by Russell Lowes, March 9, 2008
It is Just a Matter of Time. . . and It is Just a Matter of Counting the Whole Nuclear Cycle
In one of the comments on my last blog, Tasha Nelson insists in a questioning way, "I would imagine nuclear power still emits far fewer greenhouse gases overall." This is the conventional thinking. . . thinking that will hit a hard wall of thought revolution. Over the next decade or so, reassessment of economically mined uranium reserves will come into clearer focus.
By then there will be a small number of reactors being built around the globe, as the industry tries to keep pace with the number of reactors that are being retired, UNLESS the industry gets the full support of the U.S. and world governments, with additional massive subsidy, on the order of hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars.
If complete socialization for nuclear power happens, no one knows how many reactors will be built. If this happens, while we will have a socialistic system for nuclear energy, we will not be able to afford it for any other energy industry, such as solar. We would have a system where the cost of money would be hidden from sight, causing all sorts of irrational decisions to come into play. The general public would pay the cost of this irrationality in the long run.
In either event, the nuclear industry will be trying to play catch-up. Reactors have already started to drop off. Of the 439 reactors we currently have, globally, they will be retiring quicker than they are being built (without a massive global subsidization). In fact, a leveling off of the number of reactors worldwide is already starting. See the graph below:
But, back to the question at-hand:
In a nutshell, won't nuclear energy generate less CO2 than coal and other sources? There has been some serious work on this issue. On the other hand, there has been some self-serving nuclear industry work on this issue. With much of the industry's estimates, there is a circular logic where the reports cite each other, with information generated by the industry that is, at best, an optimistic interpretation of the data. In the realm of independent studies, the most detailed and documented work I have obtained is at www.stormsmith.nl
This work, done by two analysts named Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Phillip Smith, has been peer-reviewed. It is collaborated by other works. From what I can tell, it is only disagreed with to any significant degree by nuclear industry-affiliated entities. For example, there is the nuclear trade group, the World Nuclear Association, which ironically gives itself the byline, Clean Air Energy. Their study is very brief, and has nowhere near the quality level of documentation. The legitimate independent studies that review Storm and Smith only tend to agree on the major points, with less significant points of disagreements here and there.
Storm & Smith conclude:
– In the short term, nuclear power is much cleaner than all fossil fuels, if you don't count the energy required over the next million years (the EPA required waste management period), However,
– In the long term, nuclear power will become dirtier and dirtier, emitting more and more greenhouse gas emissions, as we quickly deplete our uranium reserves.
– The U.S. currently imports over 90% of its uranium, and only has 7% of the world's diminishing reserves.
– Going down to lower-grade ores will deplete the short-term net energy gain of nuclear power, and at some point push this short-term gain into the negative realm, with greenhouse gas (GHG) production going through the roof. To give you a graphic illustration, uranium mining of granite would require about 50 times the weight of coal that is mined per kilowatt-hour produced.
– After about 70 years, the ore that can be economically mined (using short-term thinking) will run out – and this is on the basis of current capacity, not expanded levels of world nuclear capacity.
The above second point gets to the last point that Tasha made in her post. She asks, "Also-hasn't there been an underinvestment in uranium mine development the past 20 years or so, leading to some of the shortfalls we are seeing now?" The answer to that depends on perspective. The industry has numerous mines that were supposed to be in operation by now. This includes the largest planned new mine, under preliminary development in Canada. It just flooded with water last year, putting off its opening for years. The easiest mining has already occurred. From one perspective, the industry is feeling the reduction of higher grade ores and cannot easily keep up with the demand.
When I first started writing on nuclear power and alternatives, back in the late 1970s, the typical quality of ore was higher than that mined today. Back then, it was common to mine ore that was 2500-3000 parts per million. Today the average is around 1500. To further compound the problems, back then, there was a lot of soft rock ore being mined. Soft rock is easier to mine than hard rock for the obvious reason that it is easier to crush. It takes less energy. Today, more and more hard rock is being mined. The twin problems are decreases in ore grade plus the harder-to-process rock.
Then, there is a third problem, and that is access to the ore itself. About 50% of the current mined uranium comes from below surface mining, going deeper and deeper. The lowest apples have been picked.
It is also true, as Tasha suggests, that there hasn't been enough investment in mining. One question comes to mind: who is responsible for that? However, this question is irrelevant in a way. What is the current shortfall in mining? The current mining levels are at about 50 kilo-tonnes (kt) of ore per year. The current usage of ore by nuclear reactors is about 67 kt per year. Over recent years, the industry has augmented this shortage of production with ore reserves and other smaller sources like mixed oxide fuels and conversion of weapons stocks to commercial stocks, particularly from Russia. At the rate we are using up these stocks, if mining does not jump significantly, complete depletion of stocks will occur by 2015 at the latest. The price of uranium will skyrocket. So much for "cheap" nuclear fuel of days gone by.
There is a final thing to add to this. Nobody wants to hear this. It is avoided like the proverbial elephant in the room, avoided like the plague. The nature of nuclear waste is that it is transgenic. It is changing its own state through irradiation of all the ingredients of the waste. It is creating gases. It is creating liquids. It is also irradiating its container, changing the properties of whatever the container is made out of (with few exceptions).
What you might store as a near perfect rectangle today, could be quite a different shape in thousands of years. What this means is that it will off-gas, migrate, and as it is well known, go through periods of increased and decreased beta, gamma and alpha radiation over many centuries. Over many millennia. Someone is required by U.S. law to safeguard this waste for one million years. "Someone" is the word because no one knows who will be around for that long.
I will soon be writing a report on the cost of a million years of nuclear waste. To make a long story short, to guard that waste will clearly cost more energy input and create more greenhouse gases than any other current energy option under serious consideration.
In the long run, because of its waste, and because of its depletion of resources, nuclear energy creates more greenhouse gas than any other option. Remember these words in a few hundred thousand years, while you are just beginning to understand how to manage all this junk.