Tuesday 27 November 2007

The real economics of nuclear

At long last, there is a study by an economist of the likely effects of the government's exhumation of the nuclear industry, and it is worth a read - especially by the nuclear enthusiasts who appear to be running some kind of campaign in the letters page of Liberal Democrat News. It's at:


David Fleming is the economist behind tradeable energy quotas and what he writes about nuclear energy seems to me to clinch the argument against:

1. The remaining uranium ore in the world is now so depleted that the nuclear energy will itself run out of resources, to the extent that it will not be able to generate the energy needed to clean up and store its own waste - it will therefore be a net user of energy.

2. Uranium shortages will cause interruptions of supply before 2019, which will then get worse.

3. Every stage of the nuclear process except fission itself produces carbon dioxide, and even more so as the richest uranium is used up - especially because of the large amounts of uranium hexafluoride (10,000 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) which is used in the process of uranium enrichment.


Joe Otten said...

1. I hesitate to whisper it, but there is always reprocessing. But we are a long way from the kind of Uranium shortage that would make reprocessing economic.

And, frankly, if we could use up all the available potentially fissile isotopes (U, Pu, Th, etc) on the planet, nuclear weapons would become impossible, which would be brilliant.

2. The "net user of energy charge" is just bizarre. Yes, if the whole industry stopped. But this is just wishful thinking.

3. Yeah, pretty much everything generates carbon dioxide, including, for example, building windmills. The pertinent question is how much energy you get for a given amount of carbon emission.

And who exactly is emitting UF6?! Something should be done about that, never mind whether it is a greenhouse gas or not!

Nuclear is not the cheapest carbon mitigation by a long way. But it is a form of mitigation, and may have to be considered at some point, if we consider global warming a greater threat than a little extra nuclear waste.

The more often I see feeble arguments like this, the more I think we will probably need it.

David Fleming said...

Thank you to Joe Otten for his interesting comments in response to David Boyle's brief mention of my booklet, The Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy. However, I am afraid he is a little bit adrift in each of his three points:

1. Reprocessing has not yet been made to operate on a commercial scale, or even on a sustainable pilot scale. Even if reprocessing were an option, it would be 2075 before we had enough reprocessed fuel to make a significant contribution to nuclear energy. There is always a tendency to hype up, to the point of miracle, a technology you don't know anything about. This is the same kind of touching faith as was applied to saints' relics in the middle ages. The more difficult things get in the future, the more of this kind of faith will we be seeing. I think the best thing would be for Joe to read my little book, especially pages 21-24.

2. The nuclear energy industry will become a net user of energy if in the future it uses the energy that is needed to clear up its wastes. If it does not do this, it will be leaving scattered stockpiles of waste all over the world to catch fire and explode for many centuries to come. No environmental impact assessment of this has been done, but it doesn't sound good for the planet. At what point the safe disposal of waste makes the industry a net energy user is discussed with care in my book. On the whole, it is best to try to understand the argument before dismissing it as bizarre.

3. The booklet does not say or imply anything about other sources of energy being zero carbon emitters, and it goes into the questions of energy return on energy invested and carbon efficiency in detail. I do entirely agree with Joe that something should be done about emissions of UF6, but I do not see why that is part of a case against the book or for advocating nuclear energy.

But thank you to Joe for his comments. I hope he enjoys the book, either the print version or online. And I hope he and other readers find their spirits lifted a little by Christopher White's drawings of bicycles.

Joe Otten said...

David F,

1. Yes, I said reprocessing is not economic. This is because Uranium is cheap. There is nothing miraculous about it. It has been done, so we know that it works. But it is not worth doing, yet, anyway.

2. I don't have the means to check up your references, but I am leery of these energy balance arguments for the same reasons that I am leery of similar arguments made about windmills. If it takes that much oil to extract Uranium, it would be cheaper to burn it to generate electricity directly. Sure, subsidies can defeat this economic logic, but almost all the cost of nuclear electricity is capital costs - fuel is a tiny fraction. Even nuclear subsidies are not high enough for that.

3. Please point to where the IPCC covers the contribution to the greenhouse effect of UF6, or admit that it is irrelevant.

Gareth Aubrey said...

So David Fleming is "an economist"? You wouldn't describe him as, ooh, I don't know, one of Britain's longest-standing green activists? It would do us good to recognise that there's essentially no-one in this debate who is "independent", everyone has an agenda.

On Joe's points, I must agree with him; reprocessing is just a matter of economics (and would you like to tell the French that their commercial reprocessing facilities are imaginary or shall I?); net user of energy is a difficult charge to make stick (and I will read that section with particular care); and yes, if UF6 is being emitted I think we should be very very worried!

Alexandra Prokopenko said...

Would be interesting to hear what will nuclear specialists working on real reactors respond to this broshure. To a non-specialist and an environment-concerned journalist like me some points do sound like true or at least worth considering and verifying. WIll post this topic on Russian nuclear esperts forum (www.atominfo.ru) and try to come back if there will be any comments.

Anonymous said...

Not clinched at all I’m afraid.

Panic about the mining industry’s ability to source this or that metal breaks out periodically and is (almost) always misplaced. In the early 70s the Club of Rome was worrying that the world would run out of iron by (from memory) 2040 even in the most favourable (i.e. low-growth) scenario. Since some 5% of the Earth’s crust is iron this always seemed a tad unlikely!

As a fairly ‘new’ metal (commercial development on any significant scale only dates back to the 50s) uranium exploration has only a fairly short history – made all the shorter by long periods of low price when it simply wasn’t worth looking for more. The “Red Book” estimate of 70 years’ supply at current prices quoted in the Lean Guide is therefore based on a very limited survey of the Earth’s crust yet even this will be highly conservative – such estimates always are for several reasons. Many hundred years will to be nearer the mark.

I can quite believe that there will be a supply crunch of some sort when existing ex-military supplies run out in a few years’ time but nuclear utilities plan many years ahead which is no doubt why spot prices are so high now (they can afford to as the cost of uranium per se is only a small part of fuel costs never mind total costs). However these same high prices will soon bring on new mine supply which responds far more quickly to price than most people suppose.

That is just one reason why it is mistaken to invest in reprocessing. It is a really difficult thing to do technically-speaking, raises all sorts of security considerations and can only be justified commercially if you believe (as the mining industry doesn’t) that uranium is ‘running out’ and that prices will rise remorselessly into the future.

The worry about uranium hexafluoride being a super-greenhouse gas is pure fantasy. Compounds like Freon (one of several related chloro-fluoro-carbons or CFCs) are indeed greenhouse gasses which, once released, can last for years in the atmosphere but the quantities are miniscule. Their real danger is that they catalytically destroy ozone in the upper atmosphere which is why their use is now strictly limited by the Montreal Protocol. However, UF6 is NOT a CFC. As Fleming notes it reacts violently with water so its life expectancy in the atmosphere is measured in seconds not years. Depleted UF6 is therefore more or less like any other highly reactive and toxic chemical except that it’s mildly radioactive and I very much doubt that any escapes – it would be a unique chemical plant that allowed it to. Convert it back to the oxide and it becomes pretty inert and perfectly suited for safe long term disposal.

There are good reasons to worry about further development of nuclear power but Fleming has missed them.