Global Warming

Nuclear power makes global warming worse. 

The industry claims its reactors create "no harmful emissions."  But radioactive carbon does spew from the stacks in all reactors even without an accident.

The nuclear fuel cycle is also a major contributor to global warming.  Gouging uranium out of the ground requires the burning of fossil fuels.  It also kills miners, both in underground accidents and in the heightened lung cancer rates caused by ingesting radon gas.

Still more fossil fuels are used to crush the ore when it comes out of the mines.  The mined rocks are turned into fine sand as they are subjected to an intense acid bath. 
The acid and the materials it leaches wind up in huge poisonous pools whose off-gasses are exceedingly toxic.

While the usable uranium is shipped (again burning fossil fuels) for processing, the residual mill tailings are left in gargantuan piles weighing billions of tons.  These enormous mountains are the world's largest emitters of radioactive radon gas, whose effects are measurable thousands of miles away.

The milled ore is then treated in an extremely energy-intensive enrichment process that in the United States consumes the output of at least two large coal-fired plants.  Industry supporters have suggested this process could be powered by other nuclear reactors, but such a transition would take at least a decade.

Nor would it significantly lessen nuke power's overall global warming impact.  Though by some calculations atomic energy may emit fewer greenhouse gasses than some coal burners, it emits far more than wind farms and other renewable sources.  The global warming comparison between a dollar spent on nuke power and a dollar spent on increased conservation and efficiency tips entirely on the green side.  

Nor does the comparison end with the production of nuclear fuel.  The reactors themselves emit huge quantities of heat into the air and water.  Atomic plants in France and the US have already been forced to shut because of the super-heating of the rivers and lakes where they dump their waste heat.  In essence, by converting inert uranium into massive quantities of heat, nuke reactors heat the planet directly, as well as indirectly through the global warming gasses the fuel cycle produces.

Once fuel rods emerge from the reactors, they must be stored indefinitely.  They require intense security and, in many cases, entire cooling systems which themselves consume energy.  All nuke reactors require off-site backup power of some sort---usually fossil fueled---because reactor cooling systems as well as those spent fuel pools must be continuously cooled, no matter how the reactor itself performs.

Should a central waste repository ever open, tens of thousands of energy-hogging truck and train shipments will be needed to move the spent fuel to it.  The proposed Yucca Mountain dump, which may never open, has already consumed $11 billion in expenditures and emitted countless tons of climate changing gasses.

Whatever margin nuke power might seem to have over coal, oil and gas burners in terms of global warming emissions, it loses against efficiency, conservation and renewables.  On any balance sheet that includes security risks, intense capital costs, time to build and sheer lack of economic performance, atomic energy loses hands down.

Further investments in this failed technology divert scarce capital from the conservation, efficiency and renewables that really can solve the climate crisis.  To our greenhouse gas problem, atomic energy merely adds an unwanted radioactive dimension.


Uwe R. Fritsche, with support from Sui-San Lim:
Comparison of Greenhouse-Gas Emissions and Abatement Cost of Nuclear and Alternative Energy Options from a Life-Cycle Perspective.

Arjun Makhijani:
Carbon-Free and Nuclear Free

Nuclear Information & Resource Service

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