My friend Russell Lowes, a regular at Tucson’s Drinking Liberally, has started a blog, Safe Energy Analyst, in which he’s going to be writing regularly about issues surrounding the energy economy, emerging energy technologies and energy policy. I will be cross-posting many of his posts here at Blog For Arizona. I hope you’ll check out his blog and give him the same great support you’ve given this site. I know he’s looking forward to your comments and questions. He is structuring some of his work around a question and answer format, much like the current post, so send him your questions! ~Mike

The Conundrum of Energy Independence 

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by Russell Lowes

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.

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