Can Nuclear Power Replace Oil?

by Russell Lowes, Feb 11, 2008

The Conundrum of Energy Independence 

Question:

I was wondering, shouldn't we reduce our oil consumption because so much of it is imported, and wouldn’t nuclear power be a good source to depend on?

Answer:

The nuclear energy industry answer usually goes something like this: America needs nuclear power to reduce its foreign dependency on oil. France became more energy independent because of its nuclear energy program. America needs to use all energy options, including nuclear, to make us more self-reliant.

I get a chuckle from this, because I too like self-reliance. I like the concept of relative energy independence. I think it would be wise to quickly wean ourselves off of foreign oil – and domestic oil. However, these statements are erroneous.

Number 1: The United States only has about 7-10% of the global supply (.pdf file, p. 29 of 48) of what’s left of uranium (See report titled Nuclear Power: Energy Security and Global Warming). I say “of what’s left,” because we are past the half-way point of consumption of the world’s currently mined level of high-grade uranium. We import over nine tenths of our uranium, compared to about two thirds of our oil. Does that sound like greater energy independence to you?

Number 2: France imports all of its uranium; hence France did not become more energy independent by going with more nuclear energy. As stated, the U.S. imports over 90% of its uranium. To give you a sense of how much material that is, I will explain:

One typical reactor in the U.S., at 1000 megawatts each, running for one year at full capacity requires about 200 tonnes of processed uranium (called yellowcake due to its texture and color. A tonne, also referred to as a metric tonne, is a measurement of mass equal to 1000 kilograms). This comes out to somewhere around 0.023 grams of yellowcake per kilowatt-hour. Sounds like a very tiny amount, doesn't it? The nuclear industry likes to promote such images of efficiency.

However, the ore which that yellowcake came from is currently mined is at a very small percentage of uranium. In the 1970s the common percentage, or assay level, was at .3% or 3000 parts per million (ppm). That means for every kilogram (1000 grams) of uranium produced, only an amount of only 3 grams of uranium was contained in the rock. Today the assay level has gone down to an average of 1500 ppm, or .015%. Soon, when uranium content goes down even further, the amount of ore mining will exceed the amount of coal extracted to produce the same amount of energy.

So, for one reactor to run for one year at full capacity, it takes about 1.3 million tonnes of ore. (It is actually more than this because they do not extract all the uranium.) This compares with a coal plant of the same capacity at 2.0 million tonnes of coal.  There are much greater reserves of coal, with energy content staying very similar over the years. On the other hand, uranium is going down in assay level very quickly.

There are forecasters that say that the current assay level of uranium will be depleted within the next ten years. Assay levels will go down and down throughout the next 70 years or so (at current nuclear power levels), when the practically mine-able uranium is depleted. These analyses are well reasoned and rely on the nuclear industry's own data. 

Again, the nuclear industry will tell you, while focusing on the smaller numbers, that it only takes a couple hundred tonnes per year of nuclear fuel to operate a commercial reactor. This is much less than it takes of coal or oil to produce the same amount of energy. BUT WAIT A MINUTE! Remember, they are talking about the finished product, not the raw product. Right now, when you look at the forty-year life cycle of a nuclear reactor, it takes more mining of uranium ore, by weight, than it takes of coal by weight, per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced.

Ponder that for a moment. The uranium has reduced in quality over the last few decades and is now so low in percentage of uranium that it will take more earthmoving for nuclear power than it takes for coal. And compared to oil or natural gas, nuclear power's raw form of energy comes from ore that will far exceed the raw form of energy obtained from oil and gas. There are no open pit mines or mountain top removal for oil and natural gas!

Number 3: We need to use all of our options? That’s like a poor family trying to get out of the poor house by regularly eating at the most expensive place in town along with all the other food options. We’re in a pickle here. We need to use the most cost-effective solutions that are the least damaging to the environment, and best for people.

Number 4: The reality regarding nuclear power is that it has much less energy potential under our current nuclear power program technology, and that there is less energy to produce from the remaining uranium than from the oil, coal or natural gas.

So who really believes that nuclear power is good for energy independence? People who have not looked into the issue very deeply, that’s who. Or, people who have bought the nuclear industry’s claims hook, line and sinker. That hook is there for a reason.