Comparison of Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power
A Tabular Sketch

by Arjun Makhijani

The qualitative comparisons in this table are premised on the assumption that facilities are run with reasonable attention to environmental protection so far as routine operations and waste management are concerned. The effects could be (and often are) far worse if this is not true. The statements about climate change in the table only refer to incremental risks from adopting a particular strategy. Both nuclear and renewable strategies will involve risks beyond those we have already incurred because of the time required for the transition to a future energy strategy.

Nuclear with plutonium economy Nuclear, once-through uranium use Fossil Fuels, present approach Fossil Fuel, moderated use, and Renewables
Resource Base, present economics* indefinite future 50 to 100 years, possibly more a few hundred years indefinite future
Resource Base, including very low-grade resources not requiredindefinite future thousands of years not required
Incremental Climate Change Risk none** none potentially catastrophic none if fossil fuels are largely phased out
Potential Consequences of catastrophic accidents severe: long-lasting effects over large regions severe: long lasting effects over large regions no consequences for large regions but may be locally severe; effects generally short term no consequences for large regions but may be locally severe; effects generally short term
Air Pollution, routine operations relatively low relatively low severe to moderate, depending on control technology moderate to low, depending on control technology
Water Pollution, routine operations potentially serious at mines and mills, but limited due to low uranium requirements; potentially serious at waste disposal sites often serious at mines, mills, and uranium processing sites (includes non-radioactive and radioactive pollutants); potentially serious at waste disposal sites often serious at coal mines; serious at some oil fields (includes non-radioactive and radioactive pollutants, notably radium-226 near many oil-wells) potentially very low
Risk of Nuclear Weapons Problems yes yes, but less than with a breeder reactor economy none none
* See text.
** Questions have been raise about the effect of krypton-85 from extensive reprocessing necessary for a breeder reactor system on cloud formation and hence potential climate change. However, krypton-85 can be removed from exhaust gases by cyrogenic cooling.

The Earth appears to have the capacity to absorb carbon dioxide emissions at a level of 3 gigatons per year, although the exact level of tolerance and absorption is uncertain. Today's emissions total about 9 gigatons, about two-thirds of which is due to fossil fuels. The remainder is the result of biomass burning.

Besides carbon dioxide emissions, fossil fuel mining and technologies for controlling emissions other than carbon dioxide to the air and water contribute to environmental degradation, which is often very severe in its local and regional impacts. Further, fossil fuel use in the present mode presents risks of climate change that are not yet well understood, but may be catastrophic and irreversible. Of the fossil fuels, natural gas provides the highest level of energy content per unit of carbon emissions. However, natural gas could not by itself fulfill global energy requirements with current technology, especially taking into account that the energy needs for a majority of the world's population are unmet today. Moreover, natural gas (methane) leakage from pipelines contributes to global warming to a much greater (although not well understood) extent than carbon dioxide on a molecule-for-molecule basis.

Under today's conditions, nuclear power has far lower routine emissions than energy from burning fossil fuels. However, it presents hazards of its own, notably the risk of accidents like Chernobyl, with severe, long-lasting consequences over huge regions. In addition, the security risks posed by large inventories of nuclear weapons-usable materials have no counterpart in fossil fuels.

Clearly, neither nuclear nor fossil fuel use is currently conducive to sound environmental and security policy. In addition, neither breeder reactors nor renewables (the two possible sources of an indefinite energy supply) are economical at present fuel prices so as to immediately constitute the basis of global energy supply. What are the options for a safe, sustainable, and ecological energy supply for the future? If fossil fuel use can be reduced and biomass burning done on a renewable basis so that emissions are below 3 gigatons per year of carbon, fossil fuels would be a sounder form of energy than nuclear, but would need to be accompanied by other energy sources. Economical, environmentally-sound carbon sinks, which would allow carbon dioxide to be absorbed and stored or disposed of without being released to the atmosphere as a gas, could also make fossil fuels a better energy source. Fossil fuels can be used at reduced levels as transition fuels to a renewable energy economy, or at higher levels if carbon sinks prove to be economical.

Natural gas could serve as a transition fuel to hydrogen derived from solar energy, since the infrastructure for use would be similar for the two gaseous fuels. Natural gas can be complemented by renewable energy sources such as solar energy, biomass fuels (renewably produced and used), and wind energy. Wind energy and solar energy are economical under some circumstances (such as areas with high wind speed or high insolation and low precipitation). The resource base for these technologies could extend to the indefinite future under "present economics" with a reduction in the cost of these technologies or an increase in uranium or coal and oil prices. Moderate fossil fuel use (with engineering measures to prevent releases of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere) and renewable energy sources joined with increased energy efficiency measures provide the best alternative for economical, sustainable energy in the future.

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Last updated: February, 1997