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The Future of Nuclear Energy: Facts and Fiction – Part I: Nuclear Fission Energy Today

Dr. Michael Dittmar, The Oil Drum
Nuclear fission energy is considered anywhere between the holy grail, that can solve all energy worries of the human industrialized civilization, and a fast path di­rectly to hell. Discussions about future energy sources and the possible contribution from nuclear energy are often tainted and dominated by irrational expectations and fears. As a consequence, very little actual knowledge is available to the general public and even to decision makers about the contribution of nuclear energy today, about uranium supplies, uranium resources, and current and future technological challenges and limitations.

This analysis about nuclear energy and its future contribution attempts to shed some light on the nuclear reality and its limitations. The report, presented in four parts, is based on data provided in documents made available by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), the NEA (Nuclear Energy Agency of OECD countries), the WNA (World Nuclear Association), and the IEA (International Energy Agency).

Part I summarizes the state of the world wide nuclear fission energy today and its perspectives for the next 10 years; Part II presents the situation concerning secondary uranium and plutonium resources; Part III analyses the “known” uranium resource data as presented within the past editions of the IAEA/NEA Red Book; Part IV finally outlines the plans and prospects for the long term future of nuclear fission and fusion.


Most people today agree that a comfortable way of life depends on the avail ability of cheap energy with its almost limitless applications. The average per capita energy consumption in the developed world increased by a factor of three or more during the past 50 years. However at most one billion people, or 1/7 of the human population of today, enjoy this increase. They live mainly in the richer countries and use on average approximately 50,000 kWh of thermal energy from various sources per year. This is three times higher than the world average consumption, roughly five times higher than the average per person energy use in China, and about 10 times larger than in India [1].

Depending slightly on the counting procedure, roughly 85% of this energy comes from fossil energy sources: about 40% from oil, 20% from natural gas and 25% from coal. Our mobility depends to almost 100% on oil. Electric energy, made from various “fuels,” has the highest value for stationary applications and forms a basis for essentially all hi-tech and luxury energy applications. On a world-wide scale, electric energy accounts for 16% of the end energy use and between 20-25% in most of the rich countries. About 70% of the electric energy is again made from fossil fuels, about 16% from hydropower, and only 14% from nuclear fission energy. The renewable wind, solar, and geothermal energy sources, with some minor local exceptions, contribute no more than 1-2% to the energy mix [2]…

Perhaps disillusioned by the official politically correct main stream arguments, many people have started to investigate the resource limitations, often under the title “peak oil and gas” and “peak everything.” These problems and the need to react are now discussed at many levels, and plenty of details can be found at web sites such as the “oil drum,” the “energy bulletin,” and many others [5]. Those who have accepted that the situation with our use of fossil fuels is unsustainable suggest and support, in order to prevent wars, chaos, and collapse, mostly a mixture of the following three sometimes orthogonal evolutionary directions:

  • the nuclear energy option;
  • the all renewable energy option, based dominantly on the transformation of solar and wind energy;
  • the energy reduction option, which stands for some efficiency improvements combined with an overall coordinated reduction of consumerism. Consequently, economic activities will slow down and “we” all will have to live simpler, perhaps still satisfying, lifestyles.

…It should become clear from the facts presented in the following sections of this article that the nuclear energy situation is far from being in the often claimed “nuclear renaissance phase.” In fact, even without considering the impact of the 2008/9 world financial chaos, it seems already now very difficult to stop the slow nuclear phase-out, with an annual decrease of about 1%, that has been observed during the past few years…
(4 August 2009)

Star Power

Peter McKenzie-Brown, Language Matters
During the Second World War, celebrity physicist Albert Einstein suggested in a now-famous letter to American President Roosevelt that nuclear chain reactions in large masses of uranium could release “vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements.” And, he speculated, “Extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.” While America had only poor-quality uranium, Einstein noted, “There is some good ore in Canada.”

The ore used to create the first atomic bombs came from a rich deposit of uranium and radium along the shores of Great Bear Lake, in the Northwest Territories. During the long days of summer, a wartime mining company hired local Indian men to carry 40-kilo burlap bags of ore from the mine to the Mackenzie River. They carried those loads for long hours, for months on end. When the bags ripped apart, they shifted the spilled ore off the trail, but took the contaminated bags to their temporary village. Years later, the ore-carriers began dying of cancer, and the community now known as Deline became a village of widows. Canada was thus an important contributor to the first nuclear age, which was born of the fission of radioactive elements.

Within a decade, the United States had made tentative steps toward a different kind of nuclear age – one based on nuclear fusion. This system smashes together light atoms like those of hydrogen. As it turns lighter elements into heavier ones, fusion releases vast amounts of energy. This is the principle behind the hydrogen bomb. It is star power – the fuel that keeps the Sun and the countless other stars alight. As a human invention, its only practical use has been as an unused weapon of violence and terror. Until now.
(4 August 2009)