Nuclear Power

Many of the environmental issues associated with nuclear energy have been discussed at length, and the body of literature on these issues is substantial. There have been a few reports that have addressed life cycle GHG emissions [20, 21], but the majority of the recent literature has been related to nuclear waste and spent fuel storage. Examples of this large body of work are two recent reports by the National Research Council which addressed spent fuel storage [22] and transport [23] safety and security issues. Despite the large number of studies that have been conducted, concerns remain about fuel cycle safety and implementation of waste disposal. An MIT study, "The Future of Nuclear Power," concluded that, "We know little about the safety of the overall fuel cycle, beyond reactor operation" [24]. The study raised further concerns about geological waste disposal, but noted that the key issues seem to be less about technical feasibility than about actual implementation of the concept.

Beyond the issues associated with spent fuel disposal, a significant increase in nuclear power generation will lead to a number of other environmental impacts. Uranium mining and processing will require safe disposal of overburden and residues having low levels of radioactive materials. There is potential for contamination of water bodies during mining, depending upon methods and locations. The availability of cooling water is also a concern, particularly with competing water demand for residential, commercial, and other industrial uses.

Two other issues unique to nuclear power are of significant concern. The first of these is the potential for a catastrophic accident. The Chernobyl accident demonstrated the extent to which such an accident can impact the environment over large areas and for long periods of time [25-27]. Although commercial reactor designs in the U.S. are significantly different and cannot fail in the same manner as the Chernobyl reactor, the potential for radioactive contamination of large areas remains a possibility. The second issue is that of proliferation of nuclear material and its potential use in nuclear weapons, including "dirty bombs" that are used to disperse highly radioactive material using conventional explosives. The MIT report included this aspect of nuclear power in their evaluation and concluded that, "The current international safeguards regime is inadequate to meet the security challenges of the expanded nuclear deployment contemplated in the global growth scenario" [24]. These two issues will need to be addressed in detail as part of any significant increase in the use of nuclear power for GHG mitigation.

Even so, the British Department for Business, Enterprise, and Regulatory Reform (BERR) concluded in a recent white paper that, with the exception of nuclear waste storage and disposal, "the environmental impacts of new nuclear power stations would not be significantly different to those of other forms of electricity generation and that they are manageable, given the requirements in place in the UK and Europe to assess and mitigate the impacts" [28]. The extent to which the environmental impacts associated with nuclear power are comparable to those from other forms of power generation will likely depend strongly upon the degree to which these requirements are successfully adopted and followed.

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