Issue No.5 Summer
(July 2004)


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Listening to others


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Listening to others: a personal view by Andrew Teller, ENS society manager

50 years: the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

Fifty years of peaceful uses of nuclear energy have given rise to several celebrations the world over. Beginning in 2003 with the « Atoms for Peace » initiative, 2004 has seen two further events to commemorate the milestone. First, the American Nuclear Society is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary throughout the year, and also the first Russian civil nuclear power plant at Obninsk was commemorated at the beginning of July in an event co-sponsored by the IAEA and the Russian Nuclear Society. It is worth noting that no similar events seem to have taken place for fossil-fired power generation when these reached similar milestones. Several reasons may account for this difference. The beginnings of the world’s latest energy resource were precisely recorded, making it easier to pinpoint anniversaries than for other fuels. These beginnings also marked an about-turn in the way the power of the atom was to be used, shifting from military to civil applications. In any case, one cannot help thinking that these celebrations implicitly acknowledge that nuclear energy is not quite like the others. This observation is not meant to belittle its role: the celebrations also serve to remind everybody that the advent of a nuclear age was, at the time, expected to provide a sustainable answer to mankind’s growing energy needs. Fifty years later, following some initial oversell and systematic distrust ever since, this possibility is still alive.

“Fifty Years of Nuclear Power – the Next Fifty Years”: read the title of the Obninsk conference. The very title would infuriate the critics of nuclear energy who have been campaigning to phase it out well before another fifty years pass . It is therefore useful to have a closer look at nuclear power’s life expectancy. This leads us to examine two claims often made by the opponents of nuclear energy: a) uranium reserves are insufficient to guarantee its long-term use and b) the technology is obsolete.

Let us first address the often-disputed issue of the world’s uranium reserves. The NEA “Red Book” puts known conventional resources at 4.6 million tons of uranium. This is the most commonly accepted figure. It has been picked up by sceptics to conclude that nuclear power generation (NPG) would be short-lived, especially if installed capacity were to grow, and hence not worth the trouble. A recent survey of the situation was presented at the Obninsk conference by D. Grenèche (AREVA, France). To summarise his detailed study in two sentences:

  • the world' s ultimate resources of uranium including speculative and non conventional resources (except uranium from sea water) could be in the range of 35 millions tons

  • assuming a healthy but realistic growth of NPG with thermal reactors only, these reserves would be able to fuel reactors until the end of this century. Full recycling of fissile materials (reprocessed U and Pu) in thermal reactors would allow to extend the utilisation rate of natural uranium by a few tens of percentage points.

Where does this assessment place NPG in relation to other energy sources? Well, the answer is, perhaps surprisingly, not far from the position of fossil energy sources. History is especially informative in this respect. It reveals that there has been a gradual change over the past five hundred years in the energy mix used by Man, at least in the western world. Wood was progressively replaced by coal. In England the transition started as early as the 16th century. Oil entered onto the scene in the beginning of the 19th century, and was well implanted by 1850. The expansion of the use of natural gas began around forty years ago, with the effect of reducing the use of oil in many applications. Limited gas and oil resources allow for the prediction that their expanded use will be followed by a decline later in this century. If our energy consumption rate is not to be drastically reduced, oil and gas will have to be replaced in turn by new energy sources. Renewables, fission (with or without a closed cycle) and fusion are the only CO2-free candidates at present, although with very different technical potentials. Hydrogen is not included in this list, as it is only an energy carrier.

This short summary of five centuries of western history leads to the following observation. People’s energy needs have long been met by successive waves of different fuels, the general trend being from solid to liquid to gaseous, with a steady decrease in the carbon content. More importantly, nuclear’s potential life expectancy without fast breeders would be in the range of 150 years, which is not much shorter than oil and gas. With fast breeders it would actually exceed the lifetime of coal.

So much, then, for the limited resources. Let us now turn to the question of obsolescence. It is a favourite claim of the opponents of nuclear energy that the current generation III or III+ reactors are only the latest embodiment of an antiquated technology dating back to the fifties. If this thinking were applicable, it would also be true to say that today’s cars should be dismissed as the latest embodiment Ford’s T-Model. Those who say so ignore decades of R&D and systematic use of experience feedback. Reviewing anti-nuclear literature sometimes helps to highlight the weakness of their arguments. In one pamphlet, the French Greens explained that energy production technologies should be evolving as quickly as is currently the case with Information Technology, where all new advances are immediately implemented and brought to the market place. In another pamphlet, the same Greens state that in order to conserve energy, appliances should be designed to last for as long as possible. On the basis of such conflicting signals, it is impossible to decide whether laptops should be built to last or not. One is also left wondering why power plants should not likewise be designed for the long run, given the large energy investment their erection represents. The Greens’ ambivalence regarding plant design lifetime does not, however, stop the nuclear community from investigating other avenues for NPG. This is clearly the goal of the Generation IV initiative, but this project should in no way be seen as implying that the current technologies are wanting.

Based on this evaluation, I conclude that there are no reasons to expect a premature death of NPG due either to the exhaustion of the required fuel resources or to technical inappropriateness. All told, the organisers of the Obninsk conference might well have titled their conference “the Next Hundred Years”. They were probably wise, however, not to do so: so many things can happen in one hundred years.

1 The phasing-out time-scales advocated by the opponents of nuclear energy vary noticeably: five years from the date the decision is taken (when they are in the opposition), rising to twenty years or, at any rate, after the first milestone of the Kyoto protocol, when they are part of a government.

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