Industry Market Trends

Going Nuclear, Part I

October 13, 2005

We recently covered viable alternatives both in energy markets and in transportation markets. Now let's take a quick look at the nuclear option.

According to this article from Reuters, Nuclear Power Quietly Confident in Energy Debate, the nuclear industry is quietly confident about its technology. Katrina and Rita—even though 'It is difficult to tell if global warming caused hurricanes Katrina and Rita, scientists say but they forecast more unpredictable weather as the world gets hotter.' In addition to the global warming issue, soaring oil and natural gas prices have both providers and consumers a little more than squeamish. (According to this article in BusinessWeek, "After Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in late August and crimped production in the Gulf of Mexico, the American Gas Assn., citing Energy Information Administration statistics, said that price of heating a home by natural gas could increase nationally by as much as 47% this winter, and may be even higher in the Midwest and other areas.")

Industries need heat and power too, so the issue extends — in considerably larger orders of magnitude — beyond the home.

Even the term "alternative energies" may itself be suspect, according to this article. "As usual, environmentalists are assuring everyone it can be done with 'renewables' – wind, solar, and other alternative" energies. But there is no myth more damaging in diverting the nation's attention from its energy problems. The universe has been pretty well explored by now — there aren't any 'alternative' energies sitting around waiting to be discovered. We know all about solar radiation, about the winds that are driven by its heat (in conjunction with the earth's rotation), about rivers and streams and how they can be harnessed to produce electricity. We also know about the chemical energy that is stored in the electrons at the periphery of the atom and can be tapped by 'burning' organic compounds. And we know about the much more powerful energies that lie at the nucleus of the atom."

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That article sums up, "So the choice is the same as it was in 1979: coal or nuclear. And ever since Three Mile Island, we have chosen coal. We now burn three times as much coal as we did in 1980, and the trend is still moving upward. This is almost certainly one of the prime causes of global warming. The time is coming when the nation is going to have to give nuclear power a second look."

While few, save for Greenpeace, will debate the nuclear industry's impressive operational safety record, that pesky waste problem continues to raise issues. The technology exists to recycle nuclear waste, so why don't we?

According to nuclear engineer Joseph Somsel, in this excellent article on EnergyPulse, "With 8,875 curbside recycling programs operational in the US in 2003, [recycling is] a big business and the politically correct thing to do. Yet, once-used nuclear fuel doesn't get recycled in spite of its tremendous residual energy potential and economic value. The US policy was decided in the Carter Administration where the recycling of spent nuclear fuel was prohibited by executive order, largely as non-proliferation gesture. A nearly completed recycling facility was abandoned in South Carolina at a cost of almost a billion dollars. The nuclear plant operators didn't really care since the once-thru cycle was cheaper and less hassle given prevailing yellowcake prices post-Cartel."

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev) has been an outspoken proponent for nuclear safety and stricter regulations for quite some time, which makes sense since Yucca Mountain — the place to be if you're radioactive waste — is in his home state. Somsel proposes that Reid could "save us $80B and fuel $1 trillion of electricity."

"So how does Harry Reid save us all this money? As senior senator from Nevada and Senate Minority Leader, he has fought Yucca Mountain for years and shows no sign of rolling over any time soon. So what if we suggested an alternative? With Senator Reid's leadership, Congress could instruct the US nuclear power industry to adopt recycling. We could still use Yucca Mountain but it would then contain a tenth of the volume of waste that would be toxic for a thousandth of the time, in a waste form (fission products in Pyrex glass matrix) ten times more resistant than spent fuel rods. For a rational constituent, that should sound like a great deal, making Mr. Reid a hero plus aiding America's energy independence by substantially increasing our domestic nuclear fuel supplies.

"One serious objection that we'd be sure to hear from former President Carter and the environmentalist groups is that we'd now be making plutonium an article of commerce. The risks for diversion into the hands of nuclear terrorists will increase, above that poised by our allies' recycle programs. My counter argument is that with current plans, we're really building a future plutonium ore body. In 300 years or so, someone could tunnel into Yucca Mountain and pull out the spent fuel rods with their bare hands, chemically separate out the reactor grade plutonium and manufacture a creditable nuclear explosive. Note that there are 25 nuclear waste repositories planned world-wide. The answer to this objection is really, aren't we just pushing the nuclear proliferation issue off on unborn generations by building Yucca Mountain? Why not deal with it now with recycle and actinide burners?"

Why not, indeed?

Next Installment: More on the "glass matrix" that Somsel mentions.

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