The Achilles Heel of Nuclear Power

simpsons.jpgNo, I don’t mean cost, safety, waste, or proliferation — though those are all serious problems. I mean the Achilles heel of nuclear power in the context of climate change: water.

Climate change means water shortages in many places and hotter water everywhere. Both are big problems for nukes.

… nuclear power is the most water-hungry of all energy sources, with a single reactor consuming 35-65 million litres of water each day.

The Australians, stuck in a once-in-a-1000-years drought, understandably worry about this a lot:

Operating a 2,400 Watt fan heater for one hour consumes 0.01 litres of water if wind is the energy source, 0.26 litres if solar is the energy source, 4.5 litres if coal is the energy source, or 5.5 litres if nuclear power is the energy source.

Hotter water is another serious worry:

Nuclear power “requires great amounts of cool water to keep reactors operating at safe temperatures. That is worrying if the rivers and reservoirs which many power plants rely on for water are hot or depleted because of steadily rising air temperatures,” noted the International Herald Tribune earlier this year.

During the extreme heat of 2003 in France, 17 nuclear reactors operated at reduced capacity or were turned off.

Patrice Lambert de Diesbach, an energy analyst at CM-CIC Securities in Paris, said hot summers were the problem. “We are up against the maximum amount of hot water that can be released into rivers,” Diesbach said. “Unfortunately the situation is only going to get worse.”

Indeed, if we stay on our current emissions trajectory, more than half of European summers will be hotter than 2003 within the next four decades, according to a 2004 study in Nature by British scientists from Oxford University and the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. By the end of the century, “2003 would be classed as an anomalously cold summer relative to the new climate,” the study notes.

I think that nuclear power could realistically provide no more than one “wedge” of the 10 or more wedge-sized climate solutions we need to avoid climate catastrophe. And if we don’t avoid catastrophe, nuclear may find itself fizzling out as an energy strategy.

31 Responses to The Achilles Heel of Nuclear Power

  1. James Aach says:

    Having worked in the US nuclear industry over twenty years and studied classic fossil plants before that, I’m not all that sure how much more water a nuclear plant would use than a fossil plant with the same output. Nuclear plants do have a larger reservoir of water within their systems than fossil plants, but this is fixed amount that isn’t replenished regularly in large amounts from an outside source. The part that does disappear is that which goes through the steam to electricity cycle, and this should be roughly equivalent to a similar sized coal plant. (Natural gas may be somewhat different.) All steam cycle plants need access to a ready supply of water from a large heat sink, and nuclear more so for safety reasons, so it is reasonable to say that some inland rivers and lakes are more marginal for nuclear use. But inland seas and oceans would not have this problem.

    Of course, there are plenty of reasons to decide against nuclear – or fossil, or wind, or hydro, etc. It just depends on what you want.

    James Aach, author of “Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power”

    Available at no cost to readers at ., and also in paperback.

    “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.” – Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog.

  2. There are two possible interpretations of the facts set forth in this post:

    1. Nuclear technology is bad and evil. It will steal our precious water. We should not want any part of it.

    2. Current nuclear technology wastes energy. Therefore nuclear technology ought to be improved to extract more heat into the electricity generation process. The more energy used to generate electricity, the less will be present in the form of heat, and therefore the less water is required for reactor cooling.

  3. Earl Killian says:

    James Aach, I am wondering what the Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) solar farms are doing for cooling? Heat engines work on differences of temperature: the theoretical maximum (Carnot) efficiency is 1-Tcold/Thot, though this is not in practice achievable. Practical efficiencies are closer to the Callen’s 1-sqrt(Tcold/Thot). ( This emphasizes the need for a good cold sink.

    Stirling Energy uses Stirling Engines that appear to use air temperature for Tcold (at least I see no way to liquid cool that engine, perched as it is in mid-air). Do you know if this is right? Is the reason that air cooling works for CSP is that it is physically spread out over much larger land areas than nuclear or coal?

  4. Earl Killian says:

    France is not the only country to shutdown reactors due to hot weather: “The Tennessee Valley Authority shut down one of three units at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant on Thursday because water drawn from a river to cool the reactor was too hot, a spokesman said.”

  5. Charles Barton says:

    Earl Killian, I find it curious that the advocates of “green” power find it a fatal flaw of nuclear power, that there may not be enough water to opperate reactors for a few days a year, while there is not enough sun light to power solar generated electricity for at least 12 hours a day, and there is not enough wind to provide a significant ammout of wind power for more than 30% of the time. The inconsistency, the utter reliance on double standard, gets to me after a while.

  6. James Aach says:

    Regarding improving efficiency of nuclear plants, under the standard steam cycle you hit a wall a bit above 34 – 35% where the laws of thermodynamics say no more can be gained. There are various ways to use the waste heat from the standard steam cycle to gain more efficiency – I believe these are called combined cycle plants – but I’m not too familiar with them or how well they might integrate into a nuclear setting.

    I don’t know what the concentrated solar farms do for cooling. I suspect the low avaialabiity of these units and their lower output puts less strain on whatever heat sink they are using than a common nuclear or fossil plant running 24/7 would. I’m afraid I’m not familiar enough with Sterling technology to comment on it.

    Nuclear plants are more susceptible to shutting down or reducing power due to a heated heat sink (a river) due mostly to safety considerations – you need cool water for the various safety systems. Fossil plants on rivers don’t have to be so picky. I suspect also the turbine side of a nuclear plant is a bit more finicky and that would impact the shutdown as well, as water from a river is used to provide an endpoint for the steam travellng through the turbine, and it needs to be cool. So there is some argument to be made that rivers that might have seemed acceptable for full-time nuclear plant use might not be now. If you’re willing to run a plant part time during cooler / wetter weather, it’s still fine. But that’s not very economic.

    I highly recommend you read my book Rad Decision if you’d like a better real-world perspective on energy issues. There’s no cost online at my site, or there’s an old-fashioned paper verision. I make no profit from either – – nor am I trying to change minds. I think as a democracy we’ll make better decisions about our energy future if we understand our energy present. And it least in my area of expertise its clear that pundits, politicians, the media, and the general public don’t have a clear picture. That’s not to say having a better understanding means nuclear will be embraced. All energy sources have good and bad points – but we need to understand what they really are.

  7. Earl Killian says:

    Charles, you are apparently unaware that Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) can indeed generate at night through something called Thermal Energy Storage (TES). TES is extremely efficient (high 90%s), and allows steam turbines to run for 16h or more after the sun goes down. For example, see:
    TES allows CSP to deliver baseload electricity.

    CSP actually does not require TES to be cost-competitive because CSP’s peak output is well correlated with electrical load (see the paper). The afternoon and early evening is when peaking power is often bought by utilities from plants selling power at as much as $0.25 per kWh.

    It should also be noted that CSP plants can use natural gas to produce steam to provide guaranteed power delivery for the rare cloudy day in the desert. Such a use of a fossil fuel would not be a significant source of either greenhouse gases or cost because it would be used rarely (and also natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, producing2.4 times less CO2 per kWh than coal).

  8. Earl Killian says:

    Charles, I must also remind you that I never suggested in my post that this was a “fatal flaw” for nuclear power. Indeed, I do not believe nuclear power is fatally flawed, so your presumption is completely false. I simply added some data to the discussion. Please do not attempt to discredit the participants in a discussion by attributing things to them that they did not say; it is an underhanded tactic.

    While I don’t think nuclear power is fatally flawed, I should point out that there are many reasons that it can play only a small to medium role in the solution to our greenhouse gas emissions. My concerns include the fuel issue (there is only enough economically recoverable U235 for ~1000 reactors to operate for 40 year lifetimes, and the fuel stretching options have their own problems), the fact that reactors are cost-effective only when producing steady power (i.e. they cannot provide peaking power, i.e. it cannot go below the low nighttime power usage percentage of the grid), the fact that nuclear power plant construction costs are soaring, and the concern that we cannot build nuclear power plants quickly enough to start emissions reductions in the next few years.

  9. Paul K says:

    Doesn’t nuclear’s biggest problem remain what to do with waste?

  10. IANVS says:

    Pebble bed technology may deliver on its promise…

    The pebble bed reactor (PBR) is an advanced nuclear reactor type. A number of prototypes have been built, and it is currently under active development in South Africa as the PBMR design, and in China whose HTR-10 is the only prototype currently operating.

    This technology claims a dramatically higher level of safety and has achieved higher thermal efficiencies than traditional Nuclear Power Plants. Instead of water, it uses pyrolytic graphite as the neutron moderator, and an inert or semi-inert gas such as helium, nitrogen or carbon dioxide as the coolant, at very high temperature, to drive a turbine directly. This eliminates the complex steam management system from the design and increases the thermal efficiency (ratio of electrical output to thermal output) from 32-35% to 40-50%. Also, the gases do not dissolve contaminants or absorb neutrons as water does, so the core has less in the way of radioactive fluids and is more economical than a light water reactor.

    Pebble bed reactor

  11. Earl Killian, I am sorry if I misunderstood your views. I understand that there is a potential for the storage of heat from Solar Concentrators, but this technology is, as of yet, less than proven. I see no great rush by Texas utility companies to move to Solar Concentrators, although wind is quite in fashion here. I assume that solar concentration is still regarded as being a very high risk investment, or a very expensive investment. If a practical and inexpensive energy storage technology comes along, I will be happy to modify my views.

    Although I may have misunderstood your views, you do tend to point at a problem and then announce that this problem means that nuclear power has only limited value in solving the problem of energy related CO2 emissions. For example, your greatly inflate the uranium supply issue. Most of what passes for “reactor waste” is actually U238, with added U235 and Pu239. “Reactor waste” can actually be reused as fuel in CANDU reactors. While this is technically possible, better uses can be made of “reactor waste.”

    Hyman Rickover, proved in the late 1970;s that Pressurized Water Reactors can be successfully modified for thorium breeding. Although Pressurized Water Reactors are not the ideal breeders, Rickover demonstrated with the modified Shippingport reactor that they can still yield U233 at a 1.01 ratio. The advantage of such a modification would be that it would not require a difficult or unproven technology in order to insure a long term supply of nuclear fuel. Thorium can also be breed in modified CANDU reactors.

    You underestimate the world’s of uranium reserve. There has been very little exploration for uranium during the last 30 years. Exploration will bring a considerable amount of new reserve to the table. In addition unconventional alternative sources of uranium can be tapped. For example, the fly ash from coal fired steam plants, and phosphate mining tailings. In addition, phosphate should itself be processed to remove uranium and thorium because at present their presence in phosphate fertilizer contaminates groundwater supply with both of those minerals.

    Of course thorium must also be brought into the picture. World thorium reserves are believed to be three to four times greater than uranium reserves. By breeding thorium we would be assured of an ample amount of nuclear fuel for thousands of years to come.

  12. IWood says:

    Nuclear power “requires great amounts of cool water to keep reactors operating at safe temperatures. That is worrying if the rivers and reservoirs which many power plants rely on for water are hot or depleted because of steadily rising air temperatures,” noted the International Herald Tribune earlier this year.

    Fast breeder reactors are cooled with liquid sodium, not water. In additiona, FBRs can operate as desalination plants, so reactors located near the coast can actually provide fresh water for inland areas.

    Using the catch-all phrase “nuclear power,” as though there is only one way to implement it, is misleading at best.

  13. Earl Killian says:

    Charles, let’s remember that the purpose of discussion is both to teach and to learn. With that in mind, if you hope to successfully make a point, you need to provide data that can be evaluated. I tried to provide some data in the form of the Ausra paper, for example (though I admit TES is not adequately described therein). Your citation of the Shippingport reactor is helpful is similarly helpful, since one can presumably look that up. (In contrast, your ad hominem attack on 2007.09.11 was not helpful, and simply ended that discuss as far as I was concerned.) So if I underestimate U235 reserves, it does not help to just dispute that without data; I have no way of know whether your claims are credible or not. Only by sharing information and data can we hope to learn something. I suggest sharing data and letting readers form their own opinion. Just posting opinion is less useful.

    My comments on fuel supply were based on multiple sources. One I cited on 2007.09.11: the MIT report. Then you called that “flawed”, but again you provided no citations to back up your assertions. Another source of my U235 reserves information is Aldo V. da Rosa’s textbook Fundamentals of Renewable Energy Processes. Both sources have citations that one can go look up and judge. In contrast saying these sources are wrong without providing data is not helpful.

    I do know about the breeder reaction Th232 + n -> Th233 -> Pa233 -> U233, and Th232 reserve estimates courtesy of da Rosa. The issue here is whether breeder reactors are desirable or not. So far the world has judged them undesirable. I am certainly no expert on the issues of proliferation and breeder reactors, but I suggest that reversing the world’s judgment of breeder reactors (and nuclear power in general) may take too long for global warming. That is not a technical argument, and so it is hard to evaluate objectively, unfortunately.

    In contrast, as far as I can see, there is very little undesirable in CSP+TES.

    In terms of reactor costs, the MIT report cites recent Japanese construction costs, and at $2300-2800/kW (Table A-5.B.3), they were above MIT’s own $2000/kW projections, so perhaps MIT was actually being optimistic. Your $1500-$1800/kW order data sounds good, but until the reactor is finished, we don’t really know the cost. MIT also compared their cost estimates in Appendix 5.B to the EIA’s, DOE’s, NEA/IEA’s, and one from the UK. In fact, the MIT report is somewhat dated. One of the study authors told me in a phone conversation that they now think construction costs are a fair bit higher.

    Note that the Finnish reactor mentioned in the MIT report is now over cost and behind schedule:
    MIT wrote in 2003 of the Finnish reactor, “total construction cost used in the analysis is roughly $1,830/kWe, implying an overnight cost of about $1,600/kWe.”

    The situation in 2007 looks a bit different. Quoting from the Bloomberg story:

    “Olkiluoto-3, the first nuclear plant ordered in Western Europe since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, is also more than 25 percent over its 3 billion-euro ($4 billion) budget.”

    “If Finland’s experience is any guide, the ‘nuclear renaissance’ touted by the global atomic power industry as an economically viable alternative to coal and natural gas may not offer much progress from a generation ago, when schedule and budgetary overruns for new reactors cost investors billions of dollars.”

    “The U.K.’s Sizewell-B plant, which took nearly 15 years from the application to build it to completion, opened in 1995 and cost about 2.5 billion pounds ($5.1 billion), up from a 1987 estimate of 1.7 billion pounds.”

    “Landtman now says the reactor might be fully completed in 2011. The initial target was mid-2009.”

  14. Jay Alt says:

    IWood – FBRs can use sodium in the reactor loop but this exhanges heat with a water/steam circuit to drive turbines. And IIRC that loop, even if closed, uses cooling water from lakes or streams to condense the steam and improve efficiency.

  15. IANVS says:

    Water scarcity & ambient temperature may apply to many existing nukes and the siting of future ones.

    However, this can be addressed with current technologies & design.

    Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station went commercial in 1986 & 1988 with 3 of our largest reactor plants (1270 MWe) designed with water scarcity & high ambient temperatures in mind. PVNGS treats & recycles waste water from Phoenix & uses appropriately-sized cooling tower systems in the AZ desert.

    So the problem can be reasonably dealt with.

  16. Earl Killian, I will post more to you later. I should note that same MIT team that came to such negative conclusions about nuclear power, ozzed opptomism about coal as aq future source of electrical energy. In “The Future of Coal.” they stated, “We believe that coal use will increase under any foreseeable scenario because it is cheap and abundant.” They believe that sequestering 50 million barrels a day of “supercritical CO2” from 600 coal plants on the order of 1,000 MWs is possible. This does not give me great confidence in the Judgement of the MIT team. The real problem for the MIT team was the fear of proliferation. How realistic this fear is, is very open to question. Iran acquired nuclear technology by dealing with an international smuggling ring which sold it uranium centrifuges. North Korea also acquired the capacity to enrich uranium by illegal means, and was able to construct its own PU239 reactors. In neither case did the reactor technology in the United States encourage proliferation. It would appear that any state which possesses a modest industrial base, and a University at which Physics, chemistry, and engineering are taught, plus contacts with high level international criminals, is capable of nuclear proliferation without using American reactor technology.

    Thus the MIT proliferation argument seems suggest that not building breeder reactors in the United States will prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in countries like North Korea, and Iran. This argument is clearly false.

  17. Earl Killian, Although you emphasize the importance of providing data. However, you cited the potential use of Solar Concentrator technology, without giving us a current estimate of its costs, or discussing limitations, for example how much of a cut in power production could we expect on cloudy days. Since we are discussing thew limitations of nuclear power, it would be helpful to have an honest discussion of the limitations of alternative energy sources. I have already stated an apology to you, if I have misunderstood your position, your continued claims, what do you hope to gain by continuing to accuse me of using an ad hominem arguement?

    My statements about the avaliability of Uranium and Thorium can be confirmed by googling the words.

    This discussion nptes the relationship between demand for Uranium and known world Uranium reserve:

    This discussion reports known Uranium reserves, and current use. It also includes a discussion of resource economics:

    The presence of Uranium and Thorium in phosphate and the problem of groundwater contamination is noted here;

    Some estimates of the Indian Thorium reserves are found here:

    Note that the estimated extractable Indian thorium reserve is estimated to be 2.900,000 tones, which is 3/4th of the world’s known uranium reserve. It should be noted that the Indian embassy report states, The “Bhabha Atomic Research Centre has estimated that India’s thorium reserves can amount to a staggering 3,58,000 GWe-yr (Giga Watt Electrical – Year) of energy, enough for the next century and beyond.)”

    Australia has an estimated Thorium reserve of 354,000 tones:
    The Australian uranium reserve is estimated run around 1,150,000 tons.

    In addition to te unmined wotld stockpliles of of Uranium and thorium, The United States and Russia together have nearly a million tons stockpile of depleated U238:
    In addition the United States and Russia hold the fissionable materials (U235 and Pu239) from many thousand cold war nuclear weapons.

    Your discussion of the costs of nuclear plants ignores a number of important factors. For example the “Olkiluoto-3, reactor is a prototype, and prototypes are often more expensive that repeated constructions of the same design. Since the only rational way to provide the world with a sufficient number of reactors to meet world energy demands in the absence of fossil fuels, would be to mass produce them in a factory with an assembly line. The factory could be located with access to ocean shipping routs, and reactors shipped by barge or ship to their final destinations. Mass production would cut both production times, and building costs. I could not even begin to estimate how much a mas produced reactor would costs, but surely it would be far less than prices we are discussing. However, even if this reasonable optimism turns out to be unjustified, and reactors turnout to cost $6 billion per GW would this be a fatal flaw for nuclear power? Not that MIT proposes the massive capture and sequestering of CO2 as a means of salvaging coal fired electrical energy. Assume that the massive sequestering of CO2 is technologically possible, it will not be cheap. Unless we know that how much carbon sequestering will cost, we cannot begin to estimate the cost of the MIT’s favored solution to the energy issue.

    Do you still maintain that I was incorrect to describe the MIT “nuclear future” study as flawed?

    An estimate of world thorium reserves can be found here:
    K.M.V. Jayaram. An Overview of World Thorium Resources, Incentives for Further Exploration and Forecast for Thorium Requirements in the Near Future

  18. Earl Killian says:

    Charles, thank you for the references. They should be very helpful in the future. In terms of CSP cost, here is a page where NREL estimates the cost at $0.07/kWh in large deployments with expected cost reductions:
    Ausra has said in public forums (but in print, as far as I know) that they could do 80% of California’s grid (24×7) for $0.068/kWh (using one year of CalISO load data). Of course nuclear, wind, and hydro would easily make up the other 20% in California. (Ausra also put a price on doing 100% of the grid, but that was higher $/kWh, as you expect. And besides, no one would want to get 100% of their energy from any one source.)

    Note that I already addressed the question about the rare cloudy day in the desert southwest (annual insolation of >2800 kWh/m^2 not uncommon) in a previous reply: natural gas can provide a backup. This is in fact what is already done at the 1980s Kramer Junction CSP plant:

  19. Earl Killian, California is almost unique in the American energy market in that is has both geothermal energy and almost unlimited sunshine. Most of the rest of the country is not as fortunate. Energy company executives in Texas and the South East have recognized that they have virtually no choice but build nuclear power plants. In Texas, the issue is particularly serious because many natural gas fired power plants are becoming prohibitively expensive to to operate. Of course expensive energy sources are still viable for back up power options.

    The seven cent per KWh is quite impressive, but I am a little skeptical, I would also like to point out that this figure is still over twice the reported cost of French nuclear power in 2002 which was 3,2 cents per KWh.

  20. Earl Killian says:

    Charles, I have looked up some of the references you provided, and they cite the same data that MIT cites, the IAEA Red Book (Uranium Resources, Production and Demand), though of course the MIT study being published in 2003 used an earlier version of the Red Book. There is no serious flaw in the data that MIT used that I see. You happen to disagree with the conclusion that they reached that breeder reactors are not appropriate, but that is not a flaw, but a difference of opinion. It boils down to breeder reactors and spent fuel reprocessing or not. You also express skepticism of solar thermal technology, but I suggest that solar thermal technology is as well demonstrated as breeder reactor technology. (Clearly once-thru U235 reactor technology is more mature than solar thermal, but that does not carry over to creating a new breeder/reprocessing nuclear industry.)

    Indeed, MIT’s 1500 GWE reactor fleet for 50 years scenario requires 15 million tonnes of uranium (PDF page 44), and your shows less than 5 million tonnes at

  21. John Lawton says:

    Earl Killian, are you saying that the MIT report states that uranium supplies for single pass (no recycling) is limiting? I didn’t read it that way. My read of the report is that uranium is very abundant, and that much more of it will be discovered and mined, without significant increases in real costs, with respect to electricity production.

  22. Earl Killian says:

    In reply to John Lawton, let’s get away from fuzzy words like limiting when higher precision is at hand. Nuclear reactors can provide some, but not all of the global warming solution (they might be one “wedge”). If you call “not all” limiting, then so be it. I prefer numbers, and I have now looked up a few for a bit more precision. (Here I am cribbing from another post of mine.) There are 439 nuclear power reactors in operation in the world producing about 300 gigawatt (GW). If the world builds 700 new reactors at 1GW each, this brings us up to 1000GW/year. If we take the IAEA’s 2005 Red Book data of known recoverable U235 reserves of 4.7 million tonnes, and 204 tonnes per GW year, then this 1000GW of nuclear power will use 204,000 tonnes per year from the MIT report. The 4.7 million tonnes will then last 23 years. Using the Red Book non cost constrained figured of 14.8 million tonnes of “Reasonably Assured”, “Inferred”, “Prognosticated”, and “Speculative” uranium, then the calculation yields 76 years. I cannot say whether the 4.7 or 14.8 million tonnes (23 or 76 years) is more realistic, but it seems to me then that this is approximately what the U235 once-thru fuel cycle can support. To save Charles Barton a post, let me guess that he would say we therefore need spent fuel reprocessing, breeder reactors, and thorium reactors. Whether that is politically feasible in the long term or not is a question I don’t feel is too important right now, because right now those things cannot happen soon enough to make a dent in global warming. We need solutions now.

    By the way, there is a thread about thorium reactors at

  23. John Lawton says:

    There is real intellectual danger in trying to be too precise about uranium supplies, becasue uranium exploration is at a very early stage.

    I offer the following from the MIT report (page 34):

    How long will the uranium ore resource base be
    sufficient to support large-scale deployment of
    nuclear power without reprocessing and/or
    breeding?10 Present data suggests the required
    resource base will be available at an affordable
    cost for a very long time. Estimates of both
    known and undiscovered uranium resources at
    various recovery costs are given in the
    NEA/IAEA “Red Book”11. For example, according
    to the latest edition of the Red Book, known
    resources12 recoverable at costs

  24. John Lawton says:

    (Sorry, original message was truncated, I think…continues here:)

    recoverable at costs

  25. John Lawton says:

    Guess not. Anyone know how to submit a relatively longer message? At any rate, go to page 34 of the MIT study for its view that uranium is not limiting.

  26. Earl Killian says:

    John Lawton, it is easy enough to read page 34 (PDF page 44) online. Indeed, I have quoted that page before, so I know it well. The problem is that everyone reads words like “a very long time” differently. When that text was written uranium was 30/kgU. It is now 170/kgU, and was in the last year as high as 250/kgU. That factor of 5.7 to 8.4 in price is of course much more than the “doubling” trigger suggested by the Australian UIC (an industry group). So what has happened in reserves since? According to the UIC, Australia’s have gone from 1.143 MMT to 2.307 MMT, a 100% increase. Since UIC predicted a 1000% increase for a doubling, it appears there may have been a bit of hyperbole involved. I have no doubt that reserves will increase further, but I wouldn’t want to bet the planet on the UIC’s factor of 10. Note also that 97% of Australia’s reserves are at the Olympic Dam mine, which has very low grade ore (0.029%). According to the UIC, this low grade ore is economically viable because the mine also produces copper, silver, and gold, which is fortuitous (and may not apply in other mines with low grade ores). Only 20% of the mine’s revenue is from U.

    Please also consider that if the world has 2000 EJ of U235 and 11000 EJ of Th232 (estimates from Aldo V da Rosa’s textbook, EJ = exajoules = 10^18 joules of energy), and in 2050 the world is using 900 EJ/year (MIT’s The Future of Coal report), then this U235 and Th232 represents only 14 years. It would last several times longer because no energy source is going to be 100%, but I believe the above calculation shows that U235 and Th232 are not unlimited and not renewable. In the long term we need renewable energy. The question is what place nuclear has during our transition to renewables.

  27. John Lawton says:

    Earl Killian, you may want to take a look at a 2004 position paper by James Hopf ( ).

    He argues that, since cost of uranium is such a small factor in nuclear economics, low grade ores are permissible, and there is no real concern about uranium supplies. He argues, strenuously, against the 50 year scenarios that are bandied about.

  28. Earl Killian says:

    Thank you John Lawton for the Hopf paper. First, let me observe again that the price of U has gone up by a factor of 6 to 8 already, and reserves have only increased a bit, which seems to undermine some of his arguments. Also, given the price increase, the 0.1 cents becomes 0.6 to 0.8, so if another large factor of U price increase is necessary for yet more reserve increases, then we’re starting to get into the point at which it has a large effect.

    Second, Hopf never addresses the an important question about U reserves. When we talk about economic recovery, there are two meanings: monetary and energy. Hopf talks only about the monetary cost. There are enormous quantities of U in places like granite and seawater where the energy cost of extracting them may too large of a fraction of the energy that results from the once-thru fuel cycle.

    Third, when talking about monetary economics, Hopf does not make specific predictions for different reserve levels at different price points (as does the Red Book), and that is what is appropriate. He is very hand waving. He argues that there is exponentially more U at decreasing ore grades, but that might mean at exponentially increasing prices.

    I would read Hopf’s hand waving as an attempt to justify increasing IAEA Red Book figure of 4.7 million tonnes to figures such as 15 to 30 million tonnes of U (e.g. as MIT has done), but not for, say, 150 million tonnes. But since the author never really makes his own estimate, that is left up to the reader, and there lies the problem. Without a specific estimate (and its justification), it is hard to know what to do with Hopf’s argument.

  29. John Lawton says:

    Earl Killian, Thank you for your reasoned response to the Hopf paper.

    I can’t answer for Hopf, but I would suggest that energy cost and monetary costs are part of the same thing.

    As a theoretical construct, let us suppose that all energy involved in uranium mining is electrically-driven (trucks, plants, etc.). I think you are saying that it would take so much electricity costs to extract the low grade uranium, that it would not be economically feasible, even if the net electricty derived is positive (more gained than used). Is that right?

    If so, isn’t it self-regulating? I mean, if the net electricity gain is profitable, wouldn’t it be a going concern?

    By chance, I was in central New Mexico last year. I was sitting in a local coffee shop, and I asked about some uranium mining activities in the area. A local geologist was there, and he entered the conversation. He said he used to be involved in uranium exploration. He gave it up, when the market crashed. He also said that he would reenter the uranium exploration game, only if nuclear power plants were to start to become approved. His view was that we have only begun to explore for economical uranium, but only stability in the marketplace will get it discovered/out of the ground. Just an anecdote, I know, but something to think about.

    BTW, I have nothing to do with uranium or nuclear power. I am just an interested citizen.


  30. Earl Killian says:

    John, I am not an expert on Uranium, but I will provide you with a few more references that I am aware of to explain the energy issue I mentioned. The first is about CO2 rather than energy, and challenges the idea that nuclear energy is always a big CO2 win (it depends upon the grade of ore, according to the author):

    Chapter 2 of the same report more directly consider energy yield as a function of ore grade:

    The WNA critiqued the above. Their critique is no longer at the cited page, but the rebuttal to the critique is here: