Assessing the environmental impact of nuclear power generation

In a constantly evolving world, rapidly growing populations coupled with urbanization and industrialization are leading to an ever-increasing demand for energy. The challenge today lies in meeting these energy requirements while keeping global warming in check—a condition which fossil fuels do not fulfil. In an effort to mitigate the environmental degradation and natural resource depletion linked to the usage of fossil fuels, nuclear power is being promoted as an alternative source of energy.

In a constantly evolving world, rapidly growing populations coupled with urbanization and industrialization are leading to an ever-increasing demand for energy. The challenge today lies in meeting these energy requirements while keeping global warming in check—a condition which fossil fuels do not fulfil. In an effort to mitigate the environmental degradation and natural resource depletion linked to the usage of fossil fuels, nuclear power is being promoted as an alternative source of energy.

Conducting a life cycle assessment (LCA) of any energy source is important to understand how it affects the environment. A lot of studies have, therefore, assessed the life cycle cumulative energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to electricity generated via nuclear power. However, most of these studies looked at the GHG emissions and the amount of energy consumed, which might lead to a less comprehensive assessment of the environmental impact and sustainability of electricity generated via nuclear power. For example, we are yet 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 less-considered measure—the volume of resources extracted from the lithosphere during the life cycle of this process. Their study focused on the mining methods, the nuclear reactor types, and the type of uranium fuel cycle system used during nuclear power generation, and how these alter the process’ environmental impact. They also assessed the different grades of uranium ore mined—a highly variable entity—and its effect on the total material requirement (TMR). This paper was made available online on 8 June 2022 and published in Volume 363 of the Journal of Cleaner Production on 20 August 2022.

An LCA of the resource use for 1kWh nuclear power generation based on uranium was performed by analyzing 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 mining, underground mining, and in situ leaching (ISL), apart from other variables in nuclear power generation, for a thorough LCA.” GHG emissions and natural resource usage were subsequently evaluated for these variables.

The researchers found that the TMR coefficient (indicating the mining intensity) of enriched uranium fuel was the highest, followed by nuclear fuel, reprocessed uranium fuel, mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, and lastly, yellow-cake. The grade of uranium ore had a huge impact on the TMR coefficient as well, which meant that TMR varied significantly with different mining methods. In situ leaching had the lowest TMR. However, the mining method had a more significant impact on resource utilization as compared to its impact on GHG emissions.

Discussing the impact of fuel cycles, Professor Eiji Yamasue says, “We found that a closed cycle that reprocesses uranium fuel uses 26% lower resources than an open cycle that does not reuse its by-products.”

Additionally, it was found that the natural resource use of nuclear power generation was similar to that of renewable energy and significantly lower than that of thermal power generation. Furthermore, the global warming potential and TMR of nuclear power generation showed very different trends. Along with lower GHG emissions, nuclear power generation also used fewer natural resources, making it an environmentally favorable source of power generation.

Maintaining a circular economy, even for resource use, is important. Our findings can assist policy makers in formulating long-term energy policies which consider electricity and power generation using nuclear power,” concludes Dr. Kosai. 

Is the future nuclear? It certainly is a possibility!

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Reference

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2022.132530

About Ritsumeikan University, Japan

Ritsumeikan University is one of the most prestigious private universities in Japan. Its main campus is in Kyoto, where inspiring settings await researchers. With an unwavering objective to generate social symbiotic values and emergent talents, it aims to emerge as a next-generation research university. It will enhance researcher potential by providing support best suited to the needs of young and leading researchers, according to their career stage. Ritsumeikan University also endeavors to build a global research network as a “knowledge node” and disseminate achievements internationally, thereby contributing to the resolution of social/humanistic issues through interdisciplinary research and social implementation.

Website: http://en.ritsumei.ac.jp/

About Associate Professor Shoki Kosai from Ritsumeikan University, Japan

Shoki Kosai is an Associate Professor at the Global Innovation Research Organization in Ritsumeikan University, Japan. He has a Masters in Renewable Energy from the University of Malaya, Malaysia. He completed his doctoral program from Kyoto University, Japan in 2020. He has 30 publications to his name. Dr. Kosai’s research focuses on natural resource conservation, renewable energy and creating a cleaner and greener environment. He has presented several papers in the IET Clean Energy and Technology Conference.

About Professor Eiji Yamasue from Ritsumeikan University, Japan

Eiji Yamasue is a Professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Science and Engineering, Ritsumeikan University, Japan. He completed his PhD from Tokyo Institute of Technology in 2000. His research interests include industrial ecology, energy and resources, etc. He has authored several books and has published 322 papers with over 1600 citations to his credit. He was the recipient of two science prizes in 2017 including Energy and Material Efficiency and CO2 Reduction in the Steel Industry Best Poster Award. He has received several grants-in-aid for scientific research as well as competitive grants.


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