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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.