Nuclear Energy’s Role in Sustainable Development

As a lead-up to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Jan. 18-25, Masdar sponsored a blogging contest called “Engage: Cities and Sustainable Development.” The following post was a runner-up.Graph

By Lenka Kollar

Access to electricity generated by clean energy sources is one of the most pressing issues concerning sustainable development for the future. How can the increasing energy demand due to developing nations and growing world population be addressed sustainably?

Nuclear energy can play a valuable role in meeting energy demand with carbon-free base load electricity. Cities can especially play a unique role in deploying nuclear energy because large metropolitan areas need an electricity supply that is ample and dependable. In addition, the World Bank estimates that half of the population today lives in urban areas and that that number will increase to 67 percent by 2050. Deploying both energy conservation and clean electricity generation will allow for sustainable development in urban areas.

Energy conservation must become a focal point of a city’s sustainable development plan because conservation can help offset the growing energy needs of an increasing population. Access to electricity is directly correlated with quality of life. Citizens should never be denied electricity because of shortage or the need for sustainability. Instead, various steps can be taken by urban areas to use electricity more efficiently. For example, buildings and communities can be designed in such a way that they reduce energy usage, have a smaller environmental footprint and use water more efficiently.

The Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program in the United States provides a design and construction rating system for green buildings. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy found that LEED-certified buildings had 25 percent lower energy usage than the national average and also reduced operational costs by 19 percent. These buildings are not only green but also save consumers money, which mitigates any extra up-front construction costs. I can attest to this concept because I lived in one of the first LEED-Gold certified residential buildings in Chicago, and my utility and electricity costs were a small fraction of what they were in a slightly older apartment building. The LEED concept can be used as a model for the rest of the world and cities should require all new construction to be green and sustainable.

Even with energy conservation, electricity demand will only grow in cities as more people move to urban areas and the population increases overall. To meet this demand without fossil fuels, more nuclear energy must be deployed as a base load electricity source. Nuclear energy is safe, clean and reliable. Nuclear energy already provides 11 percent of the world’s electricity and with negligible greenhouse gas emissions.

A single uranium fuel pellet, about the size of a coin, contains as much energy as 480 cubic meters of natural gas, 807 kilograms of coal or 149 gallons of oil. A very large metropolitan area, like Chicago, consumes about 85 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. A mere 10 nuclear reactors, at 1000 megawatts each, could power an entire large urban area. This huge power density compared to other forms of energy is what makes nuclear energy so important for sustainable development.

Providing enough reliable and clean electricity is a defining issue for sustainable development now and in the future. Population centers and large metropolitan areas need to take action to develop sustainably and become smart cities to ensure quality of life in the future. Energy conservation and nuclear energy for base load electricity are vital to sustainable growth plans for cities across the world.

Image credit: Nuclear Undone

Lenka Kollar (@lenkakollar) is the owner and editor of Nuclear Undone. She is a nuclear engineer educated at Purdue University in the United States. Formerly a researcher at Argonne National Laboratory and the National Nuclear Security Administration, Lenka now spends her career educating people about nuclear issues.

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7 responses

  1. Lenka, I have seen the literature put out by the nuclear industry and how they measure safety in “reactor years”. The problem, however, is when something goes wrong with nuclear it goes wrong big time and for a very, very long time. It is quite disingenuous to claim that nuclear is safe when the names of the no-longer-inhabitable locations such as Chernobyl and Fukushima easily role off the tongues of the mildly educated. The same cannot be said of other fuel sources. It may be the case that nuclear power design and technology is “safe”. Unfortunately human beings always throw an unknown factor into the mix. Nuclear energy (along with the potential for proliferation that comes with it) is perhaps a necessary evil in the transition to a low-carbon economy. But, it doesn’t have a long-term future (even if there were enough uranium reserves – which there aren’t).

    1. The death/TWh of nuclear is lower than any other source. The “danger” associated with accidents is also an assumption, not a reality. The overwhelming amount of evidence surrounding low-dose radiation risk, the UNSCEAR Chernobyl Report, and the NRC’s own SOARCA study show the danger of nuclear accidents is overblown by a huge extent.

      I also laugh when people like to claim nuclear has a potential to deny people to a large plot of land. The amount of land taken by wind or solar in normal operation is larger than the evacuation areas around Fukushima or Chernobyl for a given amount of energy (and those evacuation areas would be almost nothing if realistic risk profiles were assigned to them). Furthermore, if we held all other forms of energy to the same standards of nuclear, nobody would live anywhere near a coal plant, NG fracking site, or geothermal well. .

      There is no free lunch anywhere (although fusion may get close in the future). However, the massively uneven regulation applied between industries certainly hypes up the most miniscule amount of danger from a nuclear plant and gives a total write off to everyone else. Heck, the NRC doesn’t even care that NG fracking waste water is being released from water treatment facilities with radioactive material concentrations like 270 TIMES the allowable limit. If a nuclear plant did that for 30 seconds, you’d hear about it every day for a month. Same with a coal plant’s radioactive particulate emissions…several core’s worth of Uranium/Thorium over the course of a plant’s lifetime.

  2. Sams “along with the potential for proliferation that comes with it”. Not sure how you can make this connection with nuclear power plants. New fuel is enriched less than 5%, so it is no where near weapons grade material. If you are referring to extracting plutonium for spent fuel, good luck. Spent fuel is lethal with a few minutes of exposure, so there is no way anyone can steal spent fuel from a commerical power plant. They would be too sick to stand in a matter of minutes and dead shortly there after. Also, due to the security at these plants, they would have a better chance stealing a ton of gold from Fort Knox.

    1. Not to mention that reactor grade Plutonium is a HORRIBLE starting point for a bomb. The US tested a bomb with it using best known design practices…it fizzled. If we look at countries who have developed nuclear weapons, all but one did it without any connection to power-producing reactors. The Indians did use a Canadian-sourced HWR (more test reactor than power reactor) in a non-approved way. However, anyone who knows HWRs also knows they are a lot closer to a weapons production reactor than a PWR. To try and make weapons-grade Plutonium with a PWR or BWR would be a monumentally inefficient process and it would be obvious to any country with satellite imagery. When we saw the reactor turning on an off constantly and getting a new quantity of fuel delivered every 6 weeks, we’d know something was up. Uranium enrichment is a far easier process.

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