Monday, April 23, 2007

How Green is Nuclear Fission?

After hearing the news from the BBC and Germany’s DW-TV that the EU is strongly considering building fission-type nuclear power plants to lessen carbon dioxide emissions prompts everyone to ask: How green is nuclear fission?

By: Vanessa Uy

This is by far one of the most controversial proposals of the European Union: Evaluating the idea of increasing the number of fission-type nuclear power plants to meet the European Unions growing demand for energy while limiting the carbon dioxide produced by this activity. Even since commercial use of nuclear energy began in the 1950’s, scientists are already concerned that there comes a time in the future that carbon dioxide generated by burning fossil fuels can increase the green house effect causing global warming. The Chernobyl nuclear plant incident back in April 26, 1986 caused the cancellation of any proposed nuclear power plants due to safety concerns.

Commercial fission-type nuclear power plants have always been targeted by picketing and protesting environmentalists for all the good reasons; radioactive wastes. This is one of the inevitable by - product of generating electricity via nuclear power and they can stay dangerously radioactive for up to a million years. “Radwastes” need a safe storage space where they can’t cause any harm for that length of time. Also, fission-type nuclear power plants generate excess heat and this is usually released in nearby large bodies of water wreaking havoc on the local estuarine ecosystem.

Nuclear power plants have their obvious benefits ever since Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” spoke of the dangers of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere via industrial processes causing global warming. Day by day, nuclear fission gained legitimacy because it doesn’t generate carbon dioxide once in full operation. A very attractive process despite concerns on safety, radioactive waste storage and the threat of terrorists and rogue states acquiring weapons grade material.

Another problem that the experts haven’t discussed or are reluctant to is that the mining and refining of uranium or other similar fissionable material is very energy intensive. I’d be amazed that there is a nuclear fuel refinery in existence that uses renewable energy like wind or solar (photo voltaic or thermal) to process pitchblende and similar ores into yellow cake concentrate to uranium slugs.

“What about breeder reactors?” They can continually generate their own fuel so radioactive wastes will not be a problem and the energy intensive refining of uranium would be minimized. But, and it’s a very big one: the problem with breeder reactors is that the waste that gets recycled back into fuel is plutonium which is very easy to use as a weapons grade material. The problems of terrorist groups and rogue states probably stymied the widespread use of breeder-type reactors. These breeder-type nuclear fission reactors can only be found in easily defended and secure sites and the ones found in the US, Japan and France are the only ones freely talked about in the press.

Breeder reactors are green and eco-friendly in its own way, but like the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre implies in his philosophical views: “Hell is other people.” If you want to know more about the carbon cycle and view detailed diagrams check out “”.

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