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Nuclear energy isn't the answer to global warming

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While nuclear energy has no direct carbon footprint, it is still a contributor to global warming; we know this, because Einstein tells us so. Guy Lane explains.

Cooling towers at a nuclear power. Nuclear energy produces vast amounts of heat that contributes to global warming.
Cooling towers at a nuclear power plant. Nuclear energy produces vast amounts of heat, contributing to global warming. (image courtesy britannica.com)


ONE OF THE CLAIMS made by proponents of nuclear power is that it doesn't contribute to global warming, because greenhouse gases aren't emitted in the process. Whilst this is technically true, the claim is disingenuous.

Splitting the atom releases no greenhouse gases, it nonetheless releases heat in vast amounts. Heat, whether released by fire or from the energy absorbed by the CO2 in the smoke, has the same effect in the atmosphere.

To understand how much heat is created by nuclear energy production, you need to consider Albert Einstein’s famous equation of mass-energy equivalence: E=mc2.

Hitoshi Murayama, explained the theory in a lecture he did as part of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Summer Lecture Series.



This is an equation at the heart of quantum physics — the physics of things on the scale of things smaller than atoms. By comparison to normal physics, quantum physics is like Wonderland with a double dose of opium and a dash of LSD.

For example, consider leverage.

In normal physics land, the power output of a wind turbine is proportional to the cube of the wind speed, which means that if you double the speed of the wind you get eight times as much power.

Let's call that leveraging mass to energy by 800 per cent. Not bad, huh?

Pah! Bring on Wonderland!

Let’s see what leveraging looks like in the quantum world with the mass-energy equivalence formulae E=mc2.

Energy and matter are different forms of the same thing; they are interchangeable. Einstein’s famous equation describes the numerical relationship between the two. Specifically, E=mc2 says the amount of energy inside matter is equal to the mass multiplied by ‘c2’ — the speed of light squared.

The speed of light is so bloody fast and this means there is a colossal amount of energy inside matter.

Einstein just did the mathematics behind the physics. Other people decided to use the information to build bombs and poison the planet with radioactive waste. (image courtesy wikipedia.org)
Einstein just did the mathematics behind the physics. (Image courtesy Wikipedia.org)


Consider the equation using the following units:

E = energy measured in joules
M = mass measured in kilograms
C = the speed of light  measured in metres per second
2 = squared

The speed of light is 299,792,458 metres per second (rounded to 300,000,000).

Consider the following example:

The energy in 1 kilogram of mass = 1 x 300,000,000 x 300,000,000 = 90,000,000,000,000,000 joules.

This is 90 quadrillion joules, which is equivalent to 25 million megawatt hours.

Put another way, the energy in 1 kilogram of material is equivalent to 1,400 wind turbines running at full speed and each producing 2MW day in, day out for a year.

To the lazy eye, this is prima facie evidence that we should stop mucking around building all those wind mills when the same amount of energy can be obtained from something that would fit into a sugar bag. However, dig a tiny bit deeper and you will see why we should ditch all but medical applications of nuclear energy immediately in preference to wind, solar and other renewables.

I say this not because nuclear power lives in a sick and twisted relationship with radioactive waste, atomic weapons, nuclear terrorism, industrial accidents, dirty bombs, uranium mining pollution, the hyper-power of the mining elite, or depleted uranium used in battlefield weapons — not to mention the horrible cancers and illness they cause.

The W53 nuclear bomb has a yield of 9 megatons or nine million tons of TNT. Put this into context, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was a puny 15 kilotons or fifteen thousand tons. (image courtesy  dawn.com)
The W53 nuclear bomb has a yield of nine million tonnes of TNT. (image courtesy dawn.com)


Instead, I say we should eschew nuclear energy because of another physics reason — heat.

The second law of thermodynamics, the entropy law, says that all energy degrades into heat; so when it says above ‘converting matter into energy’ think converting matter into heat.

Where does all that heat from the nuclear power stations go?

It goes into the environment – into the air and into the rivers and seas – and contributes to warming the planet; global warming.

And this the big difference between nuclear and renewables: nuclear adds energy (heat) to our environment and therefore contributes to warming the planet.

Renewables convert energy that is already in the atmosphere and doesn't add to it.

So when you hear about a wind turbine or solar power station producing a gigawatt hour of electricity, you can be comfortable that that is not subsequently producing a gigawatt hour of heat that will contribute to frying our planet.

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