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Why oil shortages may make nuclear a less viable option

If oil is in short supply, what should we do? One idea is to add nuclear, but this doesn't work as well as one would like.

The big issue I see is that nuclear power plants have a very long life. They are now being planned for a lifetime of 60 years. When one adds time for building and decommissioning, plants under consideration today may be finally wrapping up operations in 2080. The problem is that with peak oil, we really don't know what the world will be like in 2080.

There is a possibility that even with less oil, everything will work together fine in the next 70 years. If this happens, the securities set aside for decommissioning will have their intended value, and international trade will still be operating at close to today's level, making repairs during the 60-year lifetime and decommissioning relatively easy. But there is also a possibility that things won't be working together so well by then. It seems to me that we need to be thinking through this possibility and making plans accordingly.

The issue we are dealing with is the fact that conventional oil supply has already begun to decline, and will almost certainly be declining more in the next 70 years. (Even the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2010 agrees that we are past peak in conventional oil supply.) There may be a rise in unconventional oil, and in biofuels, but it is not clear that they will make up the shortfall.

The forecast of the IEA only goes to 2035. It suggests that maybe unconventional oil can be ramped up a bit. But IEA's forecast indicates that there will be a huge increment in crude oil from "fields yet to be developed or found"--that is, the light blue area on the graph below:

IEA's estimate of future oil world supply from its middle of three scenarios included in World Energy Outlook 2010

Figure 1. IEA's estimate of future oil world supply from its middle of three scenarios included in World Energy Outlook 2010. (click figure for larger version)

The amount of oil to be produced from the light-blue area is very much disputed. I think that when planning for the future, we need to consider at least the possibility that the IEA's estimate for this sector is too high. If one reduces the size of the light blue sector, one gets a forecast more like Colin Campbell's, which I show below. This graph is from the April 2009 newsletter of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil - Ireland.

Colin Campbell forecast of future oil and natural gas extraction, made in April 2009

Figure 2. Forecast by Colin Campbell of future worldwide oil and natural gas extraction, made in April 2009. (click figure for larger version)

Note that this graph includes both natural gas and oil. But it starts declining, starting about 2010. The graph only goes out to 2050, but by that time, what Campbell calls regular oil is expected to be down to something like 8 "Gboe", which is equivalent to about 22 million barrels a day. The various non-conventional oils might bring the total up to 12 "Gboe", or 33 million barrels a day in 2050.

In both the IEA's graph and Campbell's graph, we are presently at approximately 80 million barrels a day of oil a day, including conventional oil (but excluding biofuels). At 33 million barrels a day we would be producing only 41% of current production in 2050.

We don't know what 2080 might bring, but suppose that oil continues to drop off at a similar rate as forecast between 2010 and 2050. Then we might be talking about 17 million barrels of oil per day (including unconventional oil) by 2080. This would be about 21% of the roughly 80 million barrels of oil per day produced today.

All of this is only a rough estimate, just to give a ballpark estimate of what one view of the long term decline in oil production might look like. Even this view has some built in optimism in it--it pretty much assumes that the business of oil drilling goes on as today, with international companies using high tech equipment (made around the world) and experts from around the world. It doesn't assume huge breakthroughs in technology, but it does assume that there are no major impediments to conducting international business.

The problem is that we really don't know what the world will look like in 2080. Maybe everything will be great--wonderful new technology will have been discovered, and many of our problems will be solved. The problem is that there is also a possibility that somewhere along the line, things will start breaking down. Perhaps the decline in oil production will affect the financial system, or international trade, or even the electrical system.

The possibility doesn't even have to be high percentage-wise. Suppose there is a 5% chance of such an adverse outcome. It would seem like such an adverse outcome could impact the safety of the nuclear power plants. If a nuclear power plant needs a repair, it might not be possible to make such a repair. Political stability might go downhill. Such a change might also reduce the ability to continue mining uranium and to trade it around the world. If nothing else, the huge investment in the nuclear power plant might turn out to be useful for much less than the 60 year planned lifetime.

When one is looking out as far as 2080, there is also a possibility that climate change may also be a factor. For example, climate change might cause a shortage of water for cooling, or cause sea level rise in the area where a plant is located.

It should be pointed out too, that new nuclear plants are being considered, even in countries we would consider "lesser developed nations" today. Also, countries building these nuclear power plants will want to get the cheapest cost possible.  We now read, China builds French reactor for 40% less. We can hope all of the new reactors around the world are built to high standards, and are operated professionally, but it seems to me that there is less and less control possible over this situation.

All of this would not be an issue, if nuclear power plants were built in such a way that they could continue to be operated safely, even without trained staff and without decommissioning at the end of their lifetimes. People talk about using thorium, and about recycling most of the fuel, and about various other approaches that might fix most of nuclear's safety issues. At this point, though, I don't see these issues as fully resolved.

Probably the same issue can be raised for other types of new energy production. It just stands out most for nuclear electricity production. For example, will solar panels de-grade safely? How about all of the batteries used for electric cars?  Will it be possible to keep waste from these batteries safely out of drinking water?

But we also have huge problems with old energy production. Mercury pollution from coal fired power plants is a huge issue. Even if this pollution is caught through scrubbers, disposal of the coal ash is a problem.

I am not sure we have good answers, but before we jump to the conclusion that nuclear is a major part of the solution, it seems to me that we need to think through what the risks really are.

Editorial Notes: From the author: Part of the reason for writing this post was to make certain that some simple (and to many of us, obvious) ideas are together in the same place. Regulators and such folks don't necessarily come with a high level of background in peak oil.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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