Nuclear fission qualifies as “ultra low carbon” power; natural gas does not

In the power system marketing wars, both nuclear fission and natural gas are currently labeled as “low carbon” sources of electricity. Even though nuclear fission reactors can be clean enough to run inside sealed submarines, the forces who oppose nuclear energy insist that there is enough CO2 produced in the fuel cycle and in the plant construction processes to prevent the use of the term “zero carbon” in any marketing literature.

They are so adamant that they go to the Better Business Bureau with a false advertising claim if they see any hint that the nuclear industry is attempting to attract support by touting its incredibly low carbon emissions. The industry has not fought back very hard and has adopted the suggested term of “low carbon.”

In a flash of brilliance enabled by my fourth night in a row of waking myself up in a fit of allergy-induced coughing, I decided that it is time to take a page from the American Petroleum Institute (API). Nuclear advocates should develop a branding standard for CO2 that is almost exactly analogous to the standard set for sulfur content of diesel fuel. (We might be joined here by wind and solar proponents, since their systems may also qualify.)

According to the API standard, diesel fuel that contains less than 500 parts of sulfur per million parts of fuel qualifies as “low sulfur” and qualifies for many off road uses. As of 2007, however, the vehicle fuel supply system was required to adjust to a new, much tighter standard. Diesel fuel designed for road use is now required to contain no more than 15 ppm sulfur. All automobiles sold after 2007 have been required to be designed with additional emission control systems that do not work reliably using fuel with any higher than 15 ppm sulfur.

Like the excellent marketers they are, the API has turned a regulatory requirement into a sales pitch and into increased revenue. Not only do fuel suppliers now tout their “ultra low sulfur diesel”, but they have also permanently increased the price of diesel fuel so that it is now in the same range as premium gasoline instead of selling for a bit less than regular gasoline for 9 months out of the year.

Aside: Before the introduction of ultra low sulfur diesel fuel, diesel prices followed a different pattern than gasoline, at least in the mid Atlantic region of the United States. Diesel fuel tended to hit a seasonal high point in late fall to early winter because of the effect of filling heating oil fuel tanks. (Diesel and heating oil are chemically interchangeable, but legally separate so that highway taxes can be assessed on one and not on the other.)

During the spring and throughout “the summer driving season” diesel fuel would be priced at about 10% less than the price of regular gasoline. After ULSD was introduced, diesel prices have remained stubbornly in a range near or above the price of premium gasoline.

Some new readers might wonder how I know so much about the diesel fuel market. I’ve been tuned into diesel fuel prices and trends since purchasing my first VW Jetta TDI in May 2001. I clearly remember the buying experience; I had been driving a 1991 Ford Aerostar (extended version) with four wheel drive. That tan mini van carried some terrific memories of family vacations and was a very comfortable ride for 7 full sized people with luggage. However, it burned a gallon of gas for every 15-18 miles. When I received orders that changed my work location from 4 miles from home to 44 miles from home, I knew I needed a new ride.

According to the US military permanent change of station rules, any transfer of less than 50 miles is not eligible for a paid move. My choice was to remain in place and commute or spend thousands of dollars out of my own pocket to move from Annapolis to someplace closer to the Washington Navy Yard. I loved living in Annapolis; I had lots of friends and excellent access to necessary amenities of life (water and boats.)

That was the impetus for me to go car shopping. When I explained my commuting situation to the salesman, he asked me – in a heavy German accent – if I would consider a diesel powered car. He said that he had some vehicles on the lot that were rated for 45 miles per gallon, but they could achieve better than 50 miles per gallon on the highway.

He told me that diesel engines were very popular in Europe, but he was having trouble moving them in the United States. At the time, diesel fuel was about 5-10 cents per gallon cheaper than regular unleaded. Both fuels were selling for close to $1 per gallon in May of 2001. After an extensive test drive, I was sold – perhaps a better word would be “hooked”.

I recently bought my third Jetta TDI in a row; the second one lasted from 2002 through 2012 and provided me with 222,222 reliable miles. At about the mid-point of ownership, the US transitioned from low sulfur diesel (defined to be less than 500 parts per million sulfur) to ultra low sulfur diesel, defined as less than 15 parts per million sulfur. That fuel is sometimes abbreviated as ULSD among insiders, but NEVER abbreviated by the markers who like reminding people how “ultra” clean the fuel is.

It is clean, and I feel less guilty about contributing to SOx concentrations, but I do wish that the petroleum companies could figure out how to put some of the energy density back into the fuel. The process of getting rid of the sulfur apparently reduced the energy in each gallon by just under 10%; my average milage dropped from 48 to 44 miles per gallon. End Aside.

Anyway, enough personal digression. The point is that it is deceptive to call both natural gas, which produces a minimum of 400 grams of CO2 for every kilowatt hour of electricity, and nuclear which has life cycle CO2 emissions of about 17 grams per kilowatt hour “low carbon”. If the natural gas industry wants to claim the “low carbon” label, there is not much that the nuclear industry can do, but we can establish a new standard and a new brand.

My proposal: Any electricity source that can prove that its lifecycle emissions are less than 20 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour should be able to claim that it is “ultra low carbon” electricity. The exact limit for the brand can be negotiated, but the point is that an order of magnitude difference in CO2 emissions must be used as a positive marketing message.

Establishing the “ultra low carbon” brand for nuclear just might help people understand one of the reasons that it might cost a little more for premium electricity than it does to buy electricity produced by burning inferior, dirtier fuel sources.

About Rod Adams

19 Responses to “Nuclear fission qualifies as “ultra low carbon” power; natural gas does not”

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  1. Well, it’s a fine idea if that’s all the industry is willing to do. But most serious analyses show that nuclear emissions are on par with technologies such as solar photovoltaic and biomass. (And that’s for once-through reactors, not breeders, which can be more efficient.) As long as those technologies are labeled zero carbon, then nuclear should too. Here’s the most recent meta analysis I have found:

    Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Electricity Generation

  2. Daniel says:

    From Rod:

    Diesel and heating oil are chemically interchangeable, but legally separate so that highway taxes can be assessed on one and not on the other.

    Here in Canada, they have different color so that it can be easy for an inspector to tell them apart. I would assume the same stratagem is used in the US.

  3. Rod, I’m writing a book, and learning.

    In March 2012 the US EPA proposed limits of 454 g/kWh for CO2 emissions from new fossil fuel power plants. One implication is that coal and OCGT power plants would be prohibited, so wind power backup would only be possible from CCGT natural gas power plants, although they are not able to change power levels rapidly.

    Grams of CO2 emissions per kWh of generated electric power

    Coal, conventional 1200
    Coal, advanced 900
    Natural gas, CCGT 333
    Natural gas, OCGT 700
    Wind + 70% OCGT backup 490
    Wind + 70% CCGT backup 233

  4. DV82XL says:

    I second the idea of clean branding for energy.

  5. john tucker says:

    As much as “renewables” have been floated in the media as the solution Japan is turning to in the ill advised rush to replace nuclear power, behind the scenes they have selected NG and are making long term commitments to it.

    Hope for Natural Gas Pipeline Shifts From Juneau to Japan

    On Monday night, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. During that dinner, held by the State Department in Washington, D.C., Murkowski talked with Noda about a key concern of his: electrical power for Japan.

    Murkowski has not only met with Noda, but also met last week with members of Japan’s ruling body

    If President Obama can help reach an agreement with Japan to buy 4 billion cubic feet of natural gas from the United States annually for the next 30 years, a big component of a long-awaited gas line may fall into place (,0,7362689.story )

    Its not just Alaska gas they are interested in either:

    Noda, Obama back talks on U.S. shale gas exports to Japan

    A U.S. decision on a waiver for Japan could be made this year. If approval is given, exports to Japan could begin sometime after 2015, once facilities to process the shale gas are completed.
    In January, LNG accounted for 47 percent of Japan’s overall power generation, up from 38 percent in April 2011.
    ( )

    • DV82XL says:

      This morning on the car radio I caught part of an interview with a local Green. This person stated that the glut of natural gas in North America is such that no more can be absorbed by the system and producers are shortly going to be forced to flare-off excess flow at certain wells to protect the equipment. I did not get to here the whole thing and given the source I was tempted to put it down to the usual exaggeration that sometimes comes from that quarter. However I have found that in some cases when a well could not deliver gas to the network for some reason, flaring has occurred for the reason stated.

      What I can’t seem to find is any reports that this is, or is about to happen, system wide now or in the near future. Has anyone heard or seen anything to this effect recently?

      • john tucker says:

        Just sitting on the north slope (no fracking needed), pipeline fast tracked and being built as we speak:

        The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently completed a new assessment of


        oil and gas resources of the central part of the Alaska North Slope and the adjacent offshore area. Using a geology-based assessment methodology, the USGS estimates that there are undiscovered, technically recoverable mean resources of 4.0 billion barrels of oil, 37.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 478 million barrels of natural gas liquids. ( )


        35.4 trillion cubic feet of AD gas reserves


        on the Central North Slope in conjunction with existing oil fields, 93 percent is located in four fields: Prudhoe Bay (23 trillion cubic feet), Point Thomson (8 trillion cubic feet), Lisburne (1 trillion cubic feet), and Kuparak (1 trillion cubic feet) ( )

        • Rod Adams says:

          The depressing thing about all of the excitement over petroleum discoveries is that existing resources have production profiles that are falling by about 4 million barrels of oil per day each year.

          That means that essentially all of the newly announced resources are needed simply to stop daily production from falling year over year. It does not leave any room for growth in demand as heavily populated countries like China, India and Brazil grow their economies.

          The world needs an ever increasing rate of production in order to enable more and more people to enjoy the standard of living that Americans and Europeans already enjoy. Though we will never replace oil in all applications, we need to tap increasing quantities of fission to supply those parts of the oil consumption pie that are not locked in to oil. There is no reason to burn oil to power ships, no reason to use oil in power generation, no reason to use oil for large scale process heat, and no reason to use oil for home heating.

  6. seth says:

    Actually nukes could be considered zero carbon if enrichment plants used contracted for electric power from Hydro or nuke power companies.

    • Joel Riddle says:

      The construction effort of plants still has some carbon emissions, utilizing the means available today of powering heavy equipment (and lighter equipment) and of producing the significant amounts of concrete that a nuclear power plant contains.

  7. john tucker says:

    To add more climate injury to the insult:

    Russia’s Gazprom mulls gas pipeline, LNG supply boost to Japan

    Representatives of Gazprom and the Japanese parliament discussed gas cooperation at a meeting held Thursday, a Gazprom statement said.

    “The parties discussed opportunities for a project to supply pipeline gas from Russia to Japan,” the statement said.( )

    To put it nicely: the “environmental” anti-nuke greens have to be the most inept, gullible and ignorant environmental movement ever.

    • George Carty says:

      Anti-nuclear protesters in Europe and Japan are traitors selling out their countries to the Russians.

      • Joris van Dorp says:

        I made that pronouncement during lunchbreak with colleagues (we work for a large, independent engineering consultancy firm). You should have seen some of their faces, even though they are used to the cognitive dissonance inducing statements I like to produce now and then. 🙂

  8. john tucker says:

    And regarding safety look through this when you get a chance. ESP the NG and LNG accidents.

    List of pipeline accidents ( )

    this site is kinda funny ( )

    This is the catastrophic earthquake zone alternative to the technology that didn’t result in one causality? Just absurd.

  9. SteveK9 says:

    Do the estimates of CO2 emissions for gas include the building of pipelines and other infrastructure, as is done for nuclear and wind?

    • Rod Adams says:

      As far as I know, most of the estimates for CO2 emissions for fossil fuels are just at the stack; they are not lifecycle emissions computations that include the enormous amount of energy used in moving and processing 6 billion tons of coal, 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 29 billion barrels of oil that is extracted and consumed each year. Much of that material ends up traveling thousands of miles before it reaches its destination. Fortunately, a portion of that shipping is on energy efficient ships, but a good bit is via less efficient transportation methods.