Uranium's environmental benefits will help drive increased demand

For many countries, air pollution sits alongside climate change and the need to reduce atmospheric carbon as a serious and pressing environmental issue.

In countries where growing consumer demand is driving quick industrial expansion, that growth is most often energised by coal-fired electricity generation. Coal-fired electricity is a large source of atmospheric carbon and of air pollution by particulate compounds of sulphur and nitrogen.

The role of nuclear energy in helping address these key environmental issues has been clear for some time.

Nuclear energy is a low-carbon technology. Over its lifecycle, from uranium mining and production, to fuel manufacture, electricity generation, plant decommissioning and waste disposal, nuclear energy emits about the same amount of carbon dioxide as wind power, concentrating solar power and biomass.

(Nuclear, 65 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour; Wind, also 65 gCO2/kwh; Concentrating solar, between 50 and 90 gCO2/kwh; Biomass, 35-85 gCO2/kwh)

As well, nuclear power generation emits negligible amounts of the materials that cause problems for the human respiratory system, primarily nitrogen and sulphur compounds.

So uranium-fuelled nuclear power is capable of delivering environmental benefits on two fronts.

An International Atomic Energy Agency Ministerial Conference in 2005 said in its final communique that:

 "a vast majority of participants affirmed that nuclear power can make a major contribution to meeting energy needs and sustaining the world's development in the 21st century, for a large number of both
developed and developing countries, taking into account the following:
- Nuclear power does not generate air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. . . . ."
 

The People's Republic of China provides a case in point.

According to the People's Republic of China's own evaluation, two-thirds of the 338 cities for which air-quality data are available are considered polluted - two-thirds of them moderately or severely so.

Respiratory, Cancer and heart diseases related to air pollution are the leading cause of death in China. Acid rain falls on 30% of the country.

The World Health Organisation’s Country Profile of Environmental Burden of Disease for China states that risk factors associated with breathing outdoor air are associated with 275,600 premature deaths a year.

(Breathing polluted indoor air is associated with a further 380,700 premature deaths each year. Indoor air pollution results largely from burning fossil fuel - coal and wood - indoors for heat.)

The majority of outdoor air pollution which causes the risks associated with this fatality rate is comprised of nitrogen, sulphur and other compounds produced in the combustion of fossil fuels (especially coal) for electricity production.

The need to reduce these fatalities by reducing fossil-fuel sourced air pollution is an important factor in China’s nuclear expansion.

A senior official of China's national energy authority declared recently that "the golden time has come" for development of nuclear energy there.

Under current plans, the government aims to increase nuclear generating capacity to 40 gigawatts by 2020, but local media reports suggest an increase of this target is being considered to as much as 60 gigawatts. Some Western analysts believe China's ultimate target for the late twenty-first century is to install 120 gigawatts nuclear capacity. China currently has 11 nuclear reactors at six power plants, with an installed capacity of just 9 gigawatts.

China recently took delivery of its first shipment of uranium from Australia and is expected to become an increasingly important customer for Australian uranium as its nuclear fleet expands.

The environmental benefits that China expects to derive from increased use of nuclear energy are also in the minds of policymakers in other countries looking to increase their reliance on nuclear energy for electricity.

While the capacity of nuclear energy to provide secure, base-load electricity at reasonable cost is often the main reason for using nuclear power, its environmental benefits add considerably to the nuclear case.