Walking lightly on the planet: a comparison of uranium and gasoline

In my last post, I talked about the ease with which nuclear power generators manage the “waste” from their operation. Each of the 18 nuclear reactors in Ontario discharges 10 to 16 fuel bundles every day. Those bundles initially go into a big pool of water, which safely removes their decay heat; they’re in so-called wet storage for about a decade. Then they go into dry storage. I and my colleagues in the photo are standing in the Darlington dry storage facility. Each cask represents the “waste” of about four days of the plant’s net electrical output.

Darlington dry cask storage facility, December 10 2014. Each of the big white containers in the background holds nearly 400 radioactive fuel bundles. But the casks provide such good shielding that each of the humans standing in the foreground is probably receiving a bigger radiation dose from the radioactive potassium atoms disintegrating by the thousands every second in their own and others’ bodies.

Darlington dry cask storage facility, December 10 2014. Each of the big white containers in the background holds nearly 400 radioactive fuel bundles. But the casks provide such good shielding that each of the humans standing in the foreground is probably receiving a bigger radiation dose from the radioactive potassium atoms disintegrating by the thousands every second in their own and others’ bodies.

The Darlington plant is rated at about 3400 megawatts. Over four days at full output, it puts over 326 million kilowatt-hours of electrical energy into Ontario’s grid.

If gas-fired plants produced 326 million kWh, they would dump over 179,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse pollutant, into the atmosphere. If the owners of gas-fired plants managed their waste like the owners of nuclear plants do, they would capture the stuff before dumping it irretrievably into our air, Then they would store it somewhere where it couldn’t leak into the air. And if they did that, they would need a storage facility 61 times the size of Rogers Centre, home of the Toronto Blue Jays, to hold the waste produced from generating 326 million kWh.

Rogers Centre, from the inside with the roof closed. You are looking at 1.6 million cubic meters of volume, enough to hold 2,877 metric tons of CO2 at 25° C and one atmosphere pressure.

Rogers Centre, from the inside with the roof closed. You are looking at 1.6 million cubic meters of indoor volume, enough to hold 2,877 metric tons of CO2 at 25° C and one atmosphere pressure. Gas plants in Ontario dump enough CO2 into the air to fill this place many times every day.

Is such a storage scenario physically possible, let alone economically viable? Of course it is not. That is why gas-fired power plants dump their waste for free into our planet’s atmosphere.

By contrast, the cost involved in putting the 384 fuel bundles into each the Darlington storage casks shown above, have already been paid—by Ontario electricity rate payers. They paid for the management of the used fuel, including the casks and warehouse you see in the photo above, through the low nuclear electricity rate. This rate is about half the rate paid to wind turbine owners and also much lower than the rate paid to owners of most gas plants (who pay nothing to manage the millions of tons of their waste, because once it has gone up the smokestack and into our air they don’t manage it at all).

And that is the back end of the fuel cycle. What about the front end? The snowy photo below shows one of the facilities involved in making the fuel for nuclear reactors. This particular place makes the fuel pellets in most of Ontario’s nuclear reactors. It used to make the pellets for all of them. This plant is located at Lansdowne and Davenport in Toronto, and occupies less than a city block.

Other facilities involved in making Ontario’s nuclear fuel are Cameco’s Blind River (11 hectares) and Port Hope (55 hectares) refining and conversion plants.

These three facilities occupy a total of 66.5 hectares, I should add that the Blind River and Port Hope facilities produce uranium products used in many other reactors around the world, not just Ontario.

But sticking just with Ontario: the nuclear plants in Ontario put about 80 billion kWh of electrical energy into the grid each year.

The building on the other side of the street makes the fuel pellets for  most of the nuclear reactors that power Ontario, and is capable of making pellets for all of them. It does not occupy even one city block.

The building on the other side of the street is General Electric-Hitachi’s Toronto fuel pellet plant. It makes the fuel pellets for most of the nuclear reactors that power Ontario, and prior to Bruce Power made pellets for all of them. It does not occupy even one city block.

Now, here is Canada’s biggest oil refinery, the Irving facility in New Brunswick. It makes 300,000 barrels of refined petroleum products per day. Each barrel holds 159.9 litres, so the plant’s output is roughly 47.97 million litres per day, or 17.5 billion litres per year. Let’s say that all those 300,000 barrels were gasoline. A litre of gasoline contains 8.9 kWh of energy. The Irving refinery, if it were making only gasoline, would be making 155.8 billion kWh of total energy. But factoring in the thermodynamic efficiency of gasoline engines, which I’ll charitably put at 20 percent, that refinery turns out about 31.1 billion kWh that is actually used (the other 124.6 billion kWh are lost to the environment as heat and noise).

Canada’s biggest oil refinery, the Irving facility in New Brunswick.

Canada’s biggest oil refinery, the Irving facility in New Brunswick. It occupies 315 hectares—over 485 city blocks.

Which is to say, the Irving Refinery occupies nearly five times the real estate as all of Ontario’s uranium processing plants and produces just over one-third of the usable energy that these plants produce for their Ontario customers. They have many other customers around the world, who make much more than 80 billion kWh of electrical energy per year. Some day I’ll get around to quantifying the energy they make.

The 300,000 barrels of gasoline per day from the Irving plant would work out to roughly 17.5 billion litres. Each of those would turn into 2.3 kilograms of CO2 when run through a car engine, so 17.5 billion litres would turn into over 40 million metric tons of CO2 per year.

Versus zero tons of CO2 from all the nuclear energy produced by the generators that run on the uranium fuel from the three Ontario plants.

The uranium fuel cycle: tiny at the front end, tiny at the operating stage, tiny at the back end.

If simple common sense prevailed on this planet, uranium would be providing ALL our energy.

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5 years ago

This leaves a number of unaddressed questions.

1.  Assuming that the cloud services are cheaper than Canadian (or self) hosting, why?  Fewer personnel required per unit of services?

2.  Has Ontario thought about trying to lure server farms using emission-free nuclear power as a sales tool?  More to the point, does the bandwidth exist to allow such a relocation of servers?

Things to ponder.

5 years ago

I just realized that I mis-posted my comment above; it should have gone in the next post, not this one.

I’ve driven over 700 miles since the 28th of November, and burned just under 3.6 gallons of fuel.  The bulk of my mileage has been powered by electricity.  If that electricity was generated by carbon-free sources like nuclear and hydro, my vehicular CO2 emissions for the last month would have been on the order of 70 pounds.

I could easily grow enough wood to sequester 70 pounds of CO2; it comes to less than 20 pounds of carbon.