Nuclear Versus Coal

Among the reasons anti-Nuclear groups have against the addition of nuclear power capacity, nuclear waste and safety are among the top. However, when considering nuclear as a clean source of electricity, we should compare the safety and waste issues of nuclear power plants to those of coal-fired power plants.

The production of electricity through nuclear fission creates low-level, medium-level, and high-level waste. The low-level waste makes up about 90% of all nuclear waste and is safe enough to be handled and buried. Medium-level and high-level waste make up the remaining 7% and 3% of nuclear waste respectively. The medium-level is only slightly more radioactive than the low-level. The high-level waste is the only waste that must be stored for a very long time, 1000 years or more before it returns to a radioactivity level equal to that of the original uranium used in the process. With such a small amount of the waste being high-level, storing this waste does not seem to be a huge problem. For example, in the UK, with a population of 60 million, the high-level waste created by the UK’s 10 nuclear power plants equates to only about 25ml per person per year of high-level waste that needs to be stored. Compare this to coal-fired powered plants in the UK that create about 40 liters of ash per person per year [2].

The carbon footprint for building a nuclear power plant is also smaller than that of a coal-fired power plant. Building a 1 GW nuclear power plant leaves a carbon footprint of 300,000 tons of CO2.  Assuming a 25 year life span, the IPCC estimates that the total carbon intensity of a nuclear power plant including construction, fuel processing, and decommissioning is 40 g CO2 / kWh(e), compared to 400 g CO2 / kWh(e) for a coal-fired power plant.

As for safety, coal plants average 1.1 deaths per year per GWh, where nuclear plants average about 0.5 deaths per year per GWh. [5] Both of these numbers include the casualties involved in the mining process.

With no carbon emissions during electricity production and only a fraction of the waste and total carbon footprint over the plant lifetime than that of coal plants, nuclear power should be able to withstand resistance from anti-nuclear groups and become a viable, long-lasting source of clean electricity.

[1] Greenpeace International and European Renewable Energy Council (January 2007). Energy Revolution: A Sustainable World Energy Outlook

[2] McKay, David JC., Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air.

[3] Sims et al., Climate Change 2007.

[4], Radioactive Waste Management.

[5], Comparing nuclear and fossil-fuel energy risks



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3 responses to “Nuclear Versus Coal

  1. mvineyard

    In spite of the favorable safety and environmental evidence (in comparison to coal plants), environmental groups continue to demonstrate opposition to nuclear power. Earlier this month, the environmental opponents of the Indian Point nuclear power plant celebrated the state of New York’s decision that bars the way to the plant’s relicensing. However, the plant’s closing would leave the metropolitan region without a critical source of its electrical supply and could add to its air pollution and power costs.

    In denying the permit, Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) officials said Indian Point’s 35-year-old once-through cooling water intake system for the pressurized water reactors takes about 2.5 billion gallons of water daily from the Hudson River. That withdrawal in a year kills almost 1 billion fish and other aquatic organisms that are either drawn into the system, trapped by high-pressure large-volume flows at the intake or affected by discharges of heated water.

    DEC officials said a closed-cycle cooling system that eliminates the current thermal discharges back into the Hudson is required at the plant. Officials also cited the continuing leaks of radioactive waste into the groundwater and the Hudson River at Indian Point when ruling the plant fails to meet state water quality standards.

    The closed-cycle cooling system required by the state would cost at least $1 billion. The two 17-story cooling towers needed could not be in place until 2029 and would require years of rock-blasting to be properly sited. Additionally, each tower would take up the footprint, approximately, of Yankee Stadium and would release an estimated 100 tons of particulate matter per year into the already polluted air over the metropolitan region.

    In order to replace Indian Point, you have to build five fossil-fuel-burning facilities in a region that already has the worst air quality rating in the Northeast. Perhaps it makes sense to invest in the closed-cycle cooling system, but even then the issue of leaking radioactive waste into the groundwater would need to be addressed to appease the environmental opposition.

  2. zzang98

    It is very interesting story. Though those have been controversial issues, the points which this story is addressing covers most of issues what I’ve heard from anti nuclear groups. Sure, I would not question about the excellence of Nuclear Energy compared to the Coal. However, I believe that still there are issues coming from our aggressive approach to the nuclear energy as one of the best alternative for the future clean energy.
    First, regarding waste disposal, the issue is finding the place. According to the report released by Greenpeace, “Nuclear power: a dangerous” 20 April 2009) “The nuclear industry wants to bury the problem of radioactive waste by storing it in deep geological repositories. However, not a single one has yet been built. It appears to be impossible to find suitable locations where safety can be guaranteed for the time scales necessary.” The attempt to build the Yucca Mountain waste site in Nevada, began in 1982, but the date for start of operation has been postponed from 1992 to beyond 2020 since there was doubt on long term stability of underground condition.
    Second issue is the possibility of being used as a weapon. There always have been concerns about the nuclear facility would be targeted by terrorists’ attack and proliferation of nuclear weapon. I think these threatening would not be able to be calculated by dollar amount.
    The cost estimation by nuclear industry is also arguable. In the same report mentioned above, Greenpeace is telling that the cost of building a nuclear reactor is consistently two to three times higher than the nuclear industry estimate. Also we do not know exactly how much cost to treat facility after life and the processed material. In addition to that I want to add the social cost during planning and construction. For the most of the case, there would be a lot of efforts to choose proper location and persuade people who are against of it. In my country Korea, plans for building disposal facility has been announced and withdrawn for several times because of residents of planned area and environmentalists’ opposition and protest. It took 19 years for selecting the final location.

    For me, both sides’ arguments sounds convincing and it is not simple to say just A or B. I need to study more to tell you whether we should rush for nuclear energy or not. If I learn more, I will let you know!
    Greenpeace “Nuclear power: a dangerous” 20 April 2009 (Korea Radioactive Waste Management Corporation)

  3. smb227

    I’m glad you made this post comparing coal to nuclear in terms of environmental impact. It is obvious from emissions data on a yearly basis by such groups as the EIA that coal emissions far outweigh nuclear emissions, obviously since combustion occurs in coal burning and not in nuclear reactions. It’s interesting that you mentioned the emissions for building and constructing a nuclear plant, since most people probably don’t think about the emissions that occur during this process.

    The emissions data you provided for the CO2 emitted per energy unit is good as well. I wanted to comment on that in relation to some of the anti-nuclear groups out there whose facts are wrong regarding this emissions data. One such group out there, Mothers for Peace, claims a figure that implies that nuclear plants produce more CO2 emissions than coal, which during normal operation is obviously not true. I think a major part of the opposition to nuclear power comes probably from two areas not necessarily related to emissions: waste like you mentioned, and proliferation concerns. I also think that one thing to note is that I think there are opposition groups that try to put out the idea that some how nuclear reactors are just ticking time bombs that could go off at any minute. One such group pushing this idea is Friends of the Earth. The truth is that nuclear reactors do not have fuel enriched enough to just go off like some make it seem, and in fact are not easily converted to nuclear bombs. Read the source by Knief that I’ve cited below.

    There is also a great deal of opposition to coal plants, too, that I noticed you didn’t eleborate on in your post. I think the opposition to coal plants in much more justified than the opposition to nuclear; however, some groups, like Reality, present mostly factual information, but some of it that they present is opinion that they claim are facts. For example, they say “Fact: Without the price on greenhouse gas emissions that is delivered by cap-and-trade mechanisms, CO2 capture and storage will remain a daydream.” This is something that they pass off as a fact, but that I don’t necessarily agree with. CO2 sequestration is something that is being researched, and according to energy secretary Steven Chu, the first total sequestration plant is planned for construction in Illinois. Whether this is somehow reliant on cap and trade legislation, I don’t know, but I doubt it.

    Knief, R. A. (2008). Nuclear Engineering: Theory and Technology of Commercial Nuclear Power (2nd ed.). La Grange Park, Il: American Nuclear Society, inc.

    Department of Energy statement

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