Beating the Heat: Evaporative Coolers vs. Refrigeration

by Roy Emrick and Russell Lowes, May 3, 2010

An earlier version of this article appeared in the April-June 2010 Sierra Club Rincon Group Newsletter.

Which cooling system is best for energy use? Which is best for water use? Which is best for reducing CO2 output of electrical plants?

For several years, a business columnist at the Arizona Daily Star regularly berated evaporative coolers as water wasters and outmoded technology. He said refrigeration was the way to go in the modern world. Many readers disagreed with him but they gave only qualitative arguments. We decided to see if we could find some quantitative data to compare the two systems. We put together our data on our own rooftop systems. One of us (Roy) has had only evaporative coolers since he came to Tucson in 1960. The second author (Russell) has a combined evap/air conditioner/heat pump unit.

Russell’s combo “piggyback” evap cooler/A/C Heatpump system                           Photo by Russell Lowes

Although evaporative coolers used to be the standard cooling device for Tucson homes, they are less common today, so a brief description of how they work is in order. You’ve probably noticed that even on a very hot summer day, when you come out of swimming pool you find yourself shivering. This is because it takes energy to evaporate water (or any liquid for that matter). This energy, called the latent heat of evaporation, comes from your body and cools it. The evap cooler uses the same principle. It is a box with a tank of water, pads of aspen fiber, corrugated paper, or composite (MasterCool), a pump to distribute water to wet the pads, and a blower fan to pull air in through the pads and force it into your house. The air is  cooled as it flows through the pads by the evaporating water. On a hot, dry summer day, this method of cooling is very effective; however, because less water evaporates when the air is more humid, these coolers are admittedly not as effective during the humid monsoon season.

Also, as you probably know, Tucson’s water contains lots of dissolved minerals. These minerals precipitate out on the cooler pads eventually making them useless. To combat this problem, the more modern coolers have pumps that empty out the water tank every eight or twelve hours of operation, thereby purging the salty water. This is good for cooler pad life but uses more water. Because this latter type of cooler is more  common today, we included the use of this pump in our experiment.

Refrigeration or “air conditioning” systems are based on the Joule-Thomson effect: a gas cools when it expands. For example, when you let air out of a tire, it is cool. Here a mechanical pump compresses a gas (usually Freon), which warms it. It then goes through a copper coil where air cools it until it condenses. The resulting liquid then flows through a small opening and expands, causing it to cool, and chill your house.

In the table above, we summarize the energy and water consumption of the two types of coolers. Since our electric bills are usually the first concern, we start there. Our data in column 2 are taken from a number of research papers. There is an amazing spread of water usage, almost a factor of ten, in usage for similar houses, so we have used mid-range values that would apply to Tucson. The $0.113/kWh (kilowatt hours)used in Column 3 for calculating the energy cost comes from dividing Roy’s last July bill of $42.91 by the 380 kWh used.

Next we determined the cost of the water used by the evap cooler. Tucson water has a lower rate ($1.39/ccf) for less than 15 ccf (hundred cubic feet – 748 gallons) and much more ($5.14/ccf) for over 15 ccf. We assumed that folks would use some amount of water that fell into the higher category, so estimated $3/ccf as a reasonable average. This results in the total cost for the two systems in Column 9.

The trickier part was figuring the total water usage, Columns 4, 6 and 9. It may come as a surprise, but air conditioning or heat pump refrigeration is not a water-free process. Water—lots of it— is used in the generation of electricity. You may have noted clouds of steam coming from the cooling towers at power plants. Much of the cooling water is recycled, but even so about 0.5 gallon of water is used to generate one kWh of electrical energy at the Tucson Electric power plants.

Hydropower is even more water consumptive, as a huge amount of water evaporates from the reservoir behind the power dam. Lakes Meade and Powell lose almost a million acre feet per year and although some of this must be budgeted to irrigation, recreation, and flood control, at least 4 gallons/kWh could be attributed to hydropower. Nuclear power is even more water intensive than coal plants. Since we are on the Western Power Grid, it is difficult to say what fraction of our local power comes from which source. Once again, we used an average, and calculated 0.8gal/kWh as a reasonable estimate.

There are also indirect water consumption and environmental factors associated with electricity that must be taken into account. Electricity production uses water in the coal and uranium mining process. Extraction of water at these mines often devastates the local environment around the mines. Another area of environmental impact is that of CO2 production. We address this in the last column of the Table. Here you can see that the evap uses so much less electricity that the CO2 impact is 75% lower than refrigeration.

The Table reflects these assumptions on energy and water consumption. It also compares the total energy and water consumption for a typical home in the Southwestern deserts. Depending on the assumptions, the results are quite variable. For example, if you predict that the energy costs per kilowatt-hour in this area are going to increase, which many energy analysts project, then the evap cooler gains favor. If you plan to buy a super-efficient A/C, then this option gains favor. We did assume a high efficiency A/C, but there are even higher efficiency units becoming available.

There are also other factors not considered in this analysis. For example, some people do better, health-wise, with an evaporative cooler, while others do better with A/C. All air contains bacteria, mold and fungi. These microorganisms can even be beneficial for your health, but some people have problems with the very dry air an A/C produces, while others have problems with the moister air an evap produces. To most people it does not seem to make that much difference, except that in the driest conditions, many people say they like the moisture of the evap for their skin, hair and overall health.

Ultimately, the data seem to suggest that environmentally evaporative is the better choice, but using A/C during the most humid times, and using the evap the rest of the time is still a responsible option. Perhaps the most important lesson is not to use either unnecessarily – turn down the thermostat. That didn’t used to be an option for the old evaportative coolers—they were either on or off—with a high or low option. The modern evaps, however, offer affordable thermostats which pre-wet your pads, turn the system on and off like an A/C thermostat, and allow you to program the hours of startup and shutdown. These thermostats let you further reduce your water and energy consumption.

As for initial cost of system, and of repairs, refrigeration systems are much higher in cost than evaps. Evaps take more maintenance, but the routine maintenance is significantly lower in cost than the infrequent maintenance needs for refrigeration units.

What Can Homeownders Do to Reduce Energy and Water Consumption in Cooling Their Homes and Businesses?

Homeowners have several options if they want to reduce energy and water consumption and still cool their
homes during our hot summer months. If you are willing, like Roy, to weather the humidity, then the lowest cost option is the good ol’ evaporative cooler. If you aren’t quite that tough, you can do what Russell has done and install a “piggyback” unit, or cooler/heat-pump-A/C combo. This allows you to use the evaporative cooler during the drier months of April through June and September through October. It also allows you to use the evap during the drier parts of the days July through August. However, when the humidity increases and evap is no longer cooling efficiently, you can turn it off and the A/C on. If you do get a piggyback,

it is important to get a “barometric damper” which swings freely to open to whichever system you turn on. These allow you to not do anything but shut one system off and the other on. If you have a piggyback, you never want to run both systems at once (see picture of piggyback).

Home insulation is also important, especially with refrigeration. Some of the wide variations in experimental results for cooler energy use are no doubt due to the quality of the insulation of the house. Finally, note that in this article we are discussing retrofitting existing buildings. If you are building new, there are many ways to reduce your heating costs to nearly zero and greatly lower your refrigeration or evap consumption. But, that is another story—or at least another article!


For evaporative cooler water use:

Public Service of New Mexico, PNM, has a study at

MM Karpiscak, et. al, Evaporative Cooler Water Use in Phoenix, Journal AWWA, Vol. 90, Issue 4, April 1998, pp. 121-130, at: (for a fee)

For general info on how evaps work:

Click to access az9145.pdf

For water consumption at coal mines:
Black Mesa Project Final EIS, Vol. I Report, DOI FES 08-49, OSM-EIS-33, p. 11, November 2008

Click to access IssuesforFEandWater.pdf

Click to access MCA_SOTA.pdf

Re-Think Nuclear

Presented as a one-page primer for the Sustainable Tucson Newsletter

By Russell Lowes, February 27, 2010

The real choice is not nuclear versus coal, but nukes & coal versus the reasonable alternatives. 

There is massive opposition to coal now, which comprises about 45% of U.S. electricity. You can see smoke from the stacks or read about its CO2 emissions.

Opposition to nuclear energy is also amassing. Nuclear also produces CO2 emissions, which are growing ever-greater. It emits invisible radioactivity, uses even more water, and is much pricier. Here are some of the problems with nuclear energy.

Safety Issues Persist: The world has 436 reactors. In order to have a significant contribution to world energy, 1000 reactors are projected. Even if future reactor accidents improve by a factor of 10, the chance of a reactor meltdown would be roughly one more Chernobyl-like “sacrifice zone” by 2050.

Terrorist Issues: Shortly after the 9/11 New York jetliner crashes, the NRC corrected itself saying that airliners could destroy U.S. reactors. There is an even greater threat at the adjacent spent fuel cooling pools, housed in non-hardened buildings which, if breached, could create a meltdown.

Poor Economics/Subsidies Required: Nuclear electricity would run about 25 cents per kilowatt-hour to your meter. Current Tucson electricity is about 11 cents. New coal would be about 16 cents, wind at 12, solar photovoltaic at 24, gas at 13. The best option, however, is reducing energy with better lighting, architecture, insulation, A/C efficiency, etc.  Energy efficiency averages about 3 cents. Numerous nuclear industry officials have said they will build no new reactors without taxpayer loan guarantees.

Two Ways to Worsen Global Warming: Investing 1 dollar in nuclear rather than energy efficiency, you forgo saving 8 times the electricity. In other words, you can invest 1 dollar in nuclear and get 4 kilowatt-hours – or you can invest in energy savings and get 33 KWH. Investing in nuclear energy will dominate energy dollars, setting back the real options.

Second, nukes produce about 110 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. This is 11 times the CO2 of wind, double that of solar, and many times that of energy savings/efficiency. It gets worse if you include 1 million years of waste storage.

Water Consumption Is Highest: Water lost to the environment at Palo Verde is about 0.8 gallons per kilowatt-hour. Coal consumes 0.5 gallons. With solar PV, wind and energy savings, water use is negligible.

National Security Is Diminished: We import 80-92% of our U.S. nuclear fuel. Energy independence is set back with nuclear.

Waste Legacy: The U.S. courts have ruled that nuclear waste much be safeguarded for 1 million years, 25,000 times the 40-year operating life of a reactor.

Russell Lowes is Research Director for He was the primary author of a book on the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant, the largest U.S. nuclear plant upwind of Tucson about 125 miles. This book was used in a campaign to successfully stop two reactors at this now three-reactor complex. You can contact Russell Lowes for presentations or for questions at  Documentation to this article can be found at

With the New Energy Bills in Congress, the U.S. Government May be the Biggest Thing Between Us and a Renewable Future

By Russell Lowes, February 11, 2010

It shouldn’t be this way. The Government should be part of the solution – not a handicap. However, this is how the landscape has been settling and it is becoming apparent that with the influence of special interests, nuclear energy is going to get a huge amount of our tax dollars, while other, much cheaper energy strategies, are shorted. With so much potential for energy efficiency, this would give us time to make the transition to renewables.

With the new bills in Congress EE by state Graphic2 DOWNSIZED

Some people say that nuclear energy has become outdated. I would go so far as to say it was never in vogue, in a valid way. It has always cost too much. It has always taken too much water. It has always had too many environmental impacts. And, it has always had too many security risks. I could go on.

Nuclear energy is so expensive compared to the realistic options, like a blend of renewables and  energy-saving efficiencies, that we do not need any more nukes anywhere in the world. I cannot emphasize this enough.Yet, the current energy bills in Congress promote nuclear energy to the tune of a 150% expansion.(1)

To fully appreciate the wrongheadedness of this policy, it is important to understand the actual cost of nuclear power per kilowatt generated. Here are the details:

Construction costs: Nuclear plants cost a lot to build. A nuclear plant in the last round of nuclear reactor construction cost $3100 per kilowatt to install in 1988, running out the inflation with an online inflation calculator (like the Bureau of Labor Standards’ yields $5642 in 2008 real (adjusted for inflation) dollars.

Any nuclear plant that is being planned today will not be finished until 2022 or so, which if a 4% inflation is run out from the $5642, it comes to $9003 per kilowatt installed. This figure is probably low, as many plants that were canceled in the late 1980s were going to be much higher than the average $3100, but let us use this figure.

The next step in projecting nuclear costs includes projecting capital payback, meaning what the annual capital payback is over 30 years, the interest associated, plus fees and taxes. To make this simple for analysis, this is put in terms of a capitalized payback or levelized fixed charge rate of 14% per year for 30 years. So $9000/kilowatt of capacity times 14% equals $1260 to be paid per year for 30 years, for a total capital payback of $37,800 for each kilowatt of capacity, plus some fees for the last 10 years which I will ignore here.

The next step is to project the lifespan and the average percentage that the plant will deliver energy at (or capacity factor). I have looked the literature over extensively and believe the best estimates are 40 years and an 85% capacity factor. So take that 1 KW capacity times the 40 years times 8766 hours per year times 85% and you get the number of kilowatt-hours (KWH) that you are likely to get from that 1 KW of capacity, or 298,044 KWH. Divide this KWH figure into the capital cost of $37,800 and you get 12.7 cents per KWH for construction and related payback costs alone.

Operation and maintenance: Nuclear power plants are expensive to operate. After the initial outlay to build the plant, there is the additional cost of fuel,operation and maintenance, which an inter- disciplinary industry report called the Keystone study(2) found to be at 4.3 cents per KWH for the future. To take the capital cost of 12.7 cents per KWH and add the operating cost of 4.3, you get 17 cents per KWH.

Transmission and Distribution: Finally, you have to add in a transmission and distribution cost, which should be about 7-9 cents per KWH in the future, which bring us to about 25 cents per KWH. When you compare that that 25 cents per KWH cost of generating nuclear energy to the cost of saving energy, there is an over 8:1 ratio.(3) Surveys of our nation’s states that have energy efficiency programs show it costs $0.03 to save energy per kilowatt-hour saved. This is one eighth the cost of nuclear energy’s $0.25/KWH, not counting the long-term or other hidden costs of nuclear energy.

Energy efficiency includes all sorts of things, for example:

• Compact florescent lights (CFLs) replacing incandescent light bulbs;

• Improved refrigerator efficiency for households;

• Improved air conditioning efficiency for businesses and households;

• Reduction of raw materials to be manufactured to make the same products; and

• Improved architectural design.

A number of U.S. states have statewide programs that promote the use of energy efficiency. The success hasbeen most pronounced in California. See the accompanying U.S. map that tells you how much energy could be saved if each state simply went to California’s current level of energy efficiency.(4) Note that California is still dramatically improving. So for Arizona as an example, we will be able to save more than the 52% listed.

With such a stark reduction in energy consumption, many of our current electrical plants could have their useful lives stretched out, until renewables and other technologies come into play. That is why it is so outrageous that Congress is supporting an expansion of nuclear energy as a “solution” to our energy problem. First, after so many of your tax dollars have been spent by our government on nukes, it is outrageous that nuclear energy is still so expensive. Second, it is outrageous in a good way that energy efficiency is so cheap. Third, it is outrageous that since this price differential is so high that we would even be considering new nuclear – or coal – plants as an option any more.

(1) EPA Analysis of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, 6/23/09

Click to access HR2454_Analysis.pdf

(2) Nuclear Power Joint Fact-Finding, The Keystone Center, June 2007,

Click to access rpt_KeystoneReportNuclearPowerJointFactFinding_2007.pdf

(3)American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy,,

also Saving Energy Cost-Effectively: A National Review of the Cost of Energy SavedThrough Utility-Sector Energy Efficient Programs, Katherine Fiedrich, et al., Sept. 2009,


(4)New Rules Project, Energy Self-Reliant States, October 2009, p. 25.

Click to access ESRS.pdf

Pro-Coal and Pro-Nuclear Congressional Energy Bills on Crash Course with Environment, U.S. Economy and the Public

By Russell Lowes, November 22, 2009
This may seem like blasphemy: the House Bill on energy known as The American Clean Energy Act is the most detrimental bill the House has passed since the Patriot Act. Like the Patriot Act, it is not what it says it is. It should never become law.

        It is not a clean energy bill.

        It is not a pro-solution climate bill.

        It is not a pro-American bill.


        It is an energy giveaway bill.

        It is a bill that deletes Clean Air Act authority for the Environmental Protection Agency over nearly 50 coal plants.

        It is a bill that sets up an unfair energy tax system called cap & trade tax (CTT).

        It is a bill that sets up CTT, that doubles as a financial derivative, which would be responsible for economic deterioration of U.S. economy, just like the CDOs and CDSs that helped cause the current economic downturn.

Further, the Senate bill versions are just as bad or worse.

At issue is a battle that has a huge bearing on the United States and world’s environment, economy and social order. The American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACESA, has passed the U.S. House and is now in a number of different forms before the Senate.  With the change in the administration and increased majorities in Congress, we had all hoped that the 111th Congress would act fast to implement a new climate bill to start controlling our pollution output like carbon dioxide.

The House Bill (HR 2454), however, is replete with problems, as are the Senate versions currently being drafted. While it is significant that a house of Congress has, for the first time, passed an energy & climate bill, it is also important that the bill that Congress ultimately enacts imposes a tax on energy in a way that will discourage excess energy use.  That is because energy use analysis indicates that price increases are the most effective way to curtail energy use, improve the way we use energy and decrease pollution.


There are numerous problems with the 1428-page House Bill (HB)1, so I do not attempt to address all of them.  Rather, I will highlight three main areas that need to be corrected in a final bill if it is to be effective: 


ACESA implements cap & trade tax and financial derivative system instead of a simple carbon tax.



Emissions trading, also known as “cap & trade tax” is a way of controlling pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants.  Under “cap & trade tax” the government sets a limit, or “cap” on the total amount of a pollutant that can be emitted.  Companies or other groups are issued permits that give them the right to emit a certain percentage of that amount of pollutant (“credits” or “allowances”).  The total amount of credits or allowances cannot exceed the cap.  Companies that need to increase their emission allowance can buy credits from other companies who don’t need all of their credit because they pollute less.  This transfer is the “trade.”  Thus, companies have a financial incentive to reduce the amount of pollution they emit and a disincentive to exceed their set allowance. 

While cap & trade is a tax in that the U.S. Government will be collecting auction fees/taxes, it is also a financial derivative, in that the certificates issued through auction will derive their value from the sold “right” to pollute.

ACESA includes a cap & trade tax system where the certificates would be issued through an auction.  By requiring companies to buy their certificates, the government forces them to pay for the “right” to pollute.  When he was campaigning for the presidency, candidate Obama promised that under his cap and trade plan, 100% of the certificates would be auctioned—in other words, no one would get a free ride to pollute. 


Unfortunately, the house bill only requires 15% of the emissions certificates to be auctioned, or paid for, during the first year.  That figure will increase to only 70% by 2030.  Obviously, this reduced auction amount is a major disappointment to those of us who want to see polluters, not the public, bear the financial burden of their pollution.  


The reduced auction amount isn’t the only problem with the cap & trade provision in the bill. Although cap & trade systems can be effective they are also susceptible to abuse.  Opportunists are able to take advantage of the complexity of the mechanism to “game the system.”  To curb this potential problem, the House Bill sets up an oversight committee under the Commodities Futures Trading Commission to regulate hedge fund and other derivative-related aspects of cap & trade. However, it is only a cursory oversight arrangement and there is legitimate concern that it would not prevent market manipulation, which in turn could lead to a new economic bubble in this new speculative market and ultimately hurt the U.S. economy. Illicit cap & trade tax schemes have already been exposed in Europe.2


All of these problems with the cap & trade tax approach could be eliminated by implementing a simple carbon tax.3


ACESA Eliminates EPA Clean Air Act authority to regulate carbon dioxide.


The House Bill is also problematic because it proposes to strip EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.4  This authority was only recently recognized by the United States Supreme Court, and EPA is only now moving toward exercising it; however, the House Bill would reverse that progress. 


At least one analysis of the House Bill indicates that this proposed de-authorization of the EPA would mean that 47 coal plants will be able to be built without EPA regulation.  Clearly, that outcome is contrary to any meaningful goal to reduce carbon emissions. 


ACESA Funds coal and nuclear energy more heavily than increased efficiency and renewables.


Finally, the proposed funding under the bill for new technologies has misplaced priorities and incentives.  Under the House Bill, $60 billion would be allocated for “clean coal” carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. CCS is a technology that would capture the carbon coming out of the coal stack and then sequester it so that it does not get into the atmosphere.


There are a number of CCS different possibilities in the process of being developed, but none has been demonstrated on a commercial scale, and it is unlikely that CCS will be economically practical.  Yet, this is the largest chunk of money directly listed in the bill for any one technology. While energy efficiency and renewable energies get $90 billion by 2025, or $6 billion per year or so, that is only a fraction of the amount that coal and nuclear energy will get.


One of the Senate bills includes loan incentives that would give nuclear and coal CCS hundreds of billions of dollars in aid.  The decision to disproportionately encourage these two technologies with financial aid and incentives in a “clean energy” bill is simply baffling.  Keep in mind that nuclear has been shown to be an uneconomical technology, and that coal CCS, even if it works, will lead to much more coal mining. The truth is, there is no clean coal, nor would any reasonable person consider nuclear energy a “clean” fuel given its significant waste problem. 


Yet the bill’s definition of clean energy is so loose, under it coal CCS and nuclear energy will be considered “clean.”  And here’s the kicker–these two technologies, coal CCS and nuclear, are so expensive (in the range of 25-35 cents per kilowatt-hour for new units) that if we put our dollars into them, they will suck so many dollars away from energy efficiency and renewables (in the range of 2-25 cents per kilowatt-hour) that there would not be enough money to solve the climate solutions we desperately need.


In summary, here is what needs to happen to make these bills a positive force: 1) restructure cap & trade tax or, better yet, replace it with a simple carbon tax; 2) do not remove the Clean Air Act authority from the EPA; and 3) define clean as clean, and re-design this bill to fund the technologies that are truly clean.


You can call your senators and stress how irresponsible the cap & trade system is. If it passes the Senate, you can then call your Representatives and Senators to ask them to block the authorization of the reconciliation of these two terrible bills.



Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the Sierra Club Rincon Group newsletter, under my new appointment as Energy Subcommittee Chair for this Group.

1Available at

2Associated Press article in Arizona Daily Star (AP), Fight Against Global Warming Spawning New Type of Crime: Carbon-Permit Fraud, 8/22/09, p. A12,


4See analysis at

John McCain’s 45/100 Whim for Nuclear Power

By Russell Lowes, June 22, 2008

Senator McCain announced a new prescription for energy for America in a recent speech. He is now calling for 45 nuclear reactors to be completed by 2030 and an additional 55 reactors to be completed thereafter.(1) He had been promoting nuclear energy as a solution to global warming for years. But now. . .

So much for nukes being the solution for global warming. With McCain's 45/100 nukes, even if we had  100 nukes tomorrow and even IF THEY DID reduce carbon emissions, 100 nukes would not be enough to play a significant role.

However, John McCain probably wants to get his foot in the door and push for many more, eventually. The infamous 2003 MIT study postulated 1000 nukes.(2) Some organizations and individuals since then have postulated many more.

The reason that 100 nukes will amount to about a drop in a bucket is this. The United States generates about 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.(3) Even if that electrical production was used to displace coal, and CO2 production of the twenty steps of the nuclear energy cycle was not counted, then it would save coal plants from putting about 400 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. 400 million is only 7% of 6 billion U.S. CO2 emissions.

However, much of this nuclear capacity would displace solar, energy efficiency technologies, natural gas, etc. These technologies produce far less CO2 than coal, so the displacement would be much lower.

It is important to remember that nuclear energy has twenty steps of CO2 production, from mining to waste management. It produces a huge amount of CO2.

Let’s focus on the costs of McCain's 45/100 Rx.

In the early part of this decade, nuclear reactors were projected by the industry to cost $1500 to 2000 per kilowatt of capacity. Then about two years ago, a utility put the cost at $2600. Then estimates started really climbing. Over the last two years, estimates have increased all the way to $10,000 per kilowatt, 5-7-fold what the projection was just a few years ago.

With these new cost estimates flying out of the utilities' planning staffs, the 100 reactors would cost about $9-10 billion each if they averaged 1000 megawatts each. Most reactor designs these days are larger, though, ranging from 1100 to 1600 megawatts. So let's say the average size changes from the current 1000 to the future 1350 MW. At the most recent utility estimate of $10,000 per kilowatt, 100 reactors would total $1.35 trillion.

If these plants were all finished in the same year, to make it simple, and the payback (levelized fixed charge rate) was 15% per year, the annual payback would average $202.5 billion per year. If we shared that expense over 350 million U.S. citizens over 30 years, that would be $579 per person per year for each of those 30 years.

To put this into another perspective, the total energy bill for our country is about $900 billion per year. That is for gas for our cars, electricity, all manufacturing, commercial and residential consumption for heating, cooling, everything. Just for this measly 100 reactors, with a boost from 19% of energy to probably 25% or so (considering we won't have any money left to spend on energy efficiency or renewables, so energy growth will remain high), there will simply not be enough benefit to outweigh the costs.

All this nuclear plant capacity for $579 per citizen of the U.S. for 30 years, and we haven't even put on the costs of fuel, operation and maintenance, waste storage, environmental remediation from terrorist or other environmental breaches!

–Russell Lowes

1) Public Record, at
2) Energy Information Administration at
3) Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The Future of Nuclear Power, 2003.

Post-Mortem for a Pseudo-Climate Security Act

By Russell J. Lowes, June 8, 2008

The Senators from Connecticut and Virginia thought they could pull a fast one. They thought they could play the game the Bush Administration is so into, the mis-naming game. Healthy Forests runs down our forests. No Child Left Behind leaves an underfunded ill-conceived program putting our public school system at risk. So why not call this the Climate Security Act?

Security is the opposite of what this act was intended to bolster. This Senate bill was intended to instead increase the profit of the few at the expense of the many. The names of the authors/sponsors of the bill could have been a warning clue. The Lieberman-Warner bill had numerous problems in it.

However, there were two problems of epic proportions.  One was promotion of a massive nuclear energy system for the U.S. This bill would have had the effect of promoting the nationalization of financing for nuclear energy.

The other was the promotion of an inherently unaccountable cap & trade pollution-“rights” trading system. This proposal is so non-transparent and complex that headlines of the future would have been declaring fraud after fraud, corruption after corruption.

Funny thing is, there was no mention of “nuclear energy” in the bill. The bill just mentioned that there would be funding for low-carbon technologies and then it defined low carbon in such a way that didn’t include life cycle. It defined it so that nuclear energy would be an easy recipient, without counting the life cycle energy inputs.

On a life cycle basis, nuclear energy produces massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas. On a standalone reactor basis, nuclear energy does not produce very much. Even while a reactor is running, it sometimes requires grid electricity or backup diesel generators to be assisting while power calibration between the reactor and the grid is occurring, for example.

However, this minimal on-site power requirement is dwarfed by the twenty steps of the nuclear fuel cycle, from mining to enrichment, from milling to construction of waste facilities, from fuel fabrication to environmental cleanup of nuclear energy and waste accidents, nuclear energy is a CO2 hog, just like coal.

The authors of this bill knew that nuclear energy would be the recipient of the endowment. Karl Grossman pointed this out in his article, “Half-Trillion Dollars for Nukes!” (See

Let’s just run some simple numbers about how the vast nuclear program of this bill would hurt America and you, the taxpayer. This program is just the beginning of what some would like to see become of a beefed-up nuclear energy “solution.” In the early days of this decade, Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that in order for nuclear energy to have a significant impact on our energy strategy, it would take 1,000 reactors. Another major study since then put a range at 1,000 to 2,500 reactors. Our average size reactor in the U.S. is, coincidentally, 1000 megawatts, or 1,000,000 kilowatts. Here’s the scoop on costs for such a program.
– Number of reactors:                  1,000
– Size per reactor average:         1,000,000 kilowatts of capacity
– Cost per kilowatt, approx.        $9,000
– Multiplying the above figures:   $9,000,000,000,000 (9 trillion dollars)

Simple enough? Well the payback on that $9 trillion is about 15% per year for a thirty-year loan schedule in a free enterprise system. That would equate to $1.35 trillion per year. If citizens in the U.S. average 350 million over that 30-year period, the amount paid per year in the U.S. would average $3857 per person! This is just simple math. This $1.35 trillion for loan repayment  compares with the total $900 billion or so that the U.S. spent in 2007 on ALL energy costs (electricity, gas for vehicles, heating oil, etc.). There is no getting around it – nuclear energy is a 20th Century technology that keeps rearing its ugly head.

The renowned Rocky Mountain Institute shows how nuclear energy is about 7 times the price of energy efficiency. Energy efficiency combined with a solid renewable energy program is the centerpiece of any sound energy policy. Nuclear energy is now about 3 times the cost of wind energy, and a little higher than what concentrated solar power is going for.

On the issue of cap & trade/pollution-rights trading, and the much more effective program called “carbon tax.” there is a great website called

Quoting from this website:

Why revenue-neutral carbon taxes are essential,

The next Administration and Congress will be called upon to address 21st Century climate realities. In a carbon-constrained world, a permanent, essential feature of U.S. policy must be a carbon tax that reduces the emissions that are driving global warming.

* A carbon tax is a tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas).
* A carbon tax is the most economically efficient means to convey crucial price
signals and spur carbon-reducing investment and low-carbon behavior.
* Carbon taxes should be phased in so businesses and households have time to
* A carbon tax should be revenue-neutral: government can soften the impacts of
added costs through rebates or by reducing other taxes (“tax-shifting”).
* Support for a carbon tax is growing steadily among public officials; economists;
scientists; policy experts; leading business, religious, and environmental
figures; and on the opinion pages of leading publications.




The next climate act should be a real climate security act. Let’s make it well-known that nuclear and fossil energies need to be phased out, and that energy efficiencies and renewables need to be the centerpiece of any effective legislation.

Nuclear Safety. . . What, Me Worry?

by Russell Lowes, May 21, 2008

    It is difficult to expound on the potential for terrorism at our nation’s 104 commercial reactors, without sounding ridiculous – that is, without sounding like you’re making stuff up. That’s because the bloopers that occur are beyond the pale. Sometimes the bloopers are specific actions. Of even more concern, sometimes the bloopers are the very policies set in place. Ponder these real-life, yet hard-to-believe, citations on the safety and security of nuclear energy.

    Florida Power & Light is facing $208,000 in federal fines because firing pins were removed from the weapons of Wackenhut [rent-a-cop] guards at its Turkey Point nuclear power plant. The NRC said it was prohibiting two former Wackenhut employees, Jon Brumer and Oscar Aguilar, from working in NRC-regulated facilities for five years because both deliberately violated federal policies by removing the firing pins.

                            –John Dorschner, Miami Herald, 1/23/08

    NRC officials said the fine was being proposed because a 2006 investigation found that security officers employed by Wackenhut Nuclear Services were willfully inattentive to duty (sleeping) from 2004 through 2006.

                            –Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) News Release, 4/9/08

    Two Indian Point nuclear power plant security guards have been suspended for coming to work with cocaine in their systems, a spokesman for the plants' owner said. One guard was tested for drugs after leaving her post unexpectedly and failing to respond when commanders radioed her . . . she was found sick in a bathroom.

                            –Newsday, “2 Indian Point guards test positive for cocaine, are suspended,” 3/22/08


                            –Title of NRC News Release, 4/8/08

    Undercover Congressional investigators set up a bogus company and obtained a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March that would have allowed them to buy the radioactive materials needed for a so-called dirty bomb. The investigators, from the Government Accountability Office, demonstrated once again that the security measures put in place since the 2001 terrorist attacks to prevent radioactive materials from getting into the wrong hands are insufficient, according to a G.A.O. report.

                            –Eric Lipton, “A Nuclear Ruse Uncovers Holes in U.S. Security,” New York Times, 7/12/07

    Poor safeguards at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Sequoyah Nuclear Plant allowed M-4 assault rifles to enter the facility unchecked and be improperly stored in a secure zone, United Press International has learned. According to the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight, an independent government watchdog, the cargo contained 30 M-4 assault rifles.

                            –Ben Lando and Donna Borak, “Lapse Allows Guns into Tennessee Nuke Plant,” United Press International, 8/18/06

    On the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001 my phone rang in my office. It was a national reporter who asked me to explain what would happen if a well-fueled jumbo jet were to crash into a reactor. I was honest to my own heart that day and declined to take the interview. One week later Mohammed ElBeredei did the right thing, and was honest too. [The Secretary General] of the International Atomic Energy Agency declared to the world that if a jumbo jet hit a reactor it would cause a Chernobyl-like event and that no reactor in the world could withstand such a hit.

                            –Mary Olson, Nuclear Information and Resource Service

    Planes are not on the list of weapons that reactors must be prepared to survive. One of the five [NRC] commissioners, Gregory B. Jaczko, has called for the panel to require design changes to reduce vulnerability, but the other four [NRC commissioners] seem unpersuaded. At the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade association, Adrian Heymer, senior director for new plant deployment, said designers had analyzed existing plants and made many changes that cost little but made the new designs more difficult to attack. But, in general, Mr. Heymer said, protecting against terrorism was a government function.
     Speaking about protection against aircraft attacks, Mr. Jaczko said in an interview, “We’ve left it in the hands of Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration and the reactor vendors, who are building these plants, to do what they think is right in this area, and to me that’s clearly not the answer.”

                            –Matthew L. Wald, “Agency Considers A-Plants’ Vulnerability,” New York Times,        11/9/06

    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded Monday that it is impractical for nuclear power plant operators to try to stop terrorists from crashing an airliner into a reactor. Plant operators instead should focus on limiting radioactive release from any such airborne attack, the agency said in a revised defense plan for America's nuclear plants. The agency approved the new defense plan, most of which is secret, by a 5-0 vote at a brief hearing in which it was not discussed in any detail.

                            –H. Josef  Hebert, “Nuclear Agency: Air Defenses Impractical,” Associated Press wire, 1/29/07

    The arrests of three men who allegedly tried to sell contraband uranium for $1 million show how a shadowy black market for nuclear components has survived. . . officials tracking the illicit global trade in radioactive materials said the arrests underscored the risk of nuclear substances falling into terrorist hands. Should that happen, "the consequences would be so catastrophic, the world would be a different place the next day," said Richard Hoskins, who supervises a database of stolen, missing, smuggled or unauthorized radioactive materials for the International Atomic Energy Agency. In 2006 alone, the U.N. nuclear watchdog registered 252 reported cases — a 385 percent increase since 2002.

                            –The Arizona Daily Star/The Associated Press, 3 held as uranium bootleggers; 'dirty bomb' fears are growing, 11/30/07

    Large quantities of nuclear materials are inadequately secured in several countries, including Russia and Pakistan. Since 1993, there have been more than 1,300 incidents of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials, including plutonium and highly enriched uranium, both of which can be used to develop an atomic bomb. And these are only the incidents we know about. It is quite possible that a terrorist group could acquire enough nuclear material to build a bomb.

                        –Jay Davis, Washington Post, “After A Nuclear 9/11,” 3/25/08   

. . .Quoted the following from an October 24, 2001 Associated Press story: “Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, encouraged followers in 1994 to strike such a plant, officials say. An FBI agent has testified in court that one of Yousef’s followers told him in 1995 of plans to blow up a nuclear plant. And in 1999 the NRC acknowledged to Congress that it had received a credible threat of a terrorist attack against a nuclear power facility.”
    In a September 21 press release, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission stated “the NRC did not specifically contemplate attacks by aircraft such as Boeing 757s and 767s and nuclear plants were not designed to withstand such crashes.” A nuclear meltdown could occur in a nuclear plant’s reactor or its spent fuel pool. The pool stores irradiated fuel rods after they are commercially “spent” and become high level nuclear waste.

                        –Michael Steinberg, “Greenpeace Urges Shut Down Of U.S. Nukes” Z magazine, February 2002

    An under-reported attack on a South African nuclear facility last month demonstrates the high risk of theft of nuclear materials by terrorists or criminals. Such a crime could have grave national security implications for the United States or any of the dozens of countries where nuclear materials are held in various states of security.
    Shortly after midnight on Nov. 8, four armed men broke into the Pelindaba nuclear facility 18 miles west of Pretoria, a site where hundreds of kilograms of weapons-grade uranium are stored.

                        –Micah Zenko, “A Nuclear Site Is Breached; South African Attack Should Sound Alarms,” Washington Post, 12/20/07

    A sleeping illegal immigrant was accidentally carried onto the property, it was reported Thursday. Edison officials said that a man was found on the San Onofre property. . . on July 25, the North County Times reported. The rail cars carry freight inside the San Onofre grounds and pass by an area where Edison stores spent fuel — highly radioactive material that can no longer produce power [which, however, can still melt down].

                        –San Diego News/, “Man Sleeping In Train Car Slips Into San Onofre Power Plant; Plant Changes Security Procedures,” 8/2/07

Nuclear Energy is a Money Grab. . .

Electricity Consumption, California Vs. the U.S.

by Russell Lowes, updated 10/24/14

. . .From Renewables and Energy Efficiency to a Counter-Productive Industrial Web

Twelve Reasons to Oppose Nuclear Energy and Support a Green Energy Future

We have a complete set of energy solutions: solar cells, wind turbines, concentrating solar, ocean current and wave energy, energy efficiency, energy storage, and the list goes on.(1) As these technologies mature, we can quickly reduce nuclear, coal and gas use.

The most environmentally and economically destructive sources of electricity should be reduced now, as other technologies emerge. The phase-out of nuclear, coal and gas electrical energy will reduce global warming while freeing up monies for renewables,  efficiencies and energy storage.

This list focuses on the nuclear energy option. Nuclear energy is being heavily promoted with millions of dollars in public relations budgets by the nuclear industry. This compilation will expose the nuclear myths.

California and Germany are two examples of how to make the switch toward a safe and effective energy future. In California, the per capita energy has gone down through a myriad of efficiency techniques.(2) In Germany, solar production has gone up radically, through a savvy system of support, which is turning Germany, hardly known for sunny days, into the top solar country. (3) See the graph at the top of the article for the California example.(2)


Twelve Reasons to Oppose Nuclear Energy and to Support Renewables and Efficiencies.

1)     Nuclear Energy is Too Expensive. In 2002, industry estimates for building reactors were in the $1500-2000 per kilowatt range.(4) Estimates crept up to $4000 by 2007.(5) Then, the Moody’s ratings firm projected around $5000.(6) Even more recently, Florida Power and Light estimated between $5300 and $8200 per kilowatt.(7) This amount of capital would cause nuclear energy to cost far more than the alternatives.

The record of nuclear reactor costs in the 1980s, about $3100 in 1987, combined with general inflation would yield about $6496 in 2014 dollars.(8) The current round of U.S. reactors being built is likely to start up in 2022. In the 1970s and 80s the average overrun for nuclear construction was more than 220%.(9) This record of massive overruns compared to roughly 50% for coal plants.(10)

At $9000/KW, 1000 reactors would cost $9 trillion. The capital payback would be $1.26 trillion per year, exceeding the $1.1 trillion we spend on ALL energy in the U.S. annually. This would be an 114% increase in total energy cost, just to cover the capital expenditure of construction of a robust nuclear program. This does not include fuel costs, operation and maintenance, nor the occasional accident or early retirement of some of these reactors. With this much going into nuclear energy alone, the money available for solar and other real solutions would dry up.The capital markets would be dominated by a sliver of the American energy system.

2)    Expansion of Nuclear Energy Would Worsen Global Warming. Even if nuclear energy had the CO2 advantage the nuclear industry claims, building at least U.S. 1000 reactors would be required to significantly reduce global warming.(11) Over 20 years there would be one reactor completed weekly. The world has never seen anything near that kind of construction performance.(12)
Additionally, uranium resource depletion is occurring. Within about thirty years, the amount of energy required just to mine, mill and build reactors would exceed the CO2 levels of natural gas plants.(13) It would worsen thereafter, with possible reactor shut-downs, due to fuel availability problems.

3)    Nuclear Energy Represents a Long-Term Negative Net Energy. Nuclear plants already have a long-term negative net energy and CO2 level higher than fossil fuels, if you count the energy to manage the waste over the legally required one million years.

4)    The Most Stripping of our Public Lands through Mining Would Happen with Nuclear Energy. With ore quality diminishing, mining levels would skyrocket. To illustrate, when we have to resort to mining granite for uranium, the weight of ore would equal fifty times the weight of coal per kilowatt-hour.(14)

5)     High and Permanent Government Subsidy Is Required. Nuclear energy is too risky for investment without its insurance renewed by Congress (the Price-Anderson Act, 1957). The property cost of a major accident could top half a trillion dollars.(15) Additional medical costs are waived by the Act. The industry has said if it does not get the government to guarantee loans, it will not build any reactors.(16)

6)    Unacceptable Accident Potential Persists. Analysis has put the chance of at least three meltdowns at 50% if the world opts for the large number of 2500 nuclear reactors. The ecological and economical impact of one meltdown would dwarf the impact of Hurricane Katrina, with thousands of years of radiological damage.(17)

7)    National Security Is Compromised. After the September 11 attacks, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said reactors could withstand impact of a 747. They have since retracted this statement.(18) This same terrorist network may target a nuclear reactor in the future. Additionally, every hot on-site reactor spent-fuel pool is a perfect terrorist target, with waste that would melt down from such an impact. These targets are not reasonably protected.

8)     Nuclear Energy Has the Most Water Usage. It has lower thermal efficiency compared to fossil-fuel, at 33%, compared to 40% for coal, and 45% for natural gas. Nuclear energy requires more water for cooling. The Palo Verde plant, 35 miles upwind of Phoenix, requires about 55% the water of a city with a half-million people, like Tucson, Arizona, or 120,000 acre feet of annual water use.(19)

9)    Too Much Radiation Is Produced. Governmental studies conclude that there is no additional safe level of radiation. Radiative gas is released into the air at the reactor site, routinely, increasing cancer risk.(20)

10)    Million-Year Waste Legacy Will Burden Society. The EPA had a 10,000 year waste management requirement, until the courts replaced it with a 1,000,000 year time line.(21) Just 5.3 kilograms of Plutonium-239, which has a half life of about 25 thousand years, is enough for a nuclear bomb.(21a)

11)    Civil Liberties Would Diminish. With an increase terrorist threat to a highly vulnerable and risky system in place, the pressure on governments to subdue civil liberties will always be there with nuclear energy.

12)    Finally, Other Options are Better. U.S. wind energy increased 140% over the last five years, with the capacity of sixty-one nuclear reactors added.(22) With Texas gaining the lead in 2006, one Texan said that Texas will never lose this lead to any other state in the nation. We need bold strides like this.

    Americans are far more resourceful than to think that we have to return to an over-subsidized outdated electricity option like nuclear energy. We need to use our limited energy dollars for real solutions that work! Support renewables and efficiencies instead of nuclear energy.

Russell J. Lowes, Research Director at is the primary author of a book on the nation’s largest nuclear plant upwind of Phoenix, “Energy Options for the Southwest, Part I, Nuclear and Coal Power,” released in 1979. The book played a principal part in the cancellation of two additional reactors at this plant.

1) Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D., Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, “Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free, A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy,” 2007, at
2) “OnEarth” Newsletter, National Resources Defense Council, Spring 2006,
3) Reiner Gaertner, “Germany Embraces the Sun,” Wired, September1, 2007,
4) For example, The Future of Nuclear Power, An Interdisciplinary MIT Study, 2003.
5) Tulsa World, “AEP Not Interested in Nuclear Plants,” 9/1/07.
6) SNLi, “Moody’s Sees High Risk in Building New Nuclear Generation Capacity,” 10/10/07.
7) Curtis Morgan, Miami Herald, “Turkey Point: FPL Asks Panel to Allow Two More Nuclear Reactors,” 1/31/08,
8) Brice Smith, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change, 2006, p. 8.
For inflation calculate, see
9) Energy Information Administration, An Analysis of Nuclear Power Plant Construction Costs, DOE/EAI-0485, p. 18. Also, EIA, Monthly Energy Review, August 1994
10) Charles Komanoff, Power Plant Cost Escalation, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1981, page 2. Note: a range of 33 to 68% for coal overruns, averages to about 50%.
11) Brice Smith book.
12) Ibid.
13) David Fleming, The Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy, a Life Cycle In Trouble,” summary/Nuclear Energy In Brief, 2007,
14) See reports at, updated periodically.
15) U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Sandia Labs, Impact of a Meltdown at Nuclear Plant, Consequences of Reactor Accident (CRAC-2) Report, 1982.
16) Dan Morse, Washington Post, “Money Matters in Reactor Project Debate; Financing, Rather Than Safety, Appears to Be Key Factor in Whether Plans Proceed,” 9/5/07, p. B-5.
17) Brice Smith report.
18) Bill Brubaker, Washington Post, “Nuclear Agency: Air Defenses Impractical,” 1/29/07.
19) Arizona Nuclear Power Project, “Use of Effluent Water at Palo Verde,” communication from ANPP to Maricopa Association of Governments, November 17, 1977. See also,  See also, University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center, Water Resource Availability for the Tucson Metropolitan Area, 2006.
20) National Academy of Sciences, Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation May Cause Harm, Press Release, 6/29/05. Also see: U.S. NRC Effluent Database for Nuclear Power Plants, 2004  (Some navigation required.)
21) Ascribe, The Public Interest Newswire, “Managing Nuclear Wastes for the Millennia,” 1/7/07.

22) American Wind Energy Association, “Wind Generation Records & Turbine Productivity,”

CO2 Emissions Will be Higher for Nuclear Power than for Coal

by Russell Lowes, March 9, 2008

It is Just a Matter of Time. . . and It is Just a Matter of Counting the Whole Nuclear Cycle

In one of the comments on my last blog, Tasha Nelson insists in a questioning way, “I would imagine nuclear power still emits far fewer greenhouse gases overall.” This is the conventional thinking. . . thinking that will hit a hard wall of thought revolution. Over the next decade or so, reassessment of economically mined uranium reserves will come into clearer focus.

By then there will be a small number of reactors being built around the globe, as the industry tries to keep pace with the number of reactors that are being retired, UNLESS the industry gets the full support of the U.S. and world governments, with additional massive subsidy, on the order of hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars.

If complete socialization for nuclear power happens, no one knows how many reactors will be built. If this happens, while we will have a socialistic system for nuclear energy, we will not be able to afford it for any other energy industry, such as solar. We would have a system where the cost of money would be hidden from sight, causing all sorts of irrational decisions to come into play. The general public would pay the cost of this irrationality in the long run.

In either event, the nuclear industry will be trying to play catch-up. Reactors have already started to drop off. Of the 439 reactors we currently have, globally, they will be retiring quicker than they are being built (without a massive global subsidization). In fact, a leveling off of the number of reactors worldwide is already starting. See the graph below:


But, back to the question at-hand:

In a nutshell, won’t nuclear energy generate less CO2 than coal and other sources? There has been some serious work on this issue. On the other hand, there has been some self-serving nuclear industry work on this issue. With much of the industry’s estimates, there is a circular logic where the reports cite each other, with information generated by the industry that is, at best, an optimistic interpretation of the data. In the realm of independent studies, the most detailed and documented work I have obtained is at

This work, done by two analysts named Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Phillip Smith, has been peer-reviewed. It is collaborated by other works. From what I can tell, it is only disagreed with to any significant degree by nuclear industry-affiliated entities. For example, there is the nuclear trade group, the World Nuclear Association, which ironically gives itself the byline, Clean Air Energy. Their study is very brief, and has nowhere near the quality level of documentation. The legitimate independent studies that review Storm and Smith only tend to agree on the major points, with less significant points of disagreements here and there.

Storm & Smith conclude:
– In the short term, nuclear power is much cleaner than all fossil fuels, if you don’t count the energy required over the next million years (the EPA required waste management period), However,
– In the long term, nuclear power will become dirtier and dirtier, emitting more and more  greenhouse gas emissions, as we quickly deplete our uranium reserves.
– The U.S. currently imports over 90% of its uranium, and only has 7% of the world’s diminishing reserves.
– Going down to lower-grade ores will deplete the short-term net energy gain of nuclear power, and at some point push this short-term gain into the negative realm, with greenhouse gas (GHG) production going through the roof. To give you a graphic illustration, uranium mining of granite would require about 50 times the weight of coal that is mined per kilowatt-hour produced.
– After about 70 years, the ore that can be economically mined (using short-term thinking) will run out – and this is on the basis of current capacity, not expanded levels of world nuclear capacity.

The above second point gets to the last point that Tasha made in her post. She asks, “Also-hasn’t there been an underinvestment in uranium mine development the past 20 years or so, leading to some of the shortfalls we are seeing now?” The answer to that depends on perspective. The industry has numerous mines that were supposed to be in operation by now. This includes the largest planned new mine, under preliminary development in Canada. It just flooded with water last year, putting off its opening for years. The easiest mining has already occurred. From one perspective, the industry is feeling the reduction of higher grade ores and cannot easily keep up with the demand.

When I first started writing on nuclear power and alternatives, back in the late 1970s, the typical quality of ore was higher than that mined today. Back then, it was common to mine ore that was 2500-3000 parts per million. Today the average is around 1500. To further compound the problems, back then, there was a lot of soft rock ore being mined. Soft rock is easier to mine than hard rock for the obvious reason that it is easier to crush. It takes less energy. Today, more and more hard rock is being mined. The twin problems are decreases in ore grade plus the harder-to-process rock.

Then, there is a third problem, and that is access to the ore itself. About 50% of the current mined uranium comes from below surface mining, going deeper and deeper. The lowest apples have been picked.

It is also true, as Tasha suggests, that there hasn’t been enough investment in mining. One question comes to mind: who is responsible for that? However, this question is irrelevant in a way. What is the current shortfall in mining? The current mining levels are at about 50 kilo-tonnes (kt) of ore per year. The current usage of ore by nuclear reactors is about 67 kt per year. Over recent years, the industry has augmented this shortage of production with ore reserves and other smaller sources like mixed oxide fuels and conversion of weapons stocks to commercial stocks, particularly from Russia. At the rate we are using up these stocks, if mining does not jump significantly, complete depletion of stocks will occur by 2015 at the latest. The price of uranium will skyrocket. So much for “cheap” nuclear fuel of days gone by.

There is a final thing to add to this. Nobody wants to hear this. It is avoided like the proverbial elephant in the room, avoided like the plague. The nature of nuclear waste is that it is transgenic. It is changing its own state through irradiation of all the ingredients of the waste. It is creating gases. It is creating liquids. It is also irradiating its container, changing the properties of whatever the container is made out of (with few exceptions).

What you might store as a near perfect rectangle today, could be quite a different shape in thousands of years. What this means is that it will off-gas, migrate, and as it is well known, go through periods of increased and decreased beta, gamma and alpha radiation over many centuries. Over many millennia. Someone is required by U.S. law to safeguard this waste for one million years. “Someone” is the word because no one knows who will be around for that long.

I will soon be writing a report on the cost of a million years of nuclear waste. To make a long story short, to guard that waste will clearly cost more energy input and create more greenhouse gases than any other current energy option under serious consideration.

In the long run, because of its waste, and because of its depletion of resources, nuclear energy creates more greenhouse gas than any other option. Remember these words in a few hundred thousand years, while you are just beginning to understand how to manage all this junk.

Can Nuclear Power Replace Oil?

by Russell Lowes, Feb 11, 2008

The Conundrum of Energy Independence 


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?


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.