It's the Environment, Stupid.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Peak uranium?

With all eyes turning to nuclear to power us into an emission free future, the question seems to have turned away from peak oil to peak uranium.

According to a Reuters story via Planet Ark News, "A decision by the UK government to build new nuclear power plants will increase pressure on uranium reserves and the need to process lower grades will cause greenhouse gas emissions, environmental groups said on Tuesday."

Nuclear power requires uranium, and all of the accessible, high-grade uranium is reportedly nearly used up. Once it's gone we'll have to go for the lower grade stuff, which'll take a little more effort (energy) to make into fuel.

Essentially we're just jumping from one finite resource to another - oil, coal, uranium. Which will it be, and at what cost? And why isn't there more talk about renewables?

9 Comments:

  • Hey

    The British government are not going to build more nuclear power plants as the story suggests. It will not fund any new nuclear power plants and have said that private investment must fund the resurgence into nuclear. What the government have helped to do is ease the planning restrictions on nuclear so it will be easier for investors to biuld nuclear power stations. The UK nuclear energy is in decline, only currently contributing to 8% of the UK's energy needs, which will be ZERO by 2020. Therefore this potential new investment will only keep this current stock going.

    In terms of renewables, the government also eased the planning regulations on wind and solar, which will hopefully significantly increase wind energy since there are many projects being stalled at the planning stage. It's not all doom and gloom as the greens suggest.

    In terms of uranium, I can't see the UK demand contributing to a scarcity of this resource. Even though it is a finite resource, companies will find more uranium as technology improves, and as nuclear becomes more valuable through time because of its zero carbon emissions, it will be more competitive to mine uranium. Furthermore, nuclear will only be a small part of our energy mix, not a big one as some suggest. The only thing is that uranium is posited in some countries which are so called unstable. These countries might get exploited for their resource, which means that they could exhibit the resource curse, or they might even get hold of nuclear science.

    I feel that the increase attention into nuclear by officials is because of environmentalists' lack of focus as to what our energy mix should be in the next 30 years. To merely suggest that renewables will be our future is just not realistic. Therefore, why don't environs talk more about hydrogen, carbon capture schemes, and natural gas, since these might hold more potential for some countries, especially China?

    By Blogger Robert Metcalfe, at 10:05  

  • This is really starting to become pathetic. Over and over again anti-nukes continue to trot out claims that have no basis in economic or scientific fact, and folks parrot them without thinking at all.

    Even an anti-nuke like George Monbiot understands that a number of anti-nuclear talking points simply don't stand up to scrutiny anymore.

    Click here for a number of links to sources that debunk this spurious, and unsupported claim about the global uranium supply.

    By Blogger Eric McErlain, at 12:16  

  • Renewables are cruel. Windmills will kill all the big birds. That is horrific. Dams release gushes of water at various times, killing hundreds of thousands of animals caught in the water avalanche. You have to really hate animals to like renewables.

    By Blogger Randal Leavitt, at 16:21  

  • Randal - your post is not based on fact and is purely fiction. Is the nuclear industry paying you for writing such dribble?

    By Blogger Robert Metcalfe, at 04:33  

  • Like it or not, pro-nuclear people do exist. The author of comment #2 is from the nuclear industry, but most of us aren't. Me, for example. I wish I was getting paid to do this.
    It seems whenever I have to deal with crackpots, be they Apollo-didn't-land-on-the-Moon people, creationists, Velikovskians, or some die-hard anti-nuclear activists, the first question is about money. Here's the answer: pro-nuclear people who take this public stand are so disturbed by grossly inaccurate statements such as these that we take time out of our lives to correct them.

    I'd like people here to ask themselves exactly what element's radioactivity has kept the inside of the Earth molten for billions of years. How much uranium do you think is required to do this, given uranium's very low activity? How much uranium is dissolved in the ocean? How much uranium is in granites and coal? How much uranium, looking longer-term, is on the Moon? It's a finite energy source; no one would disagree. But the supply is not going to run out in the foreseeable future--at least not before the Sun swallows the Earth and dies. Literally. And that's under the rather naive assumption that humans will never develop any new technology, a quite arrogant assumption if you ask me.
    Incidentally, nuclear power does not necessarily require uranium, and not necessarily in the way people assume. The mineral thorium, which is three times more common than uranium, works in all nuclear reactors. Canadian reactors can use it quite well, and two American plants ran on thorium-uranium mixes: the Fort St. Vrain plant for its entire life and the Shippingport plant on its last fuel load in 1982. Plus, the nuclear industry is very wasteful of fuel, whatever it is--even conventional plutonium reprocessing extracts no more than about 3% of the energy in ore at best. Modern technology--not the 40s and 50s vintage PUREX used at Sellafield, Cap de la Hague, Mayak, and Rokkasho--keeps everything together but the already-split atoms and keeps everything at the reactor site. This arrangement is known as an IFR; it is the current state of the art.

    (Notice also how any nuclear reactor that is not connected to a cogeneration system only produces electricity. "Nuclear as a proportion of total energy use" is an irrelevant statistic, since that includes home heating, transportation, and every other non-electricity sector. If a car or home heating system runs off electricity, that adds to electricity consumption, which then does count. But not before. Essentially, don't complain that nuclear reactors aren't solving problems caused by cars. A nuclear reactor is not a car and cannot replace a car. I'm additionally intrigued by why it's a good idea to burn more petroleum products, waste much of that energy by converting it to hydrogen, and place the resulting pollutants underground where they can leak at the most inopportune times and smother a city, like CO2 emitted by volcanoes has done in the past. Also interesting is your characterization of Australia and Canada as "unstable," not to mention the fact that an atomic bomb is an incredibly complex undertaking that requires facilities whose military nature is obvious. Chernobyl, for example, would never have been designed the way it was if it were a civilian power plant and not a weapons-production reactor.)

    Eventually, if you dig deeply enough, all energy sources have a clock attached. The Sun will die. Uranium (and potentially hydrogen for fusion) will run out. The difference is that those sources allow civilization to survive much longer than fossil fuels. So why not just use renewables?
    Simple: solar energy is much more than we could ever use--distributed over an area much larger than we could ever collect it from. It's operationally useless. And yes, we did try it before--up until about 1750, 100% of the world's energy came from renewables. Humanity abandoned renewables when it became obvious that they could not sustain modern civilization.
    I have a stake in this. I could not have been born "naturally"--my head was at an angle that, had I been naturally delivered, would have broken my neck. Were it not for routine ultrasound and modern surgical techniques in a modern hospital made possible by large amounts of energy, I would not be here. Suggesting that the only reason anyone would be pro-nuclear is that they have been bribed is deeply insulting.
    Countless others in the Third World aren't so lucky. Improving the standard-of-living for the world's poor is our obligation, but it's not necessarily a tradeoff with the environment. We can have massive amounts of energy necessary for a modern standard of living for everyone and preserve the environment. But we have to go nuclear.

    And yes, windmills do kill birds, hydro dams do break (see Banqiao-Shimantan, 1975), big hydro does disrupt entire ecosystems, solar panel factories do discharge toxins, and energy sources that require that the world be paved over to generate useful amounts of electricity do in fact have a greater environmental impact than nuclear power.

    By Blogger Stewart Peterson, at 16:18  

  • Stewart - it seems to me that you're flogging a dead horse.

    You seem to confuse the sink side of the economy with the source side. On the source side, there is an abundant arrange of fuels that can be used to sustain the human population. Why is nulcear so important in that mix Stewart?

    I don't think it is important for energy since: i) it is expensive; ii) it is non-renewable; iii) uranuim (or nuclear power)is not accessible to all. Non-proliferation treaties mean that some countries might not even have the chance to generate this power - therefore there are substantial equity issues here; and iv) it is way too centralised.

    On the sink side, Carbon dioxide only lasts in the atmosphere for 80-100 years, which is a very small proportion of the decay time of radioactive waste. I'd rather have CO2 than the huge volumes of radioactive waste.

    Therefore my questions to you Stewart are:

    how can the nuclear industry not produce a huge legacy for future generations on the sink side of the economy?

    should nuclear power, and therefore nuclear knowledge and expertise, be available for every country in the world, be they stable or unstable?

    By Blogger Robert Metcalfe, at 07:07  

  • One person's sink side is another person's source side--you can't isolate them; they have to be considered together.

    Nuclear power isn't a fuel. It's a method, like chemical power (energy from carbon in general as opposed to coal, oil, or gas). Its use is producing electricity and any discussion of its value should be limited to the mix of methods used to produce electricity. Not being able to run a car should not condemn a perfectly good source of electricity.

    BTW, CO2 lasts forever; if you follow a molecule it takes about 300 years on average for it to encounter a plant (the real consideration is the rate of change in concentration, which is also assuming that fossil fuel burning doesn't produce anything but CO2), and the IFR previously mentioned produces waste that lasts about 40 (i.e., by that time, the waste is as radioactive as the uranium that came out of the ground and can simply be put back in the mine with minimal precautions). And if you want to talk about quantities of waste, nuclear also wins--uranium is 10 million times more energy-dense than coal. That means 10 million times more waste from coal--and most of coal's waste is gaseous, which is hard to handle even if they tried. The solid waste, incidentally, is laced with small amounts of uranium and thorium--it's radioactive enough to make a coal plant emit about 100 times more radiation than a nuclear plant of the same size.

    i. Expensive by what measure? It's certainly the cheapest clean energy source that there is; the problem is fossil fuels that are allowed to use the sky as a sewer. Even basic waste-management procedures at coal plants have the potential to push capital costs above nukes--around $1,800 per kW of capacity. That's not even getting into any externalities, or a carbon tax, or the fact that nukes have higher capacity factors, etc.

    ii. What is your definition of 'renewable?' If you get to the actual source of energy, nothing is renewable. Solar, wind, and hydro depend on the Sun--which will eventually die out. Geothermal depends on radiation from uranium--which will eventually decay. Nuclear power depends on uranium and thorium--which will eventually run out. The time frames for all three are about the same. It's really an irrelevant consideration when you get that far beyond the human timeframe. Nothing is a perpetual motion machine.

    iii. The NPT prevents (or tries to prevent) nations from building atomic bombs. Nuclear reactors are allowed, and with the very specific exception of specially-designed military reactors with obvious military characteristics like the reactor used at Chernobyl, can only degrade bomb material. Material produced by the IFR, for instance, is so hard to work with that it wouldn't even work in most other reactors, much less a precise and finicky atomic bomb. LWR-produced material is theoretically easier to work with but is operationally about as hard to use.

    iv. Some things have to be centralized. From an environmental perspective, it's a whole lot easier to shut down three coal plants and replace them with two IFRs than to persuade 1.4 million people to shut down their gas generators. From a safety perspective, having professionals manage generation will result in fewer accidents than if amateurs had boilers, turbines, generators, and high-voltage equipment in their basements. From a cost perspective, the only baseload-capable systems that distributed generators can handle with minimal duplication of expensive infrastructure are fossil fuels, which are becoming dramatically more expensive.

    Answers:
    1. Any kind of waste-eating reactor would help in the interim (such as the ACR-1000); IFRs, as I said, produce very short-lived waste. At least nuclear waste decays--chemical waste doesn't. Combine that with the fact that nuclear waste is much easier to handle than chemical waste, and even the current system looks better than pollution from chemical power plants.
    Also, you live in the UK. Almost every piece of UK nuclear infrastructure, with the exception of Sizewell B, is pure military legacy (Sizewell B is a scaled-up submarine reactor). Atomic bombs are an unnatural abuse of nuclear energy, and the UK's weapons program's waste legacy is the perfect proof. Compare waste production from Sizewell B to a MAGNOX unit, say Wylfa, and you'll see what I mean. Sellafield is military legacy; the PUREX process is not very well-suited to the civilian fuel cycle. Enrichment is military legacy for obvious reasons. The pattern continues.

    2. Nuclear reactors, yes. Atomic bombs, no. Civilian nuclear power inhibits bomb-building by either taking up enrichment capacity or degrading fissile material (usually both).
    The theory behind a bomb is not hard. Getting the materials, making sure the bomb goes off, and transporting it to where it should go off is the hard part. Nuclear power provides none of these.

    By Blogger Stewart Peterson, at 07:15  

  • You might find my blog posts on nuclear energy to be of some interest.

    By Blogger Cameron W, at 16:27  

  • Eleven countries, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Congo, Gabon, Bulgaria, Tadzhikistan, Hungary, Romania, Spain, Portugal and Argentina, have already hit peak with their uranium production and have quickly exhausted their uranium resources afterwards. They must rely on imports for their nuclear programs or abandon them. England like many other countries never had any uranium to begin with. The US now imports 84% of all of its uranium needs

    Since the major remaining uranium suppliers are Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan. Africa seems to be developing uranium mines and will probably the next war target as a result.

    As the grade of uranium found goes from 0.1% to 0.01%, the amount of ore to process goes up by 10x. At some point, there may be plenty of uranium left in the world, but it will be too dilute to be economic to mine. This is one problem that technology will probably not be able to surmount.

    Peak Uranium

    By Blogger HiTekVagabond, at 09:16  

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