In an ever-changing world, rapid population growth combined with urbanization and industrialization are driving ever-increasing energy demand. The challenge today is to meet these energy needs while controlling global warming, a condition that fossil fuels do not meet. In order to mitigate the environmental degradation and depletion of natural resources associated with the use of fossil fuels, nuclear energy is being promoted as an alternative energy source.
Performing a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of any energy source is important to understand how it affects the environment. Numerous studies have thus evaluated the cumulative energy consumption over the life cycle and the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions linked to the electricity produced via nuclear power. However, most of these studies have focused on GHG emissions and the amount of energy consumed, which could lead to a less comprehensive assessment of the environmental impact and sustainability of electricity generated via nuclear energy. . For example, we have not yet understood 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 thoughtful measure – the volume of resources extracted from the lithosphere during the life cycle of this process. . Their study focused on the extraction methods, types of nuclear reactors, 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 its effect on the total material requirement (TMR). This article was uploaded June 8, 2022 and published in Journal of Cleaner Production Volume 363 on August 20, 2022.
“An LCA of resource utilization for uranium-based 1 kWh nuclear power generation 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: surface mining, underground mining and in situ leaching (ISL), apart from “other variables of nuclear power generation, for in-depth LCA.” GHG emissions and natural resource use were then assessed for these variables.
Researchers found that the TMR coefficient (indicating extraction intensity) of enriched uranium fuel was the highest, followed by nuclear fuel, reprocessed uranium fuel, mixed oxide (MOX) fuel and finally yellow cake. The grade of uranium ore also had a huge impact on the TMR coefficient, which meant that the TMR varied greatly between different mining methods. In situ leaching had the lowest TMR. However, the extraction method had a greater impact on resource use compared to its impact on GHG emissions.
Discussing the impact of fuel cycles, Professor Eiji Yamasue says: “We have found that a closed cycle that reprocesses uranium fuel uses 26% fewer resources than an open cycle that does not reuse its by-products.
In addition, it was found that the use of natural resources 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 the RMR of nuclear power generation showed very different trends. In addition to reducing GHG emissions, nuclear power generation also used fewer natural resources, making it an environmentally friendly source of electricity generation.
“Maintaining a circular economy, even for resource use, is important. Our results can help policymakers formulate long-term energy policies that take into account electricity and power generation at the help of nuclear energy”, concludes Dr Kosai.
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