Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen
This paper is a rebuttal of a Media Release by the University of Melbourne:
New investigation shows nuclear power will last longer, cause less emissions
Media Release, Wednesday 21 December 2005
This Media Release (full text: see Appendix) is based on the work by Martin Sevior, who published his findings on the web site www.nuclearinfo.net.
In this rebuttal I will examine the two main issues - construction of nuclear power plants and uranium - on the basis of two quotes from above Media Release.
The first quote refers to the energy needed for construction of a nuclear power plant and the related emission of carbondioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases:
“ The University of Melbourne research group investigated the energy required to build and operate a nuclear power plant. To this end they employed independently audited statistics made available by the Swedish Energy Utility, Vattenfall.
The scientists find that the energy cost to build a power plant would be 'paid back' within one and a half months of its establishment, and that the disposal of nuclear waste would add just one and a half more months to that total. Van Leeuwen and Smith predicted that nuclear power plants would take 7 - 10 years to 'pay back' these energy costs.”
The second quote refers to the energy needed for extraction of uranium from ores:
“ They also investigated the energy cost of mining uranium from the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia and found that it is at least 10 times smaller than predicted by van Leeuwen and Smith. Consequently the world's uranium resource base is likely to be hundreds of times greater than the previous research suggested. ”
Construction of a nuclear power plant
Sevior discards without any reasoning the calculations of the construction energy of a nuclear power plant from all studies in the past and adopts the figures of Vattenfall (see below) without question.
The quoted publication  of Vattenfall AB, a Swedish utility, is an evironmental analysis, called an EPD (Environmental Product Declaration), not an energy analysis. This becomes clear by reading the document thoroughly and is confirmed by Birgit Bodlund (Senior Adviser Environmental Affairs, Vattenfall) in a personal communication (17 December 2001). The EPD is made to comply with certain Swedish regulations.
The Vattenfall EPD cannot be compared with the energy analyses quoted on our web site (www.stormsmith.nl) and the energy analysis we did, see Chapter 3. An energy analysis comprises all energy flows related to the investigated object: not only the direct energy consumption, but indirect and embodied energy flows as well.
The EPD report states that some data are missing from the processes needed to fabricate nuclear fuel from uranium, such as greenhouse gas emissions, because the suppliers did not provide those data. Vattenfall estimated the underestimation of the emissions, caused by the absence of the data, at a few percents, but failed to explain how the estimate was made.
The energy figures in the EPD report refer to the direct electricity consumption by the mentioned processes of the nuclear chain, as far as it is not provided by the nuclear power plant itself. The electricity consumption is converted into primary energy units, according to the fuel mix of the electricity generation at the site of each process. So the amounts of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions stated refer only to the direct electricity consumption.
As the electricity consumption in most processes are a minor part of the total direct energy consumption, the total amounts of fossil fuel burnt and hence the CO2 emission are much larger than stated in the Vattenfall EPD. This 'omission' is not the fault of Vattenfall: apparently these data needed not to be included in the EPD.
Figures of some processes not yet in existence (e.g. deep repository) are not included in the Vattenfall EPD. However, figures of the direct electricity usage of dismantling of the nuclear power plant and of a waste facility do. Vattenfall failed to explain how these estimates were made.
Some figures given in the EPD are not as solid as they may seem, because Vattenfall assumed a lifetime of 40 years with an average load factor of 0.85, or 34 full-power years (FPY). Through 2002 the three Forsmark nuclear power plants (connected to the grid in 1980-1985) together reached an operational lifetime of 16.1 FPY. Up until now no nuclear plant in the world reached more than 24 FPY, so an expected lifetime of 34 FPY is not based on practical experience with any nuclear power plant in the world.
The EPD by Vattenfall of June 2004 is certified by the accredited certification body BVQI Svenska AB. 'Certified' means that the Certifier found the Vattenfall EPD to comply with the normative documents from the Swedish Environmental Council. The certification is valid until June 2007.
'Certified' does not mean 'peer reviewed' in the scientific sense. Which peer review has an expiration date?
Construction energy requirements
Most calculations of the construction energy in other studies are based on nuclear power plant designs of the 1970-1971 vintage. Since 1970 the specific mass of construction materials of a 1 GW(e) LWR power plant increased from 100-200 Gg in 1970 to 800-1400 Gg in the late 1990s (1 Gg = 1 gigagram = 1000 metric tonnes).
In our study the energy required for construction is calculated in three different ways (see Chapter 3, www.stormsmith.nl). The calculations are based on reactors completed during the 1990s. We found a range of 31-174 PJ (1 PJ = 1 petajoule = 1015 joule). The main calculations are based on 81 PJ as the most plausible value. A fourth approach (not yet on the web site), based on materials needed for construction, resulted in a range of 40-120 PJ, with a mean value of 80 PJ. The range in values is due partly to uncertainties in the available data, partly to different amounts of construction materials: some nuclear power plants may contain 1400 Gg materials, other 800 Gg, depending on geographic conditions and regulations.
The calculated CO2 emission of the construction of a nuclear power plant lies within the range of 2500-7500 Gg.
The order of magnitude of our results is confirmed by an ExternE study in the UK from 1998 . According to , the construction of Sizewell B, a 1250 MW(e) PWR, produced 3740 Gg CO2.
Assuming the CO2 is produced by burning oil (producing 75 gramCO2/MJ), the figure of 3740 Gg CO2 would mean 50 PJ is consumed in construction of the power plant.
Assuming an operational lifetime of 34 FPY, construction alone would cause a specific CO2 emission of 10 gramCO2/kWh. In our calculations we assumed 24 FPY as average operational lifetime. As pointed out before, no nuclear plant in the world achieved 24 FPY until now, so as a world average it is a uncertain value. With 24 FPY the specific emission would be about 14 gramCO2/kWh.
Other greenhouse gases
In 2001 the US enrichment plants alone emitted 405.5 Mg of freon 114 (CFC-114) . The US fleet of nuclear reactors produced 769 billion kWh in 2001. Freon-114 has a GWP of 9300-9800, meaning that one mass unit of freon-114 has the global warming potential of 9300-9800 mass units of carbon dioxide.
Assumed that all enrichment work was done for US customers only, the freon emission means a specific GHG emission of 5 grams CO2 equivalents per kilowatt-hour, from enrichment alone.
In all processes from uranium ore to nuclear fuel very large amounts of fluorine, chlorine and compounds of these elements are used, often in combination with organic solvents. Fluoro-compounds are essential in these processes, because enrichment of uranium requires uranium hexafluoride (UF6), the only gaseous compound of uranium. For each reactor each year about 160-180 Mg (1 Mg = 1 megaghram = 1 metric tonne) have to be converted into uranium hexafluoride. After enrichment the compound has to be reconverted into a stable oxide, e.g. uranium dioxide UO2.
The Vattenfall EPD noticed the absence of data on emission of greenhouse gases by processes needed to convert uranium ore into nuclear fuel, as is pointed out above.
As with all chemical plants, significant amounts of those compounds will be lost to the environment, due to unavoidable process losses. No chemical plant is leakproof. From a chemical point of view, it is conceivable that in several processes potent GHG's arise or are used. Notably chloro- and fluorohydrocarbons (CFCs) have global warming potentials (GWP), many thousands times stronger than carbon dioxide.
The nuclear industry should commit itself to publish a thorough and independent analysis of the emissions of greenhouse gases in all processes of the nuclear chain, before claiming that nuclear energy produces less greenhouse gases than other energy systems or even that nuclear is carbon-free or GHG-free.
Sevior refers on his website to a publication concerning the Olympic Dam operations .
Olympic Dam produces copper as well as uranium. Only the amount of copper produced is mentioned on the website , so most probably all figures refer exclusively to the copper extraction.
The figures as presented on the website of  are not appropiate for an energy analysis of the nuclear fuel cycle, because too many parameters are unknown.
Do the cited amounts of 'energy usage' refer to electricity generation only, like the figures in the EPD of Forsmark by Vattenfall, or to usage in trucks, excavators and other fossil-fuel-burning equipment, or to both?
Which figures refer to the uranium extraction?
What about the indirect energy usage, embodied in maintenance, chemicals, capital goods and all other activities related tot the mining and milling operations?
The figures we used in our study to assess the energy requirements of uranium extraction originate from tens of peer-reviewed publications, all from the nuclear industry itself. These publications are based on empirical facts and surveys of actual mines.
On basis of only one publication Sevior dismisses, without reasoning, our results concerning uranium extraction. Are all those other authors really wrong?
Associate Professor Sevior based far-reaching conclusions on just two - misread - publications. Implicitely Sevior dismisses without reasoning the results of tens of peer reviewed studies on both discussed subjects, construction and uranium extraction.
In my view this is not good scientific practice.
Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen
4861 RK Chaam
tel. +31 161 491369
fax +31 161 492879
Vattenfall AB Generation Nordic Countries,
EPD: Certified Environmental Product Declaration of Electricity from Forsmarks Kraftgrupp AB (FKA),
June 2004, updated 2005.
Power Generation and the Environment - a UK Perspective,
WMC Sustainability Site 2004, Olympic Dam operations
New investigation shows nuclear power will last longer, cause less emissions
Media Release, Wednesday 21 December 2005
Nuclear power would be a cheaper and more environmentally friendly option in Australia than commonly thought, a University of Melbourne study has shown.
A group of scientists from the University of Melbourne, led by Associate Professor Martin Sevior in the School of Physics, has produced a dedicated study of the energy problems confronting Australia in the future. They compared the environmental impact, health risks, economic effects and social implications of the use of fossil fuels, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy, and nuclear power.
They have presented their results on a new website: www.nuclearinfo.net
Their investigation significantly impacts the nuclear debate, with findings showing that hundreds of times more uranium could be available than was predicted in a widely quoted study by van Leeuwen and Smith.
Associate Professor Sevior says Van Leeuwen and Smith also seriously overestimate the energy needed to mine uranium and construct nuclear power plants.
He says that all the researchers involved in his study started from a clean state and employed full quantitative analyses where possible.
“We took care to select the most authoritative data sources and we've made these available on the website. The idea was to be totally transparent and make it as easy as possible for others to repeat our calculations. Everyone can scrutinise our calculations and sources of data."
“Nuclear power would not only cause less damage to the environment than proposed by van Leeuwen and Smith, but would provide enough energy for everyone on Earth for well over 200 years, even if current nuclear power plants continue to be used, which is unlikely.”
The University of Melbourne research group investigated the energy required to build and operate a nuclear power plant. To this end they employed independently audited statistics made available by the Swedish Energy Utility, Vattenfall.
The scientists find that the energy cost to build a power plant would be 'paid back' within one and a half months of its establishment, and that the disposal of nuclear waste would add just one and a half more months to that total. Van Leeuwen and Smith predicted that nuclear power plants would take 7 - 10 years to 'pay back' these energy costs.
They also investigated the energy cost of mining uranium from the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia and found that it is at least 10 times smaller than predicted by van Leeuwen and Smith. Consequently the world's uranium resource base is likely to be hundreds of times greater than the previous research suggested.
Associate Professor Sevior said that the methodology used by van Leeuwen and Smith, which is often cited during debates on nuclear power in Australia and overseas, was flawed, with some figures utilised off by over a factor of 10.
“This previous research overestimated the energy costs and carbon emissions generated by the construction of nuclear power plants and for mining uranium” he said.
“It is suggested in debates that the energy cost of extracting uranium from new mines would be so high that there is little point in developing a nuclear power industry – that is simply not true.
"We also found that substantial progress has been made for disposal of waste in deep geological formations. In addition, new ideas to burn nuclear waste with either high-powered proton accelerators or in advanced reactors have been developed."
Associate Professor Sevior said that nuclear technology is developing at a rapid pace, with new power plant designs proposed that will enable more efficient use of uranium, increasing the possible use of uranium fifty-fold and significantly reducing the amount of nuclear waste.
“Power plants will become more efficient and will continue to provide significant amounts of energy, without impacting the environment in the same way as coal and other fossil-fuel power stations,” he said.
“Nuclear power plants can also provide hydrogen for cars, something that will be necessary in the future, particularly as the price of oil continues to rise.”
As energy consumption and the resulting pollution continue to grow, Associate Professor Sevior said that alternative energy sources need to be looked at in detail by impartial researchers, and academics with expertise in such areas have a responsibility to become involved.
“Groups that are for and against nuclear power can then have an open dialogue based on accurate figures and sound empirical research.
"Although we find there is a credible case for nuclear power plants, there have been many mistakes in its deployment in the past. If we decide to utilise nuclear energy we should learn from these mistakes."