04 April 2007

Nuclear power, whether you like it or not

Nuclear power will become huge again, take my word for it. (I have to declare an interest here: I own some shares in a uranium mine.)

There is no other real Mister-Right-Now solution to the climate/CO2 problem. Governments know this. Probably even Dodgy Dave, and others of his ilk parading their wind-powered bicycles in order to seduce voters, know this. But since all politics these days is about image/presentation/style, spokesmen have to fudge the issue. They're waiting for the ideological climate change which will permit them to be upfront about it.

Meanwhile, they're doing what needs to be done, surreptitiously. Yes, it's the new style of government. But, hey, don't blame the politicians when you discover they've been up to something behind your back. Blame mediocracy. They're just going with the flow.

According to an article at StockInterview.com (who, mind you, probably have some sort of axe to grind, though I'm not sure what it is — they may be sponsored by the nuclear fuel industry),

the Nuclear Renaissance is alive and well in the United States — but not through the construction of new reactors. The power uprate process has increased capacity at many U.S. reactors and could add the equivalent of FIVE new nuclear reactors since the uranium bull market began. Just the ‘added’ U.S. nuclear capacity is more than the nuclear capacity of most countries using nuclear-generated electricity.
So, nuclear power is coming, ladies and gentlemen, get used to it. One problem is going to be that there isn't enough uranium oxide to go around. In fact, stocks of nuclear fuel are kinda zero, except for ex-military stockpiles. And current annual production is well below current annual consumption. And although there are dozens of new companies (mostly Canadian) supposedly prospecting for it, chances are half of them will never find any, and the other half will take five years to produce their first ounce. Hence the chart below. But, you see, the cost of the fuel is a fairly small proportion of the cost per kilowatt hour. Draw your own inferences.

The one thing that could put the kibosh on the rehabilitation of nuclear power is a nuclear disaster, not necessarily linked to a power station, but (more probably) associated with some sort of geopolitical dodginess. According to John Large of Large & Associates, the Iranian situation has boosted the likelihood of this happening.

Update 10 April
Since writing this, the uranium price has (I understand) taken another leap up, by 19 per cent to $113. In the space of a week.


Kenneth said...

India has already invested heavily in it's own thermal breeder reactors and they have a whopping one third of the worlds thorium supply. BTW whatever happened to the West's fast breeder dream, has it been shelved indefinitely?

Fabian Tassano said...

I'm not an expert on nuclear power station design, but note the following from the Wiki article on Fast Breeders:

The breeding of plutonium fuel in FBRs, known as the plutonium economy, was for a time believed to be the future of nuclear power. It remains the strategic direction of the power program of Japan. However, cheap supplies of uranium and especially of enriched uranium have made current FBR technology uncompetitive with pressurised water reactor (PWR) and other thermal reactor designs. PWR designs remain the most common existing power reactor type and also represent most current proposals for new nuclear power stations.

Given the way the uranium situation is going, it seems highly likely they will have to revisit the FBR idea, and possibly also start thinking in terms of thorium as an alternative.

Surreptitious Evil said...

The overriding advantage of PWRs is that they are inherently negative feedback designs. That makes them fundamentally much safer than designs where the moderator and the coolant are separate.

Basically if either the power take-off is reduced or the fission activity increases, the water heats up. Hot water is an increasingly less efficient neutron moderator. Hence the fission activity decreases.

There are practical problems - the time span of the feedback loop is dependent on the length of the primary piping and the nature of the coolant flow and there is the "cold slug" accident scenario ...


Anonymous said...

I remember going to a CEGB talk discussing their nuclear power plans in the mid 1970s. When it came to estimating the chance of an accident they were quoting chances of 1 in a million. Given the great complexity of such power-stations a few of us wondered just how that confident value could be arrived at. I still wonder.

Risk analysis usually gives a feel for the real risks involved. For example, if a nuclear power-station has a 1 in a million chance per year of a bad radiation leak and it would fatally affect 10 million people then in a sense the averaged death rate is 'only' 10 people per year. This seems a small rate in comparison with deaths from, say, smoking cigarettes. However this average neglects the dramatic impact that an actual accident event would have - complete overwhelming of any rescue services, dramatic economic disruption for years afterwards etc.

Nuclear power needs very careful consideration before being embarked upon again.

Fabian Tassano said...

I'm not saying I like the prospect, or that I would advocate nuclear power. I'm just saying, it's almost certainly going to happen, barring a disaster before we get there, because climate change is one of the hottest topics for voters right now. And I suspect it will become more so, because (whatever the reasons) we are going through a period of realigning weather patterns which will play havoc with normal systems, commodity prices etc, as well as costing human lives.

The people with the reins know they are going to have to do something. Right now, they're hoping that public perceptions of NP will change so they can do what seems like the only realistic solution.

You may conceivably be right (if I've read you correctly) that the likelihood of more catastrophe from fossil fuels still doesn't justify NP, given the risks you mention. Especially in a mediocratic world where people have different atttitudes about conscientiousness, and a Chernobyl seems more likely to happen. I don't have a definite opinion about that.

Ramaswami Ashok Kumar said...

Nuclear Power is not even utilitarian. There is no net energy available from nuclear power. Several excellent analyses of energy audit taking into account the insoluble waste problem have shown it to be so. The fast buck makers or the ignorant go for it without doing their home work.Because of the energy audit being so adverse, it will only gobble more fossils.For example see
Regarding mining of uranium or thorium the low dose problem is such that the artificial nuclear
option is unacceptable. See

Observer said...

There is no "climate/CO2 problem".

Fabian Tassano said...

You seem very certain.