Nuclear Power is NOT Energy Independence

Steve Christ describes why nuclear energy increases U.S. energy dependence. Do we prefer to be dependent on OPEC or Russia? He says that we currently import 92% of the uranium (43% of that is from Russia) for nuclear power.

Link: Investing in Uranium.

…one of the biggest misconceptions about nuclear power at the moment is this: It will end our energy dependence foreigners. The truth is it will not. That’s the dirty little secret most people don’t know about nuclear power in the United States these days.

You see, while everyone knows we have become virtual slaves to foreign crude, only a few know we also import 92% of the enriched uranium necessary to run our nuclear plants. That is even worse than our predicament with oil where 70% of our supply is now imported.

That’s why I call enriched uranium America’s "other" energy crisis. Because if nothing else changes we could conceivably exchange one set of shackles for another if we are aren’t careful.

And it will likely only get worse when a 20 year program with the Russians called Megatons to Megawatts runs its course in 2013 since almost 43% of what we use comes from dismantled Soviet warheads. After that supply runs dry, it is not inconceivable we could be completely on our own, unable to meet our own needs.

onThat’s a current danger that we can ill-afford and Washington knows it. Over time, those potential shortages will only be exacerbated as more and more nuclear plants here and abroad begin to come online and demand skyrockets.

According to the World Nuclear Association, there are 439 reactors operating globally, with 36 under construction. Moreover, there are also 93 new reactors on the drawing board, with another 219 proposed. 

And should all of the planned and proposed reactors be built, the world total will be more than 787, or almost a 79% increase over the current level—-the vast majority of which will be fueled with—you guessed it— enriched uranium.

So at some point in the future, enriched uranium could be no different than oil—sold off in a tight market to the highest bidder. Sound familiar?

Nuclear Energy’s Problems

Nuclear energy is not a viable solution for our energy needs for many reasons. The excerpts below from BusinessWeek.com below describe many of the drawbacks.

Opponents of solar and wind energy complain about government subsidies, but nuclear energy will require massive subsidies and government involvement.

Link: Nuclear’s Tangled Economics.

McCain laid out his vision for 100 new nuclear plants—45 of them to be built by 2030. They would help meet America’s energy needs, and because nukes don’t emit greenhouse gases, they would fight global warming as well. McCain also wants to borrow from the French playbook by reprocessing and reusing spent nuclear fuel and by providing government incentives to get all this done.

But McCain may not want to follow the French example too closely. While France’s
existing 59 atomic plants are relatively trouble-free, its largest nuclear
company, Areva, has run into difficulties building next-generation reactors in
France and Finland. The Finnish project is two years behind schedule and more
than $1.5 billion over budget, while construction of the other plant, in
Normandy, was temporarily halted in late May because of quality concerns. And
while France has the world’s biggest fuel-reprocessing program, it still hasn’t
found a permanent home for a growing pile of highly radioactive waste that’s
left over.

Two years ago, the price of a 1,500-megawatt reactor was pegged at $2 billion to
$3 billion. Now it’s up to $7 billion and rising, as the cost of concrete,
steel, and other materials and labor soars. MidAmerican Energy Holdings (BRK), a gas and electric utility owned by Warren Buffett’s
Berkshire Hathaway (BRK), shelved its own nuke plan earlier this year, saying it no
longer made economic sense. "The country badly needs new nuclear plants to deal
with the climate issue," says John W. Rowe, chief executive officer of Exelon
(EXC), currently the largest nuke operator, and chairman of the
Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade group. "But they are very
expensive, very high-risk projects."

So risky and expensive, in fact, that building new ones won’t happen without
hefty government support. NRG Energy (NRG), Dominion (D), Duke Energy (DUK), and six other companies have already leaped to file
applications to construct and operate new plants largely because of incentives
Congress has put in place. The subsidies include a 1.8 cents tax credit for each
kilowatt hour of electricity produced, which could be worth more than $140
million per reactor per year; a $500 million payout for each of the first two
plants built (and $250 million each for the next four) if there are delays for
reasons outside company control; and a total of $18.5 billion in loan
guarantees. The latter is crucial, since it shifts the risk onto the federal
government, making it possible to raise capital from skittish banks. "Without
the loan guarantees, I think it would be very difficult for the first wave of
plants to move forward," says David W. Crane, CEO of NRG.

Only two companies, Japan Steel Works and France’s Creusot Forge, a unit of
Areva, are capable of forging key reactor parts such as massive pressure
vessels. There are also shortages of contractors with nuclear certification and
of skilled workers—even a lack of potential sites for new reactors. The proposed
plants are all next to existing reactors. Builders of the power plants, utility
executives say, are unwilling to commit to fixed prices and fixed schedules.
Most companies want to be paid their actual costs, including overruns, plus a
reasonable return, says one CEO.

That’s why experts say the much-heralded nuclear "renaissance" will be slow
to flower. "I’m not quite sure the number McCain put out is obtainable," says
Adrian Heymer, senior director for new plant deployment at the Nuclear Energy
Institute. "If there are any hiccups in coming in on time or on budget, it will
be a struggle to go much beyond the first eight or 10 plants." Exelon’s Rowe
adds that the industry can’t grow until the government solves the waste problem,
either by opening a proposed storage site in Nevada, or by setting up surface
storage facilities around the country. And in the long run, to cut the amount of
waste, he says, "it’s very clear that we’ve got to have a fuel-recycling
technology."

The trouble is, separating out plutonium in the spent fuel for reuse is
costly and dangerous, argue critics like Princeton University physicist Frank N.
von Hippel. And in any case, worries over separated plutonium being diverted to
make bombs led the U.S. to ban reprocessing 31 years ago.

Why Are We Helping Saudi Arabia Build Nukes?

Congressman Edward J. Markey, in an opinion published in the Wall Street Journal, asks why we are arming an oil and sun rich Islamic country with nuclear energy. Does Saudi Arabia really need nuclear energy? How does Israel feel about this? Are we trading nuclear secrets for an increase in oil production? Will this come back to bite us?

Link: Why Is Bush Helping Saudi Arabia Build Nukes? – WSJ.com.

Last month, while the American people were becoming the personal ATMs of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Saudi Arabia signing away an even more valuable gift: nuclear technology. In a ceremony little-noticed in this country, Ms. Rice volunteered the U.S. to assist Saudi Arabia in developing nuclear reactors, training nuclear engineers, and constructing nuclear infrastructure. While oil breaks records at $130 per barrel or more, the American consumer is footing the bill for Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions.

Saudi Arabia has poured money into developing its vast reserves of natural gas for domestic electricity production. It continues to invest in a national gas transportation pipeline and stepped-up exploration, building a solid foundation for domestic energy production that could meet its electricity needs for many decades. Nuclear energy, on the other hand, would require enormous investments in new infrastructure by a country with zero expertise in this complex technology.

Have Ms. Rice, Mr. Bush or Saudi leaders looked skyward? The Saudi desert is under almost constant sunshine. If Mr. Bush wanted to help his friends in Riyadh diversify their energy portfolio, he should have offered solar panels, not nuclear plants.

Saudi Arabia’s interest in nuclear technology can only be explained by the dangerous politics of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, a champion and kingpin of the Sunni Arab world, is deeply threatened by the rise of Shiite-ruled Iran.

The two countries watch each other warily over the waters of the Persian Gulf, buying arms and waging war by proxy in Lebanon and Iraq. An Iranian nuclear weapon would radically alter the region’s balance of power, and could prove to be the match that lights the tinderbox. By signing this agreement with the U.S., Saudi Arabia is warning Iran that two can play the nuclear game.

In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney said, "[Iran is] already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas. No one can figure why they need nuclear, as well, to generate energy." Mr. Cheney got it right about Iran. But a potential Saudi nuclear program is just as suspicious. For a country with so much oil, gas and solar potential, importing expensive and dangerous nuclear power makes no economic sense.

The Bush administration argues that Saudi Arabia can not be compared to Iran, because Riyadh said it won’t develop uranium enrichment or spent-fuel reprocessing, the two most dangerous nuclear technologies. At a recent hearing before my Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman shrugged off concerns about potential Saudi misuse of nuclear assistance for a weapons program, saying simply: "I presume that the president has a good deal of confidence in the King and in the leadership of Saudi Arabia."

That’s not good enough. We would do well to remember that it was the U.S. who provided the original nuclear assistance to Iran under the Atoms for Peace program, before Iran’s monarch was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Such an uprising in Saudi Arabia today could be at least as damaging to U.S. security.

We’ve long known that America’s addiction to oil pays for the spread of extremism. If this Bush nuclear deal moves forward, Saudi Arabia’s petrodollars could flow to the dangerous expansion of nuclear technologies in the most volatile region of the world.

While the scorching Saudi Arabian sun heats sand dunes instead of powering photovoltaic panels, millions of Americans will fork over $4 a gallon without realizing that their gas tank is fueling a nascent nuclear arms race.

PS: Atanu Dey  has an explanation:

All indications are that one of these days the US will have to take action against Iran for their ambition to develop nukes. In the meanwhile, the US is putting the next country — Saudi Arabia — in the pipeline for the same old routine: sell them technology, and then go invade them and take over the oil fields under the pretext that they have WMD.

It’s quite impressive. I am not only impressed by the American strategy but also impressed by the foolishness of the countries that fall for it.

Link: Iraq now, Iran next, Saudi Arabia for later

The Problems with Nuclear Energy

Here are some comments from a post on The Energy Blog that highlight several of the major problems with relying on nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Link: The Energy Blog: Yergin: Climate Change and Energy are Converging into New Era of Clean Energy.

1) Disposal of the hot fuel rods (95% U-238, <0.5% U-235, and the rest being plutonium (1%), americium, and a wide variety of fission products – the strontium, caesium, and iodine isotopes being the most dangerous). A main issue here is proliferation of plutonium-based nuclear weapons.

2) Potential for catastrophic failures exist – cooling systems and neutron-absorbing safety systems can both fail, resulting in Chernobyl-like events. In today’s world, we should also include susceptibility to bombings, etc.

3) Cooling water is a big issue! A 1 GW nuclear reactor sucks up massive amounts of cold water to cool the reactor and to generate steam for the power turbines. During heat waves and droughts, many reactors have to be shut down due to lack of cooling water. The American Southwest, or Sub-Saharan Africa, are thus poor sites for nuclear (but excellent for solar thermal and PV!).

The fact is that solar, wind and biogas-powered electricity grids are entirely possible. Put it this way: if we did not have access to uranium or fossil fuels, would we all be reduced to pre-industrial civilization?

…we can’t have an aggressive expansion of Nuclear energy is because of the overhead costs associated with proliferation…especially when you consider state sponsored terrorism where the operators are complicit.

Certainly it could be done, however it’d be rather irresponsible to act like that cost doesn’t/won’t/shouldn’t exist.

Just like new Coal Plants, Nuclear power plants CANNOT get financing, no matter how hard they try, unless it comes from TaxPayers.

Nuclear Power Is Clean Energy?

Rebecca Solnit at Orion magazine describes some problems with nuclear energy that you won’t hear on TV.

Link: Nuclear Power the Solution to Climate Change? | Rebecca Solnit | Orion magazine.

…when it comes to the mining of uranium, which mostly takes place on indigenous lands from northern Canada to central Australia, you need to picture fossil-fuel-intensive carbon-emitting vehicles, and lots of them—big disgusting diesel-belching ones. But that’s the least of it. The Navajo are fighting right now to prevent uranium mining from resuming on their land, which was severely contaminated by the postwar uranium boom of the 1940s and 1950s. The miners got lung cancer. The children in the area got birth defects and a 1,500 percent increase in ovarian and testicular cancer. And the slag heaps and contaminated pools that were left behind will be radioactive for millennia.

If these facts haven’t dissuaded this person sitting next to you, try telling him or her that most mined uranium—about 99.28 percent—is fairly low-radiation uranium-238, which is still a highly toxic heavy metal. To make nuclear fuel, the ore must be “enriched,” an energy-intensive process that increases the .72 percent of highly fissionable, highly radioactive U-235 up to 3 to 5 percent. As Chip points out, four dirty-coal-fired plants were operated in Kentucky just to operate two uranium enrichment plants. What’s left over is a huge quantity of U-238, known as depleted uranium, which the U.S. government classifies as low-level nuclear waste, except when it uses the stuff to make armoring and projectiles that are the source of so much contamination in Iraq from our first war there, and our second.

Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel was supposed to be one alternative to lots and lots of mining forever and forever. The biggest experiment in reprocessing was at Sellafield in Britain. In 2005, after decades of contamination and leaks and general spewing of horrible matter into the ocean, air, and land around the reprocessing plant, Sellafield was shut down because a bigger-than-usual leak of fuel dissolved in nitric acid—some tens of thousands of gallons—was discovered. It contained enough plutonium to make about twenty nuclear bombs. Gentle reader, this has always been one of the prime problems of nuclear energy: the same general processes that produce fuel for power can produce it for bombs. In India. Or Pakistan. Or Iran. The waste from nuclear plants is now the subject of much fretting about terrorists obtaining it for dirty bombs—and with a few hundred thousand tons of high-level waste in the form of spent fuel and a whole lot more low-level waste in the U.S. alone, there’s plenty to go around.

Bottom line:

…every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle is murderously filthy, imparting long-lasting contamination on an epic scale; that a certain degree of radioactive pollution is standard at each of these stages, but the accidents are now so many in number that they have to be factored in as part of the environmental cost; that the plants themselves generate lots of radioactive waste, which we still don’t know what to do with—because the stuff is deadly . . . anywhere . . . and almost forever.

via Dave Pollard