A Few Insights Regarding Today’s Nuclear Situation

The issue of nuclear electricity is a complex one. In this post, I offer a few insights into the nuclear electric situation based on recent reports and statistical data.

Nuclear Electric Production Is Already Declining

Figure 1. World nuclear electric production split by major producing countries, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. FSU is Former Soviet Union.

According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, the highest year of nuclear electric production was 2006.

There are really two trends taking place, however.

1. The countries that adopted nuclear first, that is the United States, Europe, Japan, and Russia, have been experiencing flat to declining nuclear electricity production. The countries with actual declines in generation are Japan and some of the countries in Europe outside of France.

2. The countries that began adopting nuclear later, particularly the developing countries, are continuing to show growth. China and India in particular are adding nuclear production.

The long-term trend depends on how these two opposite trends balance out. There may also be new facilities built, and some “uprates” of old facilities, among existing large users of nuclear. Russia, in particular, has been mentioned as being interested in adding more nuclear. Continue reading

Uranium supply update

Will uranium supply be adequate for planned nuclear electricity? This question has seen sharply differing views. The purpose of this post is to give an update, showing where we are now.

The supply situation is recently looking better, partly because of an increase in uranium supply from Kazakhstan and partly because of cutbacks in plans for new reactors in response to the Fukushima accident. Reactors are very long-lived, however, and providing sufficient long-term uranium supply when oil supply is declining due to peak oil may be a challenge.

Figure 1. World uranium production and demand (Graph by World Nuclear Association)

Continue reading

Is loss of electricity a risk for spent nuclear fuel?

The usual plan for spent nuclear fuel in the United States is to transfer it to a cooling pool and then after some time to transfer it to dry cask storage.  Eventually, the plan is to move it to a permanent storage site, although no such site is available. The proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear repository is currently off the table, and no other site is seriously being discussed.

My concern is that ability to maintain electrical supply to spent fuel pools is a risk that no one has been paying much attention to, when looking at security of spent fuel. We have just now been witnessing the problems that are occurring in Japan, when electricity was cut off from reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.  The spent-fuel cooling pond has been a particular problem, because of the large amount of spent fuel in the pool, the need to keep pumping water into the pools, and the need to circulate the water in the pools. In the United States, we now have about 55,000 tons of spent fuel in spent fuel pools. This is the equivalent of 25 or 30 years of spent fuel, assuming current fuel use is 2,200 tons a year.

When a person reads about what perils the spent fuel pools are safe from, such as from this document from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it talks about the pools being inside very thick steel-reinforced concrete walls with stainless steel liners located inside protected areas, and that they would be safe from impact by an aircraft or other object. The article doesn’t talk about electricity interruption as being an issue. The impression one gets from the way other perils are described, though, is that any electrical interruption is expected to be brief (hours or days), and easily handled through backup supply,  or perhaps through electricity generated by the plant itself.

It seems to me that at some point, this assumption of electricity continuing to be available is likely to be false. Continue reading

What would happen if we discontinued nuclear electricity?

We are very much reaching limits in the field of energy. This seems to mean that we ending up taking more and more risks, so that there is a greater risk of things going wrong. At the same time, the world’s population is so high that without a good deal of external energy, we cannot provide basic necessities for nearly 7 billion people. So we almost have no choice but choose energy sources which are almost out of our reach.

With the problems with nuclear energy in Japan, the question arises as to what would happen if we just discontinued nuclear electricity. How big an impact would this have?

Since many plants are near the end of their originally planned lived, such discontinuation could come simply by not extending any more licenses, and not permitting new facilities. Since such decisions are made by each country, it is highly unlikely that a coordinated decision in any direction might be made. In fact, what we are likely to see is a mixture of different decisions. I thought it might be helpful to have some numbers to look at, to get an idea as to what role nuclear currently plays in generation around the world. I also discuss some other implications–for example, for electric cars. Continue reading