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Is Nuclear Power Sustainable?

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The nuclear industry is trying to jump on the sustainability bandwagon. The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) even has a website "Nuclear energy and sustainable development", where it presents itself as being sustainable. But is it? Remember "sustainable development" is about us meeting our needs "without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs"; and to do this, development must be both "economically and ecologically sustainable."

The UN evaluated nuclear power on pages 182-89 of its 1987 report. Regarding economics, it said nuclear "has not met earlier expectations that it would be the key to ensuring an unlimited supply of low cost energy"; its costs have increased rapidly "during the last 10-15 years, so that the earlier clear cost advantage of nuclear over the service life of the plant has been reduced or lost altogether". It continues that "nuclear provides about one-third of the energy that was forecast for it 10 years ago".

The economics of nuclear have eroded further since this was written. But what about ecological sustainability? The UN report says "many thousands of tons of spent fuel and high level waste" will need to be isolated "from the biosphere for many hundred of thousands of years that they will remain hazardously radioactive"; while emphasizing that "the problem of nuclear waste disposal remains unsolved." Nothing much has changed, except that more nuclear wastes have accumulated.

Not surprisingly nuclear industry claims about sustainability are rife with confusion. In 1990 AECL's President was invited to speak in the "Issues of Technology" engineering lecture series at the University of Regina. His confusing title, "Nuclear Power: The Clean Air Alternative to Sustainable Energy", even suggested that, as an "alternative to sustainable energy", nuclear was unsustainable.

And it clearly is! Nuclear fuel, uranium, is nonrenewable, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that there's only 80 years of economically recoverable uranium at today's demand. Any expansion of nuclear power will lower the time-span. If pushed on this, nuclear proponents respond that a new line of breeder reactors could use spent fuel (plutonium) to produce electricity; however this would be even more uneconomic and the reprocessing technology would create an even more dangerous radioactive waste stream for future generations.

The nuclear industry is primarily motivated to sustain itself. And no matter how it tries to twist the meaning, it fails the test of sustainability. Next time I'll look at the claim that nuclear can reduce the greenhouse gases causing global warming.