Nuclear ain’t so great

My recent post on petroleum madness attracted a very good segue comment leading to a discussion of nuclear power, so I decided to reproduce it and my response here. I plan to write much more extensively about nuclear power, about why it’s good whilst also being not so great, but for now here’s a short abstract of my stance on nuclear energy, and why. Stay tuned for a follow-up post on this, too.

Anyway, here’s John‘s comment, and then my response:

You sounded intelligent until the last statement of your post. We still need to drill because our country will need to transition not stop cold turkey. The real pillar has to be nuclear, with wind, tides and solar providing increasing power when they become more proven. But as you know your people are really against those as well.

Well, I never claimed to be the sharpest billiard ball in the rack… oh wait…

Actually I’m not anti-nuclear. I know that surprises my environmentalist friends (because I’m an environmentalist, too), but nuclear is a proven technology that provides a substantial energy product from a small package. In grad school I worked in a nuclear geochemistry lab, studying instrumental neutron activation analysis. I guess for that reason nuclear chemistry is very interesting to me, and through knowledge and familiarity I don’t fear it disproportionately. In fact if you take a look at my publication list, you’ll see a few uranium-research papers in there.

That said, although I’m not against nuclear, I think we can’t depend on it as a primary global energy solution. It comes down to two issues with me: supply and efficiency.

The supply of uranium is fairly stable, with nuclear fission being a minority energy player in a few nations today. I think we could use a bit more nuclear, but probably not too much more. Right now, only a handful of nations use a substantial amount of fission power in their energy mix. The demand for U is consistent, as a result. But if everyone in the world started using U for energy, or if the US went whole hog into a fission bender, I don’t think supply could meet demand for very long. There is probably enough ore U still in the ground to feed a minority nuclear share in world power for decades, maybe even a couple of centuries, but probably not much longer.

U isn’t sustainable, and it’s pretty finite. Fission destroys U atoms, and even breeder reactors aren’t perpetual motion machines, they’re just techniques to extend the supply slightly. Unless we start mining the planet Mercury, nuclear doesn’t have much of a long term future as a support to human civilization.

The other issue is efficiency… as in total cost including externalities, versus energy yield. Nuclear has a very high cost, including strip-mining, ore processing and enrichment, plant security, and most of all spent fuel storage. If you choose to reprocess, you get more bang per kg of U, but your costs soar, and you create plutonium – and every gram of Pu is conveniently bomb-ready, no isotopic enrichment required. Radioactive wastes are dangerous but manageable, yet any responsible management of such wastes is very expensive, for a long time. Factoring in all that, wind and solar become much more attractive from a cradle-to-grave utility/cost standpoint.

And don’t even get me started on fusion… 😉

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~ by Planetologist on October 19, 2008.

4 Responses to “Nuclear ain’t so great”

  1. Thanks for the comments! I appreciate the input. What I hope to show, as I put more words into this blog, is that reality is nearly always more strange and interesting than pseudoscience and superstition. Reality gives you high tech possibilities like the seawater thing.

    I hadn’t heard about the Japanese experiment. Do you have a link or a reference? I’d like to read more about that. I have to say I’m skeptical, though… people can also harvest gold from seawater, but it would cost more than the gold would be worth. The chemistry of doing something like that is feasible probably several different ways, but so far no one has come up with a method that is sufficiently cheap, even extrapolating to an economy of scale.

    The head of the nail here is cost. It’s always cost. How much would a U sea-harvesting business have to charge to make it pay? If it’s more than the market price of U per kg, it’s interesting but it’s not a business model. If, meanwhile, buying stock in wind turbines or solar PV pays a better dividend, and those sources can provide power that is cheaper per kilowatt (with externalities factored in), wind and solar will take over the energy market. It’s always about the economics, in the end.

  2. […] I’ve said here in a previous post, I’m not anti-nuclear, but I’m not outlandishly pro-nuclear, either. I want to be […]

  3. The Japanese prototype seawater-harvesting project has demonstrated that ample uranium exists in the world’s oceans to power the entire planet on sea-based uranium for at least a millennium.

    Yes, it is more expensive than mined or reprocessed uranium, but we are only just beginning the uranium era, and future demand will be great enough to warrant the expense.

    The millennium we get, ought to bridge us over to practical fusion methods long before the oceans’ supply is depleted.

    The only mistake would be to think that this is not going to happen. The alternative would be a massive human die-off in the long slide down from peak oil.

    Greeners are 100% blind to this coming age.

    Much education is required.

  4. @planetologist – I encourage your decision to write more about nuclear power, but I also encourage you to do more research at sites like the Uranium Information Center and Energy From Thorium.
    The world supply of uranium is far less limiting than you imply and the potential increase from breeding that you mention is off by about two orders of magnitude – more if you include thorium to uranium breeding as well as U-238 to plutonium breeding.
    We currently get about 2/3 of our fission heat from just 0.7% of the uranium that we mine – the U-235 portion of natural uranium. The other 1/3 comes from in reactor conversion of U-238 to Pu-239 and then fissioning of Pu-239.
    In addition to large deposits in many accessible locations around the world, we have nearly a million tons of U-238 already mined and in storage above ground in the US alone that could be converted to fuel in a breeding system – that would supply the same amount of energy as about 2 trillion tons of oil. (Fission is 2 million times as energy dense as combustion.)
    There are also far more obstacles than you imply associated with converting breeder reactor fuel into bomb making raw material; the isotopic mix is exceeding challenging, especially if the fuel has been in a reactor for a long period of time. Exposure to all of those neutrons creates several problematic actinides that interfere with putting together a weapon and many cannot be separated with anything short of the same kind of centrifuge as needed to enrich natural uranium. Natural U is easy to obtain and far easier to handle physically.
    Nuclear power has far more potential for growth than you imagine. Many of us who support the technology have run the numbers and feel very comfortable in stating that there really is no worry about running out of fission fuels for a few thousand years, even if we shift ALL of our energy use to fission. We also are pretty confident that any nation that wants a bomb can get one without using nuclear fission reactors. It seems selfish to try to restrict access to the incredible benefits of nuclear energy production just because we have an illogical fear that somewhere, someone might build another nuclear weapon. It is not like there are not already tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the world, some of which are already controlled by people who do not put much value on human life and society. I would join you in any real effort to convert the material from those bombs into useful electrical power.

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