one-sided."

Iran, for instance, claims it is trying to increase its nuclear power-generation industry, for the same reasons the Bush administration wants the United States nuclear industry to revive.

Greenhouse warming is a global issue, but most new nuclear powerplants would have to be built in countries such as India and China, which might complicate the non-proliferation issue.

"Iran is not now breaking any rules with the vocabulary it's using," Socolow said. "If we're troubled about Iran, and they're not breaking the rules, the rules need to be changed. We're kidding ourselves if we think we can proceed aggressively with nuclear power under one set of ground rules and expect the rest of the world to accept a different set of ground rules. Having a two-class system for nuclear power is never going to work."

A recent report by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "The Future of Nuclear Power," identified the four problems with using nukes to reduce greenhouse gases: cost, safety, waste disposal and proliferation.

The MIT report concluded that, "over at least the next 50 years, the best choice to meet these challenges is the open, once-through fuel cycle."

So there would be no uranium reprocessing, which poses one of the threats for weapons production.

The report also called for a halt of development and demonstration of advanced fuel cycles and reactors.

"We're not thinking it through," Socolow said. "We don't control these more than a little bit. We can internationalize a large part of the nuclear power system."

This might mean giving up some sovereignty on the issue, but the world might be safer in the long run.

"So many people seem to have terrorism on one side of their head, and nuclear power and energy policy on the other," Socolow noted.

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Japan Planning To Ship Radioactive Soil To US: Reports
Tokyo (AFP) Jun 12, 2005
Japan plans to ship radioactive soil left behind by a government nuclear fuel development body to the United States for disposal, reports said Sunday.

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