September 18, 2008

Nuclear Triggers a Mixed Reaction

By Anthony Harrington

NOW is a busy time for the various consortia who have submitted designs for the UK's new generation of nuclear power facilities.

The general assessment process that will pick the winning design is scheduled to take three years, but there is still much to do and the commercial stakes here are huge.

In September, Westinghouse Electric Company, part of Toshiba, signed agreements with BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce Group and Doosan Babcock, which would see all three involved in building the Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactor in the UK if Westinghouse's bid is successful.

To improve its bid in the eyes of the UK Government, Westinghouse has indicated that it would expect to see something like 80 per cent of the construction work provided by UK companies. The three designs up for consideration are the EDF/Areva European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), the GE ESBWR and the Westinghouse AP 1000,

However, one angle that is not being given much air time or visibility - rather oddly so given the current interest in energy security - concerns the global pressure on uranium stocks. In 2005, a report by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada anticipated a 45,000 tonne shortage of uranium through the next decade caused by a surge in demand from China.

John Busby, a nuclear fuels expert writing on the website, points out that France's uranium mines are already worked out and, since France gets 78 per cent of its electricity from nuclear, this leaves it in a perilous position with respect to sourcing sufficient uranium to meet its energy needs in the medium term.

The problem, Busby argues, is that across the world uranium mining is rapidly running through the easy-to-get-at ore, and is having to go deeper and deeper, and to mine ore of increasingly dubious purity, to meet demand. "In Canada, the leading supplier of uranium, two mines have closed and two of the three operating uranium mines have passed their Hubbert's Peaks." Hubbert's Peak is the point on the graph that marks the apex of world oil production - the oil sector is already beyond that point and so, now, is uranium mining.

Big users of uranium, such as the United States, which uses 30 per cent of the world's supply and mines just 8.4 per cent of that, use recycled uranium from decommissioned weapons as a secondary source, but that is very much a finite source. As an aside, Hubbert himself saw nuclear fusion, using deuterium from the world's oceans, as a way of getting "astronomical levels of energy resource", but was hugely annoyed by the world's failure to finance research and development into fusion. He finally came to see solar energy as the most obvious way for the world to go in a post oil era and thought nuclear should be phased out as reactors reached the ends of their design lives (see

Busby's careful analysis shows that the lower the grade of uranium ore, the more energy one has to spend to mine it, and very rapidly, a point is reached where the idea that nuclear is a "clean" technology becomes laughable. The nuclear industry, he says, frequently points to the fact that uranium is present in phosphates and seawater, which provide a vast potential reserve. However, Busby reminds us, it is only present in very low concentrations.

"The energy required to extract it would exceed many times the energy obtained from any nuclear power resulting, and the carbon emissions would be massive," he notes.

As and when the UK pushes ahead with nuclear new-builds, it may well find itself running into a skills shortage, since China has plans for at least 24 new nuclear plants for immediate or near- immediate construction, and another 76 are planned. That programme dwarfs the UK's proposal for 10 new plants and will pull in a hefty slice of the world's nuclear-build skills base.

Andy Renton, head of energy and utilities at Dundas & Wilson, and Hamish Lal, the partner leading the firm's nuclear initiatives, say the big risk for nuclear is that the government will fail to find a way to allow it to happen in a timescale that accommodates the energy gap.

"If the energy gap starts to bite because existing plants come to the end of their lives, and new gas and coal generation comes into play to meet base-load needs, then the danger is that nuclear will go back onto the back burner, so to speak," they say.

However, in their view, there seems to be an inevitability about the nuclear new-builds. Renton says: "We will probably start seeing a new generation of nuclear power stations going into production around 2017. Strategic site assessments and the environmental studies are moving ahead slowly, but the big frustration right now is around the progress of the planning bill, which is moving through the committee stage very slowly."

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