7 Dec 2007
David Fleming’s New Book Provides Death Knell for Nuclear Power.
David Fleming, creator of the concept of Tradeable Energy Quotas and author of the forthcoming and rather wonderful “Lean Logic”, has just published **The Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy**, which is a thorough demolition of the case for nuclear power being a solution to peak oil. and climate change. You can down load the pdf. for free here or you can order printed copies here. Like much of David’s writing, it patiently yet assertively builds its arguments, backed up by exhaustive research, to build a case against nuclear power that looks pretty much bulletproof to me. The report’s key findings are;
1. The world’s endowment of uranium ore is now so depleted that the nuclear industry will never, from its own resources, be able to generate the energy it needs to clear up its own backlog of waste.
2. It is essential that the waste should be made safe and placed in permanent storage. High-level wastes, in their temporary storage facilities, have to be managed and kept cool to prevent fire and leaks which would otherwise contaminate large areas.
3. Shortages of uranium – and the lack of realistic alternatives – leading to interruptions in supply, can be expected to start in the
middle years of the decade 2010-2019, and to deepen thereafter.
4. The task of disposing finally of the waste could not, therefore, now be completed using only energy generated by the nuclear industry, even if the whole of the industry’s output were to be devoted to it. In order to deal with its waste, the industry will need to be a major net user of energy, almost all of it from fossil fuels.
5. Every stage in the nuclear process, except fission, produces carbon dioxide. As the richest ores are used up, emissions will rise.
6. Uranium enrichment uses large volumes of uranium hexafluoride, a halogenated compound (HC). Other HCs are also used in the
nuclear life-cycle. HCs are greenhouse gases with global warming potentials ranging up to 10,000 times that of carbon dioxide.
7. An independent audit should now review these findings. The quality of available data is poor, and totally inadequate in relation
to the importance of the nuclear question. The audit should set out an energy-budget which establishes how much energy will be
needed to make all nuclear waste safe, and where it will come from. It should also supply a briefing on the consequences of the
worldwide waste backlog being abandoned untreated.
8. There is no single solution to the coming energy gap. What is needed is a speedy programme of Lean Energy, comprising:
(1) energy conservation and efficiency;
(2) structural change in patterns of energy-use and land-use; and
(3) renewable energy; all within
(4) a framework for managing the energy descent, such as Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs).
Get a copy, have a read. If you think Fleming’s analysis is wrong, tell us about it here. I think this book does us all a great service in setting out the nuclear case in the light of peak oil and climate change, and also in the light of ‘peak uranium’. His conclusion that, in the light of uranium depletion, *”the task of disposing finally of the waste could not, therefore, now be completed using only energy generated by the nuclear industry, even if the whole of the industry’s output were to be devoted to it. In order to deal with its waste, the industry will need to be a major net user of energy, almost all of it from fossil fuels”* is something to spend the rest of today chewing over the implications of, and how profoundly irresponsible it is, in that context, to advocate building any new nuclear power plants.
12 Dec 2:24am
belong to the West Valley Coalition on Nuclear Wastes – West Valley is in upstate New York State – in the 1970’s Getty built a nuclear reprocessing plant, and a few years later abandoned it do to the higher cost of environmental upkeep. Several years later community organizers convinced the government to pass the West Valley Demonstration Project to have the site cleaned up.
Product of this cleanup, glass logs of high level waste, remain on site. State and federal govt. at odds about final closure and cleanup of left over burial grounds, now leaking and doomed to erosion, leaving wastes to seep into the Cattaraugs Creek and eventually into the Great Lakes.
Would like to read this, because as you know, the Bush admin. now trying to maintain control of energy by talking nuclear.
Interested in your comments, as we struggle to get this site cleaned up permanently and use it as a reminder to the world that nuclear power is not efficient, environmentally realistic, nor even profitable when the cost of taxpayer sanctions to the nuclear industry are factored in.
17 Dec 8:08pm
I heard that very recently none other than Bob Geldof said the Government should stop messing around with changing light bulbs and things like that, but should start building more nuclear plants. People take Bob Geldof seriously – as they should for the GOOD work he’s done – but this blunder needs addressing. I haven’t even got time to read a whole book like this one. So I really appreciate Rob’s snappy summary.
We need this kind of key TT info all together with the sort of format that works so well with websites – a front end (close to Home Page) with one-line titles, hyperlinked to (first level) leaflet-length info FAQ-style, and (second level) sources and links. One very good example of this is the GristMill pages on “How to Answer a Climate Change Skeptic”.
I so want to see a whole range of “snappy fact” downloadable leaflets like ECOROPA did in the seventies, the like of which I’ve not seen since. I’m planning to republish them all online, on our website http://www.greenworldtrust.org.uk. But they need updating which is beyond my capability. I feel we need a standard source of excellence that all of us in Transition Towns can go to.
I’m working on this in every which way I ca dream up. But I feel I’m still a lone operator with a bright idea though I’m sure I’m right. I intend to go on putting the word out, developing our website, and searching… We have a forum though it has not yet hit critical mass. Next stop will be to answer the University thread in the Transition Net forum. I want to see a global “Great Ingathering” of vital facts to complement the “Great Unleashings” of our local genius.
18 Dec 12:14am
Very recently Bob Geldof said the Government should stop messing around with changing light bulbs and things like that, but should start building more nuclear plants. People take Bob Geldof seriously – as they should for the GOOD work he’s done – but this blunder needs addressing. I haven’t even got time to read a whole book like this one. So I really appreciate the key summary.
I think we need key TT info all together with the sort of format that works so well with websites – a front end with one-line titles, each hyperlinked to (first level) leaflet-length info done as a collection of FAQ’s (+ pics where helpful), and (second level) sources and links. One very good example of this is How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic http://gristmill.grist.org/skeptics
ECOROPA did a whole range of “snappy fact” leaflets in the seventies, the like of which I’ve not seen since. I’m planning to republish them all on our website http://www.greenworldtrust.org.uk. – just as a start to inspire collaboration. But they need updating which is beyond my capability.
I feel I’m still a lone operator with a bright idea though I’m sure I’m right. I intend to go on developing and broadcasting this work. I want to see a global “Great Ingathering” of “snappy facts” and useful practices which complements and distils the “Great Unleashings” of our local genius.
18 Dec 3:51pm
The amount of Uranium that can be economically extracted rises exponentially with the price. The shortages talked about will drive up the price and make far greater amounts economically extractable.
New generations of reactors are designed to be much more efficient, producing less waste. If PO looks to be occuring the nuclear option will be heavily used (along with coal, renewables and an increase in global LPG).
Its estimated there are upto 10,000 coal mining deaths per year (mostly in China) and goodness knows how many indirect deaths -how many nuclear Industry deaths have there been in the last 60 years?… I would bet less than a thousand counting power station construction and less than 100 as a direct result of Radiation leaks, etc. Also don’t forget that Coal has loads of Uranium in it, I read somewhere that by 2050 if we expand coal it will be the equivalent of releasing 100,000 tons of Uranium directly into the atmosphere every year…
I do not think governments are set to easily discount a technology that could help us maintain our civilisation.
18 Dec 6:30pm
I haven’t read the entire book, but a search of the document doesn’t find any mention of Thorium. While commercial Thorium fuel cycles aren’t yet a reality (AFAIK), it would be nice to see an analysis of the potential.
The Cost of Energy » Blog Archive » Linkage
18 Dec 9:14pm
[…] David Fleming’s New Book Provides Death Knell for Nuclear Power: David Fleming, creator of the concept of Tradeable Energy Quotas and author of the forthcoming and rather wonderful “Lean Logic”, has just published The Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy, which is a thorough demolition of the case for nuclear power being a solution to peak oil. and climate change. You can down load the pdf. for free here or you can order printed copies here. Like much of David’s writing, it patiently yet assertively builds its arguments, backed up by exhaustive research, to build a case against nuclear power that looks pretty much bulletproof to me. […]
20 Dec 8:56am
Nick, you post that “The amount of Uranium that can be economically extracted rises exponentially with the price.” But I don’t believe that this claim stands up to scrutiny. Yes, there are many economists who confidently make this claim with respect to oil and other energy resources. But economists are often shockingly ignorant about basic energy concepts.
The claim falls down, because it assumes that the cost of extracting Uranium remains fixed while the price of Uranium rises. But what is the main cost factor in the extraction of Uranium? Essentially, energy. Since the price of Uranium is strongly correlated with the price of energy, it is inevitable that the cost base of extracting Uranium will rise in tandem with the price of Uranium. This is why, as Richard Heinberg explains in “The Party’s Over”, the only rational way to measure the efficiency of extracting an energy resource is EROI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested). If EROI goes up, extraction becomes more efficient; if down, less efficient. The general tendency for any particular energy resource, however, is for the EROI to track an inexorable downard path. When it reaches 1, the game is over (you make no energy profit whatsoever).
It is possible, though, to enjoy the illusion of increased extraction efficiency as the price of a resource goes up. This can happen in the case where there is a prior investment in a lot of extraction technology, plant, and machinery. When the price of the energy resource shoots up, the existing extraction business becomes immensely profitable, giving the illusion of increased efficiency. However, you have to remember that all of the plant and machinery was built during the era of cheap fossil fuels, giving the extraction operation a massive subsidy from the cheap fossil fuel era. If the machines wear out and have to be replaced during an era of high energy prices, the operators of the business will quickly discover that the operation is not as profitable as it used to be (in fact, it may even turn out to be loss-making). You can see something like this already happening in the case of the tar sands in Canada. The existing operations are finally making a profit, but attempts to expand are being hurt by spiralling costs, including the increasing price of steel and a shortage of qualified personnel.
In fact I will stick my neck out and make a bold claim that directly contradicts Nick’s claim: if an energy extraction operation is not economic during the era of cheap fossil fuels, it will never become economic in the future as the price of energy rises.
You have to attach a caveat to the preceding claim, though. Operations that benefit from existing infrastructure and machinery (hence enjoying a hidden subsidy) are a special case. They might actually become economic (profitable) when there is a sudden jump in energy prices. But this does not mean they are energy efficient. Really, what is happening here is a kind of arbitrage, where the embodied energy of the machinery and infrastructure bought cheaply during the cheap fossil fuel era can now be “sold” (used) at a profit during an era of high energy prices. In other words, instead of investing money building monster trucks and diggers to extract oil from the tar sands in Canada, the oil companies would probably have been better off simply filling up a gigantic tank of oil sometime in the mid-90s, when oil was $10 a barrel, and selling it now, for $100 a barrel (or they could simply have left the oil in the ground).
25 Dec 5:48am
The idea of a uranium shortage is incorrect.
1) Some Japanese researchers have found a way to economically extract the uranium in the oceans. The cost is higher than the current cost of uranium but still affordable.
2) Very plentiful thorium can extend the usefulness of uranium. A company called Thorium Energy is developing the technology to use blends of thorium and uranium in existing reactors.
3) The amount of exploration done to date for uranium is far less than for oil. Likely many more uranium deposits are waiting to be found. There’s not an analogy here with Peak Oil.
4) Fast breeder reactors can greatly extend the useful supply of uranium as well.
31 Dec 4:10pm
His mistake is in not accounting for breeder reactors, which, starting with a given amount of uranium fuel, both increase the extracted energy and reduce the mass of high-level waste by nearly a factor of ten.
At the end of this century there will be nine billion people on Earth. Even assuming a European level of energy efficiency, supporting them at a Western standard of living will require increasing energy consumption by roughly a factor of four. This is impossible only through conservation, and would result in ruinous global warming if achieved with fossil fuels. Economic justice and environmental responsibility together require that we retire fossil energy and greatly expand all available non-fossil energy sources: nuclear, Solar, wind, geothermal, etc.
17 Jan 8:23pm
I am the editor of the Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy and am disappointed to find a number of critical comments from those who clearly haven’t even read the report.
@codesuidae: I’m not sure how you searched the document, but thorium is listed in the index of the report. You will find the main discussion of it on pp. 24-26.
@Randall Parker and richard schumacher: Uranium from seawater, thorium and fast breeder reactors (along with other potential sources of fuel) are all covered in Chapter 4 of the report.
@ Lucy Skywalker: I’m intrigued by your ideas – I’m going to try and get in touch via your website, but if I fail and you read this drop me an email!
@ Rob: Thanks for the review!
19 Jan 1:04am
I just read the book…it’s excellent. Well done.
It appears that nuclear will suffer from the Principle of Receding Horizons just like almost every other heretofore abundant energy source.
The whole book is valuable, but I particularly learned about the waste created simply in making the uranium. I had no idea about the depleted uranium hexafluoride.
Thanks for putting together a concise, readable guide together.
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