Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Nuclear Options

It is always a good idea to pay close attention to Gary Becker, who recently scribed a timely Wall Street Journal article advocating removal of the many unnecessary regulatory obstacles to building nuclear power plants. As always, Professor Becker's reasoning is lucid:

The excellent safety record at American nuclear plants, growing imports of oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels at high prices, and increased concern over the pollution and global warming caused by fossil fuels, has made the case for reducing regulatory obstacles to new American nuclear power plants compelling.... [N]uclear power currently supplies about 20% of all electricity generated in the U.S. Yet this is much smaller than the 70% supplied by nuclear power in France, one-third in Japan, and about half in that highly improbable country, Sweden.

As operating and construction costs of nuclear power plants have come down greatly since 1980, these plants have become competitive in costs with plants fueled by oil or natural gas, even at prices for these fuels of five years ago. If their presently high prices continue, nuclear power would be cheaper even than coal-fired power plants. In addition, several countries are building nuclear plants with new technologies, such as pebble-bed reactors that use helium rather than water to cool nuclear fuels. They appear to be much cheaper, and safer. ... China plans to add 20 nuclear plants in the next 15 years ... and India, Japan and South Africa are moving toward greater reliance on nuclear power.

Nuclear power has other advantages. Uranium is abundant, easily transported and efficient in producing energy. ... To the extent there is concern about running out of fossil fuels -- a concern that I believe is greatly exaggerated -- nuclear generation of electricity becomes even more attractive. ... [N]uclear power plants release negligible levels of harmful pollutants....

The case against nuclear power plants is based on several considerations: fear of a nuclear accident...; the risks in disposing and storing radioactive waste; terrorist attacks on plants that might release large amounts of radioactive materials; and a general fear of nuclear energy.

The chances of a serious accident at a U.S.-approved nuclear plant are extremely low, given modern safety methods that are much better than even those at Three Mile Island, and new types of reactors that are safer still. ...

France and some others recycle nuclear waste, so they do not have important storage problems. Given the general emphasis on recycling other wastes, it is surprising that we forbid recycling of nuclear waste. The U.S. has shied away from recycling because it produces plutonium, the ingredient for nuclear bombs. That seems less important now, given the proliferation of nations with nuclear weapons; they evidently have not had major problems getting enough plutonium. ...

Studies indicate that the enormous safety protections within U.S. plants makes it very unlikely that bombs set off near these plants, airplanes crashing into them, or other terrorist activities, would cause significant radiation leaks....

There is widespread exaggeration of the "normal" risks of nuclear energy. ...

The risk of a serious radiation accident from one of the sources I discussed is not zero, but risk has to be balanced against geopolitical risks and those to the environment from relying on fossil fuels to generate electricity. My weighing of these risks leads me to conclude that the time has come for us to follow the example set by some other countries, and remove the many unnecessary regulatory obstacles to building additional nuclear power plants.

Is the matter really this straightforward? Well, maybe not. Professor Becker claims that uranium is "plentiful" - which, at present rates of consumption, it is. But would it remain "plentiful" if much more of the earth's energy was taken from that source than is now extracted? Sometimes it's a good idea to pay close attention to physicists from the California Institute of Technology, some of whom - such as Richard Feynman - display natural talents as entertaining bomb-throwers of a very high order, in addition to their considerable scientific skills. In this case it seems a good idea to pay attention to a recent book by CalTech Provost-and-Physicist David Goodstein and his recent book Out of Gas: The End of the Age Of Oil, which can be searched through Amazon's on-line technology, and which notes (on page 106) that, subject to some uncertainties, currently known uranium reserves would be enough to supply all of the Earth's energy needs (at the world's current level of energy consumption) for only 5 to 25 years.

Would it be worthwhile to build a world wide uranium fission reactor economy if the world's uranium really gives out in 5 or even 25 years - just at our present rate of consumption? Now the "uncertainties" noted above include the facts that estimating uranium reserves is a less developed skill than estimating (say) oil and gas reserves, and that additional now-unknown uranium reserves would presumably be discovered if its price and need increased. So maybe the world has more uranium than even a 25 year supply.

And maybe not. Against these positive "uncertainties" one should consider a major negative: the world's demand for energy is rapidly increasing, especially in developing countries such as China and India. Indeed, much of the recent surge in prices of "fossil fuels" (the same surge that makes uranium more cost competitive with conventional fossil fuels than in the past) has been attributed to that additional demand. Of course, the energy component of future world economic growth is not set in stone - and might drop dramatically. But a dramatic increase in economy-wide energy efficiency is by no means sure, and one is left with the very real prospect that future world-wide economic growth may require a great deal more energy. What happens then?

Well, one thing that could happen then is breeder reactors. Breeder reactors produce lots of plutonium, which is a perfectly good nuclear reactor fuel. One can get the impression from articles on breeder reactors that they could produce unlimited quantities of additional nuclear fuel - but Goodstein says that breeder reactors would multiply the energy available from uranium by a hundredfold. That's still a lot of leverage. But current generation breeder reactors use liquid metal coolant and are considered in many quarters to be much more potentially unstable than "conventional" reactors - which already upset large parts of the public. Moreover, while "conventional" reactor design has progressed, and those reactors have arguably become safer, publicly available reports of breeder reactor technology do not seem to suggest that the same is true of breeder reactors. Perhaps more research and development in the field of breeder reactors might address that problem. And perhaps breeder reactor technology is already more advanced - but classified. Who knows?

In addition to reactor stability issues, the plutonium produced by breeder reactors raises security issues qualitatively similar to those raised by "recycling" uranium. Professor Becker notes that other countries (France and Germany) have dealt with such issues in the "recycling" context. Presumably he would consider those examples to also address the security issues created by plutonium in the breeder reactor context.

If what Professor Goodstein says about known uranium reserves is correct, it is hard to see how uranium can reliably be expected to be the major energy source of the future as Professor Becker seems to suggest unless breeder reactors are built to leverage the world's uranium reserves. Professor Goodstein raises the interesting prospect of fission reactors fueled by neither uranium nor plutonium but isotope 232 of another element, thorium, an isotope which can be converted into the fissible isotope 233 uranium - and then burned. Professor Goodstein notes that natural thorium seems to be about 3 times as abundant as uranium.

That's a start.

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