Nuclear Power: a Possible Solution for Global Warming. Really???

That’s what I first heard. It is clean because it does not release CO2. Indeed, nuclear power plants produce energy without the releasing of large CO2 amount but is it really clean? I tried to learn a bit more about the topic. I won’t get into the details about how nuclear power is generated, I think this wikipedia text does a good job explaining how it works:

Just as many conventional thermal power stations generate electricity by harnessing the thermal energy released from burning fossil fuels, nuclear power plants convert the energy released from the nucleus of an atom via nuclear fission that takes place in a nuclear reactor. The heat is removed from the reactor core by a cooling system that uses the heat to generate steam, which drives a steam turbine connected to a generator producing electricity.

So the key factor is basically the nuclear fission:

nuclear fission is a process in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts. The fission process often produces free neutrons and photons (in the form of gamma rays), and releases a very large amount of energy even by the energetic standards of radioactive decay.

An induced fission reaction.


The products of nuclear fission are on average far more radioactive than the heavy elements which are normally fissioned as fuel (for example Uranium), and remain so for significant amounts of time. Thus, is it nuclear energy safe? The world had 434 operable reactors with 66 others currently under construction. Statistically, considering the number of reactors and number of accidents, nuclear power plants are not really unsafe. Well, statistics is powerful and should be used carefully. Each nuclear accident could  represent environmental concerns of  hundreds of years (maybe thousands depending of the element and nuclear decay process). Therefore, only one accident can lead to catastrophic environmental consequences.

I started watching a movie about the Chernobyl accident and then I found more documentaries including nuclear power accidents, nuclear footprints and nuclear waste. It was an amazing journey. I hope these movies help you to understand more about this technology which is amazing but at the same time scary. Personally, after all these movies I though: “Wow, coal energy is kind of cleaner when compared to nuclear energy.”. It is important to mention there is a debate about the use of Thorium instead of Uranium or Plutonium in the nuclear power plants.  The claim is that Thorium is cheaper, safer and also abundant. Well, soon we will see the reality of these claims.

Into Eternity

This wasn’t the first movie that I saw about the topic but it was the most impressive for me. It was for me the scariest because of the time-dimension of the problem and the solution. 100,000 years. Wow, 100,000 years!

Every day, the world over, large amounts of high-level radioactive waste created by nuclear power plants is placed in interim storages, which are vulnerable to natural disasters, man-made disasters, and to societal changes.

In Finland the world’s first permanent repository is being hewn out of solid rock – a huge system of underground tunnels – that must last 100,000 years as this is how long the waste remains hazardous.

Once the waste has been deposited and the repository is full, the facility is to be sealed off and never opened again. Or so we hope, but can we ensure that?

And how is it possible to warn our descendants of the deadly waste we left behind? How do we prevent them from thinking they have found the pyramids of our time, mystical burial grounds, hidden treasures? Which languages and signs will they understand? And if they understand, will they respect our instructions?

While gigantic monster machines dig deeper and deeper into the dark, experts above ground strive to find solutions to this crucially important radioactive waste issue to secure mankind and all species on planet Earth now and in the near and very distant future.

Is Nuclear Energy Safe? Nuclear Energy Risks and Consequences

Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima: This original Earth Focus investigative report looks at the untold stories behind three of the world’s largest nuclear disasters.

Discovery Channel – The Battle of Chernobyl (2006)

This documentary analyzes the Thursday 26th April 1986 when one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in northern Ukraine, exploded. The plant, just 20 km away from the town centre, was made up of four reactor units each generating an output of 1,000 megawatts. The reactor in question exploded due to operational errors and inadequate safety measures and the meltdown was directly linked to routine testing on the reactor unit’s turbine generators.

More than 200 people died or were seriously injured by radiation exposure immediately after the explosion. 161,000 people had to be evacuated from a 30 kilometer radius of the reactor and 25,000 square km of land were contaminated. As time went on millions of people suffered radiation related health problems such as leukemia and thyroid cancer and around 4,000 people have died as a result of the long-term effects of the accident.

Nobody was prepared for such a crisis. For the next seven months, 500,000 men will wage hand-to-hand combat with an invisible enemy – a ruthless battle that has gone unsung, which claimed thousands of unnamed and now almost forgotten heroes. Yet, it is thanks to these men that the worst was avoided; a second explosion, ten times more powerful than Hiroshima which would have wiped out more than half of Europe. This was kept secret for twenty years by the Soviets and the West alike.

Uranium – Is It A Country? Tracking the Origins of Nuclear Power

This is a documentary that takes a look at the footprints of nuclear energy. In Europe nuclear energy is more and more often celebrated as saving the climate. Clearly, nuclear power plants need uranium.

The aim is to comprehensively illustrate the opportunities and risks posed by nuclear energy, whilst paying particular attention to uranium mining. Australia has the world’s largest deposits of this resource. They go to the “land down under” to exemplify where uranium comes from, where it goes to and what is leftover from it.

The Fukushima Nuclear Accident

Examines the incident, aftermath and implications for the adoption of Nuclear energy in other countries. From ‘Four Corners’, an Australian investigative program on the ABC.




The New Norm: Environmental Accidents

I was writing a post about nuclear energy when an environmental accident happened in British Columbia, Canada. So I decided to postpone for one more week the nuclear energy post to make a comment about the accident.  First this is what happened.

In 04/08/2014 a copper-gold mine wastewater spilled into creeks, lakes, and flowed into central B.C. river systems. Debris and effluent flowed into a lake from the tailings pond, where waste from the mine’s chemical and mechanical operations was being stored. The wastewater and tailings sediments has contaminated several lakes, creeks and rivers in the region. Approximately 10 billion litres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of metals-laden fine sand has been released. This is so big that I can’t even pay attention on the numbers. Because of that, a complete water ban has been issued for the interior community of BC. Therefore, the water is not appropriate for drink, swim, etc.

Image credit: Cariboo Regional District/Facebook

The company said:

.. the tailings are not acid-generating and the water is alkaline with a pH of roughly 8.5, but it could not confirm the exact quantity and composition of the discharged wastewater.

Humm good. But what are exactly the company disposals? According with Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory in 2013  the mine’s byproducts are:

  • Arsenic (and its compounds): 406 tonnes
  • Lead (and its compounds) 177 tonnes
  • Nickel (and its compounds) 326 tonnes
  • Vanadium (except when in an alloy): 5,047 tonnes
  • Zinc (and its compounds): 2,169 tonnes
  • Cadmium (and its compounds): 6 tonnes
  • Cobalt (and its compounds): 475 tonnes
  • Phosphorus (total): 41,640 tonnes
  • Copper (and its compounds): 18,413 tonnes
  • Antimony (and its compounds) 14 tonnes
  • Manganese (and its compounds): 20,988 tonnes
  • Mercury (and its compounds): 3 tonnes
  • Selenium (and its compounds): 46 tonnes

Honestly a statement like “tailings are not acid-generating…” is ridiculous. On the next day dead fish and devastation were spotted in the region. It is only the beginning because Mount Polley mine tailings pond breach followed years of government warnings. They had 5 warnings in 14 inspections. What???? No, not in Canada, a first world developed country. But Indeed, it is true. Negligence? Inaction? Is It really hard to explain. Well, disasters like these often spawn comments calling for the immediate shutdown of all mines, forestry and industry. Is it the solution? Just, remember,  in general we need the products that the raw materials from these industries provide to manufacture computers, tvs, cellphones, tablets, cars, etc. Also they provide employment, revenue and taxes that pay for the majority of health care and education. Ops, this is getting complicated.

Image Credit: Gary Zorn/Ecotours-B.C

To find solutions for the problem is not really easy because the governments are dependent of these industries and vice-verse. However i have a theory. My theory is recycle more and waste less (???). Well, but think about it. I blogged before about waste and consumption.These companies are necessary because our lifestyle. Would you give up of your actual lifestyle? Should we revert to a simple life of ride horses?  How about eat fruits and share fish with the bears? I doubt it. However these companies are driven by demand and supply. If we start to recycle more and waste less the demand will decrease, so some of the companies won’t be more necessary. Ok if the population doesn’t grow, etc, etc, remember the problem is not that simple.

Do you remember that old computer sitting on the garage? Or that old cellphone? I can guarantee that both have some amount of the same material that is byproduct of Mount polley mine. I know, the amount are really small, but normally these products go to normal garbage to be buried or burned. That is the part which doesn’t make sense to me. Why burn something that can be used again? How about the jobs, revenues, taxes? I think this could be re-allocated to recycling companies, or companies that recycling our waste. It is only a theory. Far from the truth. We have to be realistic and accept that we live in a waste culture. Unfortunately, I believe that zero waste is not possible, but I also believe that we can reduce the waste drastically and respect more the environment. These are small steps but with big consequences.

More about the accident:

Could climate change increase the price of airfare tickets (consequently tour costs)?

It is really funny how the things work on internet nowadays. You start looking for something and you end reading unexpected things. I was writing and reading about what is turbulence and how to avoid it (last two posts) when I found a recent (2013) interesting paper talking about the possible intensification of turbulence activity due climate change.

The paper is quite interesting. They define turbulence in an elegant way:

…turbulence when they encounter vertical airflow that varies on horizontal length scales greater than, but roughly equal to, the size of the plane.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), suggested that cases of turbulence had risen and incidents doubled over the three-month period between October and December last year, compared to the previous quarter. Also moderate-or-greater upper-level turbulence has been found to increase over the period 1994–2005 in pilot reports in the United States. Continue reading