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Plutonium or greenhouse gases? Weighing the energy options

Can nuclear energy save us from global warming? Perhaps, but the tradeoffs involved are sobering: thousands of metric tons of nuclear waste generated each year and a greatly increased risk of nuclear weapons proliferation or diversion of nuclear material into terrorists' hands.

So concludes University of Michigan professor Rodney Ewing, who has analyzed just how much nuclear power would need to be produced to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and the implications of the associated increase in nuclear power plants. Ewing will present his findings Oct. 23 as the Michel T. Halbouty Distinguished Lecturer at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Philadelphia.

"Usually when people talk about nuclear power as a solution for global warming, the issues of nuclear waste and weapons proliferation are footnotes in the discussion," said Ewing, who is the Donald R. Peacor Collegiate Professor and Chair in the U-M Department of Geological Sciences and also has faculty appointments in the departments of Nuclear Engineering & Radiological Sciences and Materials Science & Engineering. "I think we have to find a way to consider the complete picture when choosing among energy sources."

In an effort to capture that complete picture, Ewing compared carbon-based fossil fuels with nuclear power, considering not only the technologies involved but also the environmental impacts. Similar comparisons have been made between different energy-producing systems, "but in the case of nuclear power, such an analysis is difficult because there are different types of nuclear reactors and there is not a single nuclear fuel cycle, but rather many variants, with different strategies for reprocessing and disposing of nuclear wastes," Ewing said.

His presentation, which considers various fuel cycles, shows that nuclear power generation would need to increase by a factor of three to ten over current levels to have a signi
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Source:University of Michigan


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