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New research into nuclear's feasibility shows that it simply does not make for a sole fossil fuel replacement.

The death knells of the Earth's dwindling fossil fuel supply have helped to prompt a growing push for alternative fuels.  Whether it be cellulosic ethanol powering the next generation of hybrid vehicles or microbial hydrogen driving advanced fuel cells, America's top technology corporations are making massive investments in alternative energy.  Basically, alternative energy advocates remain split about what is the best solution -- solar power, wind power, biofuels, hydrogen, and nuclear power are seen as the best bets.

Not holding out much hope for an exotic solution, many have turned in the last few years to seriously considering nuclear as a potential replacement to fossil fuel demand.  The result has been resurgence in nuclear efforts.  In the U.S. an application has been filed by NRG Energy for the first new nuclear plant in 30 years.  In Canada, a nuclear research reactor taken temporarily offline was quickly brought online after swift legislative action.

However, despite the growing enthusiasm there has already been one major hiccup.  The record drought that has been plaguing the U.S. Southeast is threatening to cripple the nuclear industry in this region, as many of the plants require large amounts of water.

Now, a new research study, conducted by Physicist Joshua Pearce of Clarion University of Pennsylvania puts another dent in nuclear efforts.  Professor Pearce's research, published in Inderscience's International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, indicates that while nuclear research and small-scale growth remain promising, large scale growth remains non-viable.

Professor Pearce is actually an advocate for nuclear power.  He warns that his research should not be misinterpreted.  Professor Pearce suggests that the nuclear power industry focuses its efforts on improving efficiency.  He gives two easy ways to accomplish this.  The first is to utilize only the highest grade ores, saving on refining energy costs.  Secondly, he suggests the industry adopt gas centrifuge technology for ore enrichment, which is considerably more efficient than the currently used gaseous diffusion methods.

Professor Pearce feels that plants must also adopt technology for capturing and distributing their waste heat.  He points out that nuclear plants dump large amounts of heat into their surroundings, a practice which both wastes energy and can cause significant harm to the environment.  Professor Pearce believes that current nuclear weapon stockpiles worldwide should be dismantled and their nuclear fuel "down-blended".  He points out that this could produce a bounty of nuclear fuel.

The not-so-good news which Professor Pearce points out is that nuclear is simply not a viable candidate for large-scale growth.  In order for nuclear power to maintain growing future power demands and the shrinking fossil fuel power supplies, between 2010 and 2050 a growth rate of over 10 percent a year would be necessary according to Professor Pearce.  This, he says, is simply not possible.

Professor Pearce points out that such a growth program would simply cannibalize older plant's power output to provide the power needed to maintain the processes involved with building the new plants and refining ore for them, leaving no power for human needs.  Large-scale growth would require massive power investment in terms of plant construction, plant operation, mining infrastructure expansion, and energy investments to refine ore.  Professor Pearce says the books simply don't balance -- these power needs could not be met by the energy produced from the refined ore.

He points to a significant problem with large scale growth.  Large-scale growth, barring the discovery of new reserves would necessitate the use of lower grade uranium.  This sets an additional limit on growth.  As Professor Pearce points out, "The limit of uranium ore grade to offset greenhouse gas emissions is significantly higher than the purely thermodynamic limit set by the energy payback time."

Professor Pearce also points out to environmentalists and global warming skeptics alike that nuclear power is hardly an "emission-free panacea", as he puts it.  All aspects of plant operation, including plant construction, mining/milling of uranium ores, fuel conversion, enrichment, fabrication, operation, decommissioning, and long-term and short-term waste disposal, require massive amounts of energy provided by fossil fuels.  The burning of these fossil fuels will create large amounts of greenhouse emissions, a criticism oft-leveled against the solar and wind power industries by nuclear advocates.

While emissions are certainly troublesome, the simple energy requirements infeasibility, if accurate, would almost certainly nix the large scale expansion of nuclear power in its current form.  If Professor Pearce's research withstands the test of review then it offers little choice but to pursue his suggested strategies -- develop more advanced nuclear power on a smaller scale and pursue other alternative energy solutions as a major source of capacity.

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RE: What?
By BlackIceHorizon on 3/6/2008 5:46:05 PM , Rating: 2
The most important claim made in this article, I think, is that we're somehow close to running out of nuclear fuel. This is, frankly, untrue. We do need to wisely steward our nuclear resources, but more on that later. Nuclear fuel is, uniquely, the only fuel-based energy generation method where the fuel is not one of the main costs. The vast majority of the price of nuclear energy goes to plant construction, safety oversight, amortization, waste disposal fees, etc. Nuclear energy presents certain inherent dangers and should be implemented with great care and monitored very closely. In its present manifestations, it is, and this high level of precaution represents the majority of the costs. In the rare instances of nuclear accidents, the cause has always been a lack of these measures.

As any good economist can tell you, cost is a function of supply and demand. Uranium is currently a relatively cheap fuel because 1) it is not extremely scarce:

- It is about 40x as abundant in the Earth's crust as silver (Columbia Encyclopedia).

and 2) because we don't need very much of it to produce a lot of power. This is due to its extremely high energy density compared to chemical energy sources:

- Pound-for-pound, uranium produces 3 million times as much electricity as coal.

- Converting 5.4 ounces (0.34 lb) of Uranium to fission products will release enough heat to generate a lifetime supply of electricity for an average American .

The result is that the current world price of Uranium is only 74$/lb ( Now, to be fair, less than 1% of natural Uranium is currently used in nuclear power plants, so to obtain 5.4 ounces of fissile U235 you have to mine 58 pounds of Uranium. Thus, as prices increase, this may become a more significant fraction of nuclear plant costs. Still compare that to the amount of coal you have to burn to produce a lifetime supply of energy: 1,136,000 pounds of coal . Further, as current sources become more expensive, there are other sources of Uranium to turn to. The oceans contain 4.5 billion tons of uranium, sufficient for over 30,000 years of power production with advanced reactors. Extraction from seawater has already been shown to work on large scales. It hasn’t been used to date because it’s a bit more expensive than land-based mining, but if Uranium prices skyrocket (the natural economic result of a severe reduction in supply as Pearce suggests), this method will become economically viable and support world energy production for many years to come. Further, if Uranium does run out, we could switch to reactors that run on Thorium. Earth’s mineable reserves of Thorium are 3X as abundant as those of Uranium . In the hundreds or thousands of years it takes us to use all of that, we’ll have had time to develop fusion power, or something better.

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