Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Only 85 years of Uranium Supplies?


Agence France-Presse reports that a British think tank opposed what it said were draft plans by the Group of Eight (G8) industrial nations to expand the use of atomic energy as a way to fight global warming.

Issuing its report before next week's G8 summit in Scotland, the New Economics Foundation on Wednesday said atomic power was an uneconomical and inefficient way to deal with climate change and would increase the risks from terrorists.

Andrew Simms, author of the report, "Mirage and Oasis," told AFP that atomic power would be too costly and too slow to develop in time to deal with the urgency of reducing the carbon emissions that cause global warming.

Simms, the foundation's policy director, said the supply of uranium needed to fuel atomic plants was too limited and would be exhausted in 85 years based on current industry estimates of availability and the existing rate of use.

"If you suddenly dramatically scaled up in a very short period of time, you'd also, a little bit like oil, you'd very quickly run into natural resource limits," he said.

In addition, increased use of atomic power would present greater risks to the problem of weapons proliferation and greater exposure to possible attacks by terrorists, the report warned.

"The more plants you have the greater the vulnerability (to attack) you have. There's no doubt about that," he said.

Instead, the report said, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal power could, in theory, each individually meet all of the world's energy needs, without warming the world's climate.

It leaves no toxic legacy and is abundant and cheap to harvest both in Britain and around the world.

Practically, however, it would require a broader combination of renewable energy sources than is currently used, linked to a range of micro, small, medium and large scale technologies and applied flexibly.

"If just around one third of the UK's electricty customers installed 2KW microgen photovoltaic (solar) or wind systems it would match the capacity of the UK atomic programme."

Better still, it said, small scale renewable power technologies could provide energy supplies for millions of people who currently lack basics such as lighting or the ability to cook without inhaling indoor smoke.

The foundation said early drafts of communiques intended for the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland on July 6-8 suggest a new international push to expand atomic power, the report said.

Simms said his foundation obtained the latest draft last week, without saying exactly how it was obtained.

In a statement on the foundation website, Simms said: "Without sustainable, reliable supplies of energy, the world faces a future in which climate change and fuel shortages will combine with catastrophic results.

"The poorest and most vulnerable will suffer the worst. But a resurgence of interest in nuclear power, justified by voodoo economics, stands to hinder and potentially derail renewable energy.

"As people gather for a G8 summit that holds the financial keys to our future energy choices, it has become clear that you cannot make poverty history, without stopping runaway climate change. And that making energy sustainable is the surest way to do both."

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Blogger Steve said...

I disagree with these people.

I dislike the way nuclear energy is set up as the straw man that nuclear energy will cure global warming. It won't, and any sane person knows nuclear energy won't cure global warming. No, the reason to advance nuclear is for the energy, an insufficient amount of which is increasingly dangerous as something to war over. That it'll help a bit on the climate front is almost incidental.

I dislike the way they say things like, If only 1/3 of households installed solar panels they'd equal today's nuclear capacity. No, it won't, because the sun doesn't shine at night and they have not stated the need to store energy and the cost of doing so. You get somewhere around 5 hours worth of rated capacity per 24 hour day from solar cells (give or take depending on location, mounting and so on). Where do the other 19 hours worth of this capacity come from?

I also dislike the way they ignore fuel reprocessing and advanced fuel cycles. Here is Dr. Charles Till's Frontline interview.

Weapons grade materials are best made in purpose-built reactors. Modern reactors and fuel cycles can disallow the possibility. Sure you can theoretically make a dirty dynamite bomb out of the stuff, but you can go to a hospital or various other places to steal what you need for that purpose.

The terrorism argument does not sway me. Lots of things need protection from terrorists. Sure you have to consider it, but it's almost a red herring from a nuclear policy perspective. I fear insufficient energy more than I fear terrorists.

The proper energy portfolio for a modern society includes elements to meet the base load, which intermittent renewables do not. I think modern nuclear energy has a necessary role to play, and I think anti-nuke people are mistaken.

If you want to elevate the chances of society making it gracefully through oil depletion, promote modern nuclear energy.

That's my take on it anyway, because I don't want my kid to have to live in conditions that seem sure to materialize if there is insufficient energy for his society.

Energy is key. Thanks for reading. Steve

6:05 pm, June 29, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everytime I hear Bush mention "nucular energy" it makes me cringe. Anyone who has taken an introductory environmental science course knows that nuclear energy is not going to solve our problems and creates a ton of toxic waste. I agree with your comments--we need to concentrate on renewable energy sources and helping individuals outfit their homes to make their own power (or at least a portion of it).

8:20 pm, June 29, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kiss nuclear goodbye. Too expensive, too dangerous. Keep the existing plants going for now until the new baseload kicks in.

11:24 am, June 30, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What new baseload?

8:38 pm, June 30, 2005  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

I think Anonymous #2's implied criticism of Anonymous #1 is right; the only carbon-neutral baseload we're going to see outside of geothermal hot-spots is nuclear.

I think Steve has it 90% right, but I think I found a quirk that makes nuclear go carbon-negative:  take the zinc-cycle thermochemical energy system, supply the carbon feed from biomass or solid waste, and drive it with nuclear process heat (see the updates).  If the off-gas is sequestered, the process removes net carbon from the atmosphere.

10:13 pm, June 30, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The new base load:

Solar, Wind, Wave and Hydro

12:18 pm, July 01, 2005  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

There is no wave away from sea coasts, and sometimes not there.

There is no room for more hydro dams; they do enough damage that there is pressure to remove the ones that exist.

Wind and solar are not sufficient; there are a lot of calm nights.

3:09 pm, July 01, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The annual electricity-consumption of the United States is about 3,479 billion kWhr. PYRON solar power plants can produce this amount on 7,731 km2 (87.92 km x 87.92 km or 54.64 mi x 54.64 mi) at a yearly solar radiation of 2790 kWhr/m2

350 times less land than required by agriculture. Does this sound far-fetched?

6:52 pm, July 01, 2005  
Blogger Steve said...

> 350 times less land than required
> by agriculture. Does this sound
> far-fetched?

Yes, it does. Frequently things that are theoretical possibilities remain far-fetched.

I wish these people all the success in the world. I wish, too, that I had emphasized in my first comment above that I support any scheme that'll yield substantial net energy. I hope my first comment didn't imply that my support for nuclear energy comes at the expense of other good possibilities.

My problem with anti-"nucular" sentiment is that it implies a diminution in diversity of sources and a denigration of the only relatively clean industrial scale base load energy source that there is.

The problem remains that, no matter how good Pyron's stuff may be, the sun still doesn't shine at night.

Energy diversity is key. Insufficient clean, economical base load capacity will be very damaging.

6:36 am, July 02, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem remains that, no matter how good Pyron's stuff may be, the sun still doesn't shine at night.

And the wind doesn't blow at night and there's no way of storing excess energy for nightime use.

How many plants in the U.S. can be built in the next 15 years? 30?

Setting aside the intractable problems of waste what happens to decommissioned plants? Don't they just sit there for 500 years hoping no-one gets near them?

Why can't people see past the tremendous heat these things produce?

The bottom line is that hardly anyone wants to put at risk the behemoth amounts of capital it will take to drive the nuclear cycle - capital that can much better applied to localized, distributed, right-sized, renewable solutions like pyron solar plants, windfarms and the zinc-cycle reactors that E-P has blogged about.

9:18 am, July 02, 2005  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

If you want an answer from me, log in.

9:49 am, July 02, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

E-P please don't take my remarks the wrong way. I'm not trolling.

I really respect what you do on your blog and I want to hear your response. If you don't want deal with me here because I prefer to remain anonymous then please post something on your blog or point me to something you may have already written.

Please make me a believer in nuclear. I'm open to it.

1:44 pm, July 02, 2005  
Blogger Steve said...

> Why can't people see ... ?

Because a lot of it is over our heads. The best I can do is try to assign probabilities to the alternatives I see and live with the uncertainty. Anyone who thinks s/he knows is overly self-assured, I think.

> And the wind doesn't blow at
> night and there's no way of
> storing excess energy for
> nightime use.

Yeah, for now. Maybe that'll change, but I spent a lot of time and energy a few years ago trying to make the case for small scale pumpback hydro energy storage. It didn't seem to work out unless there was a differential factor of at least 3 between off-peak and peak energy prices. Energy storage on an industrial scale didn't seem to cut it. I've spent time enamored of flywheels, but ptht. Maybe something will change, but I think it's unwise to count on developments in energy storage rendering intermittent renewables dispatchable.

> How many plants in the U.S.
> can be built in the next 15
> years? 30?

That's about what the Chinese are planning. We ought to be thinking along those lines here in the US, too. The Blair government seems to be reaching a conclusion that nuclear energy is necessary, too. The French have had it right all along.

> Setting aside the intractable
> problems of waste what happens
> to decommissioned plants?
> Don't they just sit there for
> 500 years hoping no-one gets
> near them?

Nuclear waste is a politically intractable problem; I think its intractability will turn out to be inversely proportional to energy prices. I'm afraid the anti-nuke stance will be overwhelmed as energy prices come to reflect increasing scarcity. My concern is that by then we'll have lost much of the benefit of early action.

Expired nuclear plants don't just sit there for 500 years, as carbon in the atmosphere does for much longer. They get decommissioned after a number of decades.

7:09 pm, July 02, 2005  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

A number of nuclear plants have already been decommissioned; this report claims 90 commercial power reactors have been decommissioned so far.  The reactor vessels are just slightly radioactive and are treated as low-level waste.

The only reason that fuel is sitting in dry casks outside plants instead of in a permanent disposal site is because of political opposition to nuclear power itself (the anti's have been trying to shut down the plants by stonewalling the disposal of fuel, hoping they'd have to stop when their cooling pools filled up - it didn't work).  Once the political opposition stops, the problem will be "miraculously" solved.

9:42 pm, July 02, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Steve and E-P:

However, you have not tackled the capital and finance problems of the nuclear cycle.

If these things are so great and relatively safe why isn't anyone in the U.S. ordering them?

Why do operators need federal help for insurance?

Is there any true reward for operators considering the capital risk? What will motivate them to build 30 of these in the next 15 years?

If you put 30 of these on the grid, is there enough transmission capacity to handle the output? If not how much will that cost?

Are some of these 30 just replacements for soon to be decommisioned coal or older nuke plants?

Thanks again.

12:33 am, July 03, 2005  
Blogger Steve said...

> However, you have not tackled
> the capital and finance problems
> of the nuclear cycle.

I think it has to do (in the United States) with the effect of regulatory delays and change orders after design, and the impact it has on the cost of interest, which is capitalized. If plants were allowed to be constructed and operated as designed and licensed then, I think, the capital cost would go down significantly.

> If these things are so great and
> relatively safe why isn't anyone
> in the U.S. ordering them?

Seems the French, Japanese and Chinese know how to deal with the capitalization issue. I'm sure we'll see some orders soon in the US and UK, too. This day could come sooner if the fossil industry were forced to pay for their trashing of the atmosphere.

> Why do operators need federal
> help for insurance?

As I understand it, this insurance is fully funded by the industry, and the governmental help is in an enabling role, not financial.

As for the adequacy of the infrastructure to transmit the energy of new nuke plants, all I can say is that our infrastructure is already inadequate and that there is no way it can deal with a 50% incease in demand over the next 20 years or so.

What bothers me the most is the sheer amount of new generation that'll have to come on line to keep things on track due to load growth and replacement of aging infrastructure. It can't and shouldn't all be nuke, but without nuclear energy the odds of making it to the other side of oil depletion in a halfway graceful fashion are greatly diminished.

8:33 am, July 03, 2005  
Blogger Steve said...

Sorry, I should have added that I know we don't generate much electricity with oil in the United States, but that the depletion of oil has serious implications for all sectors of the economy, including electricity. That's my sense of it, anyway.

8:37 am, July 03, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Steve.

I do see and don't have much objection to additional nuclear capacity coming on line to supplant NG and dirty coal. We'll definitely need more electricity - it's the only hope for kicking the petroleum out of the transport sector.

I've just discovered the neat things Ovonics is doing with its metal-hydride fuel cell and hydrogen storage technology. Makes me a believer once more in the hydrogen cycle!

What do you all think?

10:58 am, July 03, 2005  
Blogger James said...


I've yet to make up my mind on nuclear. I'm neither pro- nor anti- but I am somewhat sceptical.

Thanks for posting the link of the interview with Charles Till.

I agree if we are going to have nuclear then we should be reprocessing the fuel in breeder reactors rather than dumping most of its energy value.

The question I have is if breeder reactors show so much potential why, to the best of my knowledge, are no countries actively developing them. This includes Japan, China, South Korea and France all of which have active atomic power programs.

Alternative Energy Blog

11:50 am, July 04, 2005  
Blogger Steve said...

My pleasure on the Till interview. Then there's also John McCarthy's John McCarthy's nuclear faq page. He's an artificial intelligence guru at Stanford University, but his human sustainability pages are a good antidote for when I get too discouraged.

> The question I have is if breeder
> reactors show so much potential why,
> to the best of my knowledge, are no
> countries actively developing them.

My only short-term interested in breeder reactors stems from the fact that they put to rest the mistaken notion that nuclear fuel will deplete like oil.

In the longer term I'd like to see conditions that would facilitate what Till described, but it seems a political impossibility for now. If I were dictator of the world I might put a huge tax on new uranium and forbid the dumping of long-lived nuclear waste. We'd have a meaningful carbon tax, too.

Since there's not much likelihood of any of that, I think the best we can hope for is acceptance of the current state of nuclear art (which doesn't seem too shabby to me).

"Perfect is the enemy of good enough."

5:02 pm, July 04, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Russia has a breeder reactor in the Urals, another one near the Caspian Sea (in Kazakhstan) and is planning another one to start operating in the 2010s. Japan has another breeder reactor, but it had a (nonradioactive) sodium leak and had to be shut down - but it will be restarted in 2008. India is building thorium-based breeders.

Breeder reactors are harder to actively control than light-water reactors, and while you cannot build a Nagasaki-size bomb from reactor plutonium, you can still make something 100 times as powerful as the rental truck that brought down the Federal building in Oklahoma City.

5:28 pm, July 21, 2005  

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