In a constantly evolving world, rapidly growing populations combined with urbanization and industrialization result in ever-increasing energy demands. The challenge today is to meet this energy demand while keeping global warming in check – a condition that fossil fuels cannot meet. To mitigate the environmental degradation and depletion of natural resources associated with the use of fossil fuels, nuclear power is being promoted as an alternative energy source.
Conducting a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of an energy source is important to understand how it affects the environment. Many studies have therefore evaluated the cumulative life cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with electricity generated by nuclear power. However, most of these studies looked at greenhouse gas emissions and the amount of energy consumed, which could lead to a less comprehensive assessment of the environmental impact and sustainability of nuclear-generated electricity. For example, we still need to understand the total resources used during this process.
In an attempt to provide a more holistic perspective, a group of scientists from Ritsumeikan University, Japan, analyzed the environmental impact of nuclear power generation through a lesser-recognized metric – the volume of resources extracted from the lithosphere during the life cycle of that process. Their study focused on the mining methods, nuclear reactor types and type of uranium fuel cycle system used during nuclear power generation and how these alter the environmental impact of the process. They also assessed the different grades of mined uranium ore – a highly variable entity – and their impact on the total material requirement (TMR). This paper was made available online on June 8, 2022 and published in Volume 363 of the Cleaner Production Magazine on August 20, 2022.
“A The life cycle assessment of the resource consumption for the generation of 1 kWh nuclear energy based on uranium was carried out by analysis of TMR.” says Associate Professor Shoki Kosai, the corresponding author of the study. “We looked at both open and closed fuel cycles and three types of uranium mining methods: open pit, underground, and on site Leaching (ISL), apart from other variables in nuclear power generation, for a thorough LCA.” GHG emissions and natural resource consumption were then assessed for these variables.
The researchers found that the TMR coefficient (which indicates degradation intensity) of enriched uranium fuel was highest, followed by nuclear fuel, reprocessed uranium fuel, mixed oxide fuel (MOX) and finally yellow cake. The grade of the uranium ore also had a large impact on the TMR coefficient, meaning that the TMR varied significantly with different mining methods. On site Leaching had the lowest TMR. However, mining method had a greater impact on resource use than on greenhouse gas emissions.
About the effects of fuel cycles, Professor Eiji Yamasue says: “We have found that a closed loop that recycles uranium fuel uses 26% fewer resources than an open loop that does not recycle its by-products.”
In addition, it was found that the consumption of natural resources in nuclear power generation was similar to that of renewable energy and significantly lower than thermal power generation. In addition, the global warming potential and TMR of nuclear power generation showed very different trends. In addition to lower greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power generation also used fewer natural resources, making it an environmentally friendly source of energy generation.
“Maintaining a circular economy, including for resource use, is important. Our results can help policymakers formulate long-term energy policies that take into account nuclear power and power generation,” closes dr kosai
Is the future nuclear? It’s certainly a possibility!
Relation: Nakagawa N, Kosai S, Yamasue E. Life Cycle Resource Utilization of Nuclear Power Generation Considering Total Material Demands. J Clean. prod. 2022;363:132530. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2022.132530
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