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Bye Bye Oil Crisis, Hello Uranium Crisis

The Friday Thing
The contradictions in the replace-oil-for-uranium-and-bingo! argument seem to have been overlooked somewhat by mainstream commentators. The point nobody seems to have made this week is, like oil and gas which it is expected to largely replace under the plans in the Energy Review, uranium is a *finite* resource. It was an issue studiously avoided by the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, in his it’s-nuclear-or-nothing scaremongering in The Independent yesterday. As with oil and gas, what happens when the uranium runs out? Some estimates suggest that current global reserves will be exhausted in as little as fifty years. The rate of consumption of uranium will only increase if more nuclear power stations are built in order to reduce our reliance on oil and gas-generated electricity, meaning those reserves may be depleted even faster. That makes declarations of nuclear power as a herald of future energy security and stability sound a bit over-optimistic.

The Fast Breeder Reactor, a power station that produces more material than it uses, is still very much experimental technology (the UK actually cancelled its research programme in 1994). There is a process that extracts uranium from seawater which is rich in the element, but the energy needed to do so (the process requires electricity) coupled with the high costs involved currently makes it the economic and technological equivalent of trying to turn lead into gold. Future technological advances may come to our aid (and there are many, many people keeping their fingers crossed) but we’re still very much at the blind faith stage. Building new nuclear power stations starts to look a bit like buying a record player just as the record companies phase out vinyl.

Then there is the environmental impact of nuclear power. What to do with the highly toxic waste and power stations that have outlived their use – the cost and safety implications – are familiar arguments. Nuclear power has less of an impact on the environment producing none of the greenhouse gases that oil and gas power stations do. But there are other environmental factors. Energy is required to convert the raw uranium into a useable form. Toxic and radioactive by-products of the mining of uranium in Australia have caused serious environmental damage. (The land where the ore was hidden was also home to aboriginal tribes who obviously had to be evicted but that’s a small price to pay for powering a generation’s PlayStations.)

The power stations themselves, it is hoped, will be built by the private sector. As has been seen before, when it comes to the provision of vital public services, the private sector has the Government by the balls (the Government having willingly and gently lowered its genitals into the private sector’s hands in the first place). That’s how the water companies can piss away millions of litres every day while paying themselves lakes of cash. What is the government going to do, sack them? It’s why the Government had to bail out British Energy, the country’s largest electricity generator, to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds a few years back. What else was it going to do, let the company go bust leaving millions of people in the dark?

And so, you’d be forgiven for thinking, it’ll be the same when it comes to building nuclear power stations.
(15 July 2006)

Lovins on Nuclear

Jordan Gold, Corporate Knights
Lovins: The only market actors professing any enthusiasm for new nuclear build are those who get transactional rewards—but none of those who would put their own capital at risk. In fact, the latest Nucleonics Week has a rather discouraging writeup worldwide on investors’ view of the prospects for nuclear revival. To be sure, the Bush Administration and a majority of the Congress have just given more than $13 billion USD of new subsidies to nuclear—about big enough to pay the entire capital cost of the next six plants to be built, if any. However, Standard & Poor’s then published two reports saying this would not materially improve the builders’ credit ratings, because most of the risks the market is concerned about are still there. I concur. The new US subsidies will have the same effect as defibrillating a corpse: it will jump, but it won’t revive.

Nuclear power has died of an incurable attack of market forces and is way beyond any hope of revival, because the competitors are severalfold cheaper and are getting rapidly more so. The competitors I mean are not other central power stations (coal- or gas-fired, or big hydro); rather, they’re micropower and efficiency—the big market winners, already bigger than nuclear power worldwide in both capacity and output.
(13 July 2006)
Research credit: The Watt

The climate-change deniers have now gone nuclear

Polly Toynbee, The Guardian
…Political predilection guides this whole debate: the pro-business right is instinctively pro-nuclear, the left is anti. Without verifiable forecasts, one expert’s envelope flap vies with another’s. That allows political passions on all sides to masquerade as pure science or economics…

The history of nuclear power is the most grotesque example of a state programme founded on dreams mushrooming out of control because no one dared say “Stop!”. In the 50s people were promised energy so cheap there would be no bills, so no party dared stop pouring good money after bad. Construction was always wildly over cost and late, delivering far less energy than promised. So why are they falling for the same snake oil again?

The wise will keep a hawk’s eye on the money. Nuclear is not and never was feasible without heavy subsidy. When the government swears there will be no price guarantee or subsidy, none of the experts believes it – though the industry naturally pretends. Investors will only build on a worldly-wise understanding that the state will step in, one way or another. Always has, always will.

Even the CEO of the US nuclear power company Dominion said that, despite US government wishes for new nuclear power stations, he would not build, to avoid giving credit raters Standard & Poor’s and his own chief financial officer “a heart attack”. Standard & Poor’s say that not even government help with construction costs changes this reality: “an electric utility with a nuclear exposure has weaker credit than one without and can expect to pay more … for credit”
(18 July 2006)

Energy-hungry China to seek uranium in Niger

Niger has awarded licences to a group of companies from China to explore for uranium as the Asian economic powerhouse steps up its hunt for strategic sources of energy and raw materials in Africa.

China, one of the world’s fastest growing economies, is looking to meet booming energy demand by rapidly expanding its nuclear energy programme. The exploration licences announced were the first for Chinese firms in Niger’s uranium sector.

…raw materials supplies from mineral-rich Africa and Latin America.

Niger, an impoverished landlocked former French colony on the southern side of the Sahara, has significant reserves of uranium, from which nuclear fuel is made.

The Niger government said prospects for the development of the uranium sector, its biggest export earner, were being boosted by a pick up in world demand for the mineral and China’s nuclear energy expansion plans.

Uranium production in Niger peaked at 4,366 tonnes in 1981 and now stands at around 3,000 tonnes a year.
(17 July 2006)