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Nuclear Dawn in the Gulf, and beyond

by Starvid Sun Nov 5th, 2006 at 11:35:05 AM EST

While most people reading this will immediately think of the Iranian nuclear reactor under construction at Busherh and the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program, this article is about something else entirely. Without most people noticing it, the Arab world is following practically everyone else in the rush for nuclear power as the price of petroleum has stabilized around $60 a barrel.

The countries who have started or restarted civilian nuclear power programs are Morroco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. On top of this Turkey is planning three 1500 MW reactors, and after it's recent rehabilitation from the community of pariah states, Libya has also expressed interest in nuclear power.

While these nations intend to use nuclear power to generate electricity (and to create nuclear know-how just in case...) they also intend to use nuclear power for something else.

Some Middle East states, including Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, have shown initial interest [in using] nuclear power primarily for desalination purposes," Tomihiro Taniguch, the deputy director-general of the IAEA, told the business weekly Middle East Economic Digest.

If there is something these countries have a vital need to supply their rapidly increasing populations with besides electricity, it's water. But just as has been the case with Iran, some people argue that nuclear power in these petroleum rich states does not make sense.
Egypt and other North African states can argue with some justification that they need cheap, safe energy for their expanding economies and growing populations at a time of high oil prices.

The case will be much harder for Saudi Arabia, which sits on the world's largest oil reserves.

While the argument that Arabs can't possibly be allowed to decide or even understand what is the optimal energy policies for their countries is rather insulting, it also demonstrates ignorance about either nuclear power, market economy, or both.

The fact is that well managed nuclear power is the cheapest possible way to generate electricity, maybe with the exception of well managed hydropower. American pundits might think otherwise as the implementation of nuclear energy in their country was about as far from optimal as is imaginable. Think nasty hippies slowing everything to a crawl, and an impossible judicial system that even managed to shut down one completed reactor. Now consider what happens when you have massive loans in a high interest environment and those hippies make your project drag from 4 years to 10. If your reactor is ever completed, the power will not be cheap.

Anyway, it does not make sense to burn petroleum to make electricity when you can get more money by selling the petroleum to foreigners and getting your power from reactors.

Then what about nuclear proliferation? It's true that having a civilian power program creates nuclear know-how, but it is nowhere enough to make nuclear weapons. To do that, highly specialised technology and highly skilled scientists are needed, and on top of this fissile material is required. There are only two ways generate fissile material. One is to reprocess spent nuclear fuel to aquire plutonium. The other is to enrich uranium to a much higher degree than what is done for ordinary reactor fuel. Both these paths require extensive industrial infrastructure.

Hopefully the Great powers can make sure they are the only ones who deal with enrichment and reprocessing, exporting fresh fuel and taking back spent fuel from other countries if they want to reprocess. But considering the example of Iran it doesn't seem there is much to do if a strong and petroleum rich country makes it clear they'll damn well do whatever they want.

Thanks to John Wheeler at This Week in Nuclear for the tip!

Crossposted at Bits of News.

Please discuss:

  1. What to do with the nuclear waste. (Sweden may have a plan, but they seem to be the only one.)

  2. The risk of a disaster. The environmental cost of an accident is so high that cost/benefit calculations are meaningless. People like to minimize the effect of Chernobyl, but how many populated places could afford to depopulate a few hundred square miles after the next accident?

  3. The environmental cost of mining and refining Uranium. Since everyone is afraid of breeder reactors, the fuel issue will become important in as little as 50 years.

I'll state my (totally ignored) preference: a crash program into controlled fusion. We could have invested at ten times the current level of research globally with just the money spent on the Iraq war. I don't see why a sustained investment at a level of $100 billion or so can't be undertaken at a global level. The US spends $1 billion just on ring tones for mobile phones. The capital is available, we just have to set meaningful priorities.  

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape
by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sun Nov 5th, 2006 at 04:47:55 PM EST
  1. We will be happy to export our solution to all who are interested. If they aren't interested there isn't much to do about it as we are talking about independent nations, not small children.

  2. It is highly unliely that an accident in a non-RBMK reactor will contaminate anything but the plant itself, as happened in TMI. But even if radioactivity would escape, the damage would not be very great compared to other more dangerous and far more likely industrial accidents. Still it would of course be extremely unfortunate and disastrous for the global climate considering the likely loss of faith in nuclear energy, but the scope would be nothing like Chernobyl.

  3. Uranium mining is not worse than other mining. This means that it, just like other mining, can be a great environmental and health problem. But if it is dealt with in a sensible way it is not dangerous. The big issue is that lots of radioactive radon gas is released by mining uranium. The same thing happens when we mine iron in the Ore Fields of northern Sweden and it happens spontaneously in houses built by naturally radioactive material like blue concrete. The solution? Ventilation. Works like a charm.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Sun Nov 5th, 2006 at 07:39:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Any comment of fuel lifetime (50 year as per point 3)? I am in the camp of reluctantly accepting more fission reactors as a necessary evil. However, it can only be a stop-gap - not a solution, because in the end the fuel runs out. This is the crucial point that seems to be missing from much of the political (read Blair) advocacy of fission reactors.  
by det on Mon Nov 6th, 2006 at 04:25:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Here is a link to a study that shows that if the entire planet goes nuclear in full, with population and consumptions still growing like today (which is impossibly pessimistic in terms of reserve duration), "peak uranium" happens in 2085 in a "once-through" scenario" (no recycling, no breeders).

This does not take into account:

  • extraction of uranium from seawater (solves the supply problem, but not the plutonium pile-up problem),
  • "flex-fueling" current reactor designs with thorium (3x more abundant than uranium),
  • recycling of spent fuel in MOX (already baseline in France), and plutonium-driven breeders (using the 99% of non-fissile uranium),
  • and the simple fact that other factors will limit the carrying capacity of the Earth at much lower population and electricity demand than their 2085-extrapolation.

The paper advocates going to molten salt thorium breeders (some funky 4th gen design that the authors are promoting) to extend the reserves to millenia, but even without this, we won't need to shut down a nuclear reactor for lack of fuel during the 21st century.

Proliferation is a more worrying concern, and in this matter I am of the opinion that the worst is already well in the pipeline, with likely bombing of major western cities by "terrorist organizations" (= despaired and humiliated non-white populations).


by Pierre on Mon Nov 6th, 2006 at 08:18:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks. Link is a little off (damn cut-and-paste):Link
by det on Mon Nov 6th, 2006 at 08:45:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
thanks for the correction ...

by Pierre on Mon Nov 6th, 2006 at 09:03:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's the reason the plume from the fire contaminated the countryside.  That can't happen in a plant with a containment building.  Except for a few reactors, like the RMBK design, nuclear power plants have not only containment buildings but other ways of containing the effects of a meltdown.

No one pays attention to the level of contamination of the environment and of human tissue by coal-fired plants.  But they cause hundreds of thousands of deaths a year and are the chief producers of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.  

If we do not have a nuclear renaissance, baseload (that is, steady, 24/7 flow of electricity to meet demand) will be supplied mainly by burning coal.  Not every country is as fortunate as Norway or as Canada in terms of having resources for hydropower, which is the only other large-scale way of displacing greenhouse gases while supplying baseload.

by Plan9 on Sun Nov 5th, 2006 at 09:54:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That can't happen in a plant with a containment building.

And the Titanic can't sink either. I've seem far too much modern technology and heard far too many promises to believe such fairy tales.

aspiring to genteel poverty

by edwin (eeeeeeee222222rrrrreeeeeaaaaadddddd@@@@yyyyaaaaaaa) on Sun Nov 5th, 2006 at 10:09:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As I understand it, there is not a great deal that can be done to speed up the delivery time on a working fusion reactor. About the only thing that can speed it up is to plan the various prototype stages in parallel rather than sequentially. That is being discussed (perhaps even agreed on), but beyond that throwing money at it will not speed up the process very significantly. What pisses me off is people complaining about the current "high" cost of fusion research. As your comparison shows, it is pittance compared to some spending priorities.
by det on Mon Nov 6th, 2006 at 04:18:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The fact is that well managed nuclear power is the cheapest possible way to generate electricity, maybe with the exception of well managed hydropower.

Some of us know that. Personally I prefer to remain in ignorance. I would point to the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price-Anderson_Nuclear_Industries_Indemnity_Act as one of the reasons why I do not think that nuclear power is at all cheap. Though countries like North Korea (and the US) may not be that worried about the side effects of nuclear disasters on their populations, hence artificially decreasing the cost of nuclear power.

Then what about nuclear proliferation? It's true that having a civilian power program creates nuclear know-how, but it is nowhere enough to make nuclear weapons.

My feeling is that part of what is driving the desire for nuclear power is countries like US, Canada, Britain, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Norway, Portugal and of course Israel. The militarily adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the support for military expansion of borders in Israel are strong incentives for all countries not covered under the US nuclear umbrella to acquire nuclear weapons. It makes a lot of sense to me. How else are you going to protect yourself from Europe, the US and Israel?

If North Korea is trying to make a nuke small enough to fit on one of their missiles and Pakistan has managed to make nukes, then making a nuke is just not that difficult. So it takes 20 years or so, maybe less now that the US has released documents from Iraq. Basically, most countries have the scientific know how to figure out how to make nukes. The more countries that make nukes, the more information will be available, and the shorter the lead-time will be.

aspiring to genteel poverty

by edwin (eeeeeeee222222rrrrreeeeeaaaaadddddd@@@@yyyyaaaaaaa) on Sun Nov 5th, 2006 at 05:46:38 PM EST
The obvious answer to the insurance argument is that while the nuclear industry has a limited liability, other industries have none.

Airlines are not forced to have a special insurance to pay for the costs incurred by having a fully fuelled passenger jet crashing smack in the middle of a big city (without terrorists doing the flying), something far more likely than having a western reactor hurt the public by melting down and releasing radionuclides.

The same argument is valid for the chemical industries, shipping and countless other enterprises vital to sustaining modern civilization. Of course, a special shadow falls on coal power that as a part of its business constantly emits particulates and radioactivity*, killing millions every year. Here there is not a risk of something bad happening, it's a certainty and it's happening constantly. If coal had to pay for all its externalities all coal plants would be outcompeted as fast as it is possible to replace them with reactors.

* The amounts of radionuclides emited by coal plants are not even measured, but if a reactor emited even a fraction of a coal plant it would immediately be shut down by the authorities until the problem had been remedied.

The easy way to prove the cheapness of well managed nuclear power is to compare the price of power in Sweden and Norway before deregulation. Norway is 100 % hydro while Sweden is 50 % hydro and 50 % nuclear. Now, it is agreed that hydropower is the cheapest power in the world. Hence, if power in Sweden were as cheap as it was in Norway, the Swedish nuclear power would be as cheap as the Norwegian (and Swedish) hydropower, that is, the cheapest power imaginable. And lo and behold, power was just as cheap in Sweden as it was in Norway. Q.E.D.

Now, as I write in the article above, the economics for nuclear power change completely if interest rates become unfavourable and there are construction time overruns. But if those things are allowed to happens, the nuclear power project is no longer well managed.

You are of course correct that it is absolutely futile to fight a war against a nuclear equipped enemy when you have no nuclear arms of your own. That has been the basic tenet of warfare since 1945. My advice to all who are going to mess with nuclear weapon states is to ally with a nuclear weapons state or get your own ASAP, or preferably, do not mess with nuclear weapons states, or any states whatsoever.

This goes back to another basic tenet of the international order after 1945, and that is that you should no engage in wars of aggression. Sadly, some people do not really understand this, to the detriment of all.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Sun Nov 5th, 2006 at 08:02:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The insurance argument is interesting. I run a small business. I have insurance to cover my liability. When I drive a car, I carry insurance to cover my liability. I find it quite surprising if other industries do not have liability requirements.

When you state The obvious answer to the insurance argument is that while the nuclear industry has a limited liability, other industries have none. I wonder.

If a privately owned dam collapses is there no liability? If a fireworks factory blows up is there no liability? But this begs the question in some ways. There is always a true cost of something as well as its actual cost. Nuclear power and coal have a cost that is in part hidden. That hidden cost includes potential disasters and on going deaths due to pollution, terrorism, disasters, and global warming.

In fact there is always liability for everything. The question is who picks up that liability. If both Nuclear and Hydro have hidden liability and hidden subsidies, there is no particular reason they would be the same. The fact that the market price was the same would not be anything but coincidence.

There is no QED on the cost comparison between Sweden and Norway given your explanation for it. I really know nothing about either Sweden or Norway's electricity situation. Your comparison though is far too superficial to show anything like what you have stated. Some obvious questions when comparing the two countries include:

Hidden costs:
What type of subsidies has been provided?
Likelihood of disasters and the costs associated with those disasters?
Health effects from normal operation
Environmental effects

Future costs:
Decommissioning and spent fuel costs

aspiring to genteel poverty

by edwin (eeeeeeee222222rrrrreeeeeaaaaadddddd@@@@yyyyaaaaaaa) on Sun Nov 5th, 2006 at 10:01:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
See this table from the EU Environmental directorate:

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Nov 6th, 2006 at 04:56:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
People often grumble about insurance for the nuclear industry without knowing that it is basically a savings account into which utilities deposit money that is never spent.  This is because of the high safety standards.

The U.S. nuclear power industry has more than $10 billion in liability insurance protection to be used in the event of a reactor incident. Utilities--not the public or the federal government--pay for this insurance.

This arrangment comes from legislation enacted in 1957 and called the Price-Anderson Act.  It has been so successful that it's served as a model for other legislation that protects the public against potential losses from hazards.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, "insurance pools have paid more than $200 million in claims and litigation costs since the act went into effect. They disbursed approximately $71 million of that total in claims and litigation costs related to the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island 2."

As Starvid points out, it would be nice if the coal industry paid for even a fraction of the damage to the environment and public health directly traceable to mining and burning coal.

by Plan9 on Sun Nov 5th, 2006 at 10:03:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...having nuclear power.  You just need a uranium enrichment plant.  So if all the nuclear power plants in the world were somehow abolished, countries who had the money and who really, really wanted to make an atomic bomb could do so.

There are 441 nuclear power reactors generating electricity used by around a billion people for some or all of their electricity needs.  Most of the countries using nuclear power have decided not to make nuclear weapons.

Uranium mining is no riskier than any other hard-rock mining.  And since the mines have been ventilated (about 30 years ago in the US), lung cancer caused by exposure to radon plus cigarette smoke have dropped to the rates suffered by the general public.  

The comprehensive life cycle of nuclear power generates about the same level of greenhouse gases as wind power's comprehensive life cycle.  Which is to say, very, very little--and less than solar power.

by Plan9 on Sun Nov 5th, 2006 at 09:47:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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