why nuclear power doesn't help right now

a few days ago, in this space, i started a thread on nuclear power that was picked up by the folks at the nei blog. Eric McErlain posted an entry that linked to me and posted a comment as well. so, a conversation is begining. thus i begin some posts aimed at parsing out some details and evoking some responses from the eric and others. let's see how it goes...

too bored to read it all?

for those quick-surfers out there, here's the gist:

  • 70% of the u.s. oil consumption goes to transportation
  • 90% of the u.s. coal consumption goes to electricity
  • we've got @ 50 years of oil to work with
  • we've got @ 200 years of coal to work with
  • nuclear is not going to help solve our immediate problem

two broad issues

to my mind, there are two key issues in play when discussing the future of power production and consumption:

  • energy
  • climate

while tightly linked, these two are (in my experience) too often co-mingled so as to cloud the details. i'd like to avoid that and take each in turn. let's start with energy.

for the environmentalists reading this, you'll notice i will *completely ignore* the climate implications of energy production for now. keep your powder dry, we'll get to that soon enough. fwiw, for the economists here (really? ya think?), i'm not only ignoring the economic details of all this, i suspect i don't understand them at all[grin]. i'm hoping someone will jump in at the appropriate time and enlighten me.

energy issues

first, by now, most all know that the u.s. consumes the lion's share of the world's energy supply (25% in a recent report). no need to get into arguments about whether our consumption is justified by the quality and quantity of our output, etc. related to this, is the fact that a great deal of our consumptions is oil-based - about 21 million bpd (barrels per day) and rising. i'll point out that today, 70% of the oil we consume is for transportation. this was not always the case. during the last oil shortage (1970s), businesses accounted about 50% of the nation's oil consumption (someone help me with a citation here?). after that painful lesson, most companies moved away from oil for power and back to coal. in europe, the march toward nuclear continued. i suspect this is because they had little coal to work with (again, citaions? counter-arguments?).

today, the u.s. consumes a bit under 100 million 'short tons' of coal each year - none of it imported (right?) and 90% of the coal we consume is for creating electricity. this represents about 50% of our total electricity generation - the rest from natural gas, water, nuclear, etc. (any one help me with the figures on these?).

i outline these percentages (90% of coal for electricity and 70% of crude oil for transportation) to show just where things are headed. keep these figures in mind as i move to the next point - finite resources.


thanks to the work of shell oil employee m. king hubbert in the 1950s most folks agree that there is a knowable curve (hubbert's peak) to the discovery, extraction, and depletion of any non-renewable resource. most figures i've seen indicate we have (with a margin of 50% either way) the following remaining years of fossil-based non-renewables:

  • 50 years of oil
  • 100 years of natural gas
  • 200 years of coal

i realize these numbers vary widely depending on the source. i don't think the exact figures are at issue, just the details. i've seen a few try to make a case that these figures are rubbish and that we can expect to find enough crude to last well over one hundred years. usually, the folks carrying this line are policy or paid representatives of industry groups, not well-respected geologists.

so, taking the time estimates and the percentages of use from above tells me we've got about two generations to figure out new transportation methods and about ten generations to figure out new electricity generation methods. i understand that economics and other factors can change this arm-chair prediction, but the general point should sink in. there's a limit and before we reach that limit, we'd better have a solution.

ok - notice that, so far, the word nuclear has not appeared. here we go.

the nuclear option

if nuclear is to be a big contributor, it's not going to be on the transportation end - not any time soon anyway. nuclear *can* help with the electricity side of the problem, though. but that's the problem that is about ten generations out - not the one that is two generations out. if we were all driving electric cars, then it would be a different story. but for now, focusing on nuclear seems to miss the point. we have to solve our oil problem asap.

also, i was not able to put my fingers on data covering the amount of uraninum we currently use for energy production or the amount of uranium deposits in the u.s. and around the world. this is important information. since uranium is a non-renewable resouce, knowing the projected rate of consumption over the available supply is critical to evaulating the proper importance of nuclear energy.


our current (20 year horizon) 'pain-point' is crude oil for transportation. firing up nuclear plants won't help us. our long term (100+ year horizon) problem is coal for electricity. nuclear *can* make a difference here, but i'm missing details on the supply, rate of consumption, and hubbert's peak deatils for uranium.

so now what?

ok, i've tossed this out there. what are the details of nuclear's role in solving our problems? i'm looking for facts and figures, time-projections, expected outcomes, etc. in the meantime, i'm open to hearing from others who can blow holes in my narrative to this point. i'd like to tighten it up, get my facts straight, and clear out wobbly arguments.

the next primary point to review would be environmental details.


At Fri Jun 30, 03:58:00 PM GMT, Blogger David Bradish said...


Thanks for the opportunity to discuss nuclear.

First I would like to touch on reserves and resources of coal, oil, gas, uranium, etc. The numbers you give are the known recoverable reserves at a specific dollar rate. Meaning that if the price of oil stays at $60-$70 / barrel than that's how much oil we have left.

However, as the price of oil goes up, more money is spent in developing and drilling and discovering new resources. Check out page 3 of this link to EIA.

Pg. 3 - "Historically, estimates of world oil reserves have generally trended upward (Figure 28). As of January 1, 2006, proved world oil reserves, as reported by Oil & Gas Journal, were estimated at 1,293 billion barrels—15 billion barrels (about 1 percent) higher than the estimate for 2005 [2]."

Basically, the more money we spend on investing and developing new places, the more we find.

Now on to nuclear. Here's some info on uranium supply and reserves.

Over the next 20-25 years nuclear can only help with the electricity side of things. Demand is projected to increase 45% by 2030 and to meet that demand about 350 GW of new capacity will be needed.

How much of that demand is projected to be met from coal? About half of it. Sure enough new coal capacity will be much cleaner than the current fleet however emissions will still linger.

You can read about these forecasts in EIA's AEO 2006.

Right now, 40% of the U.S.' emissions come from the electricity sector. By adding nuclear instead of coal, we can make a huge dent in those emissions.

Just to give you an idea of how big nukes are, 103 nuclear reactors supply 20% of the electricity in the U.S. 3,000 units of coal supply 50% of the electricity.

If you want to see how nukes can help with transportation sector check out what the Department of Energy is doing in developing a high temperature gas cooled reactor which produces electricity and at the same time hydrogen. It's called the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative.

I've given you plenty to go from on the pro side of things. I hope your next post has some links and specific facts on why you don't think nuclear should be an option if that's what you still believe.

David Bradish
Data Analyst / Statistician
Nuclear Energy Institute

At Fri Jun 30, 05:17:00 PM GMT, Blogger mamund said...


good to see your post. i'll do some digging on your refernces and see what comes up. i'll tell you now that this quote from your post will not fly with me:

"Basically, the more money we spend on investing and developing new places, the more we find."

while you might want to make a case that we've not found all existing deposits of a selected resource, you'll never get me to believe that more money will make more of it appear . we can argue about the remaining deposits, but let's both admit that non-renewables are just that - non-renewable.

i'll read up on uranium reserves and we can go from there.


At Fri Jun 30, 06:26:00 PM GMT, Blogger David Bradish said...


I'm not arguing with you that non-renewables are non-renewables. I'm merely pointing out that if you look at the graph on the third page of the link I referenced you will see how our known reserves have kept increasing.

They are non-renewable of course, however we may have thousands of years (number just thrown out) worth of this stuff.

But to say that we only have 50 years left of oil is incorrect. The reality is that we really don't know how much is down there.

Also, for more info on uranium resources check out the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency's Red Book.

At Fri Jun 30, 06:46:00 PM GMT, Blogger mamund said...


ok, we're on the same page resource-wise. the graph from EIA shows reported reserves and i've been told by more then one person (including inside quotes from oil execs) that this report is influenced by mideast projections that are suspect. at any rate, oil for 50 or 100 yrs is still mostly a transport thing.

while *i* am focused on overall energy, i know my discussion w/ you needs to home in on nuclear/electricity issues.

thanks for the red book pointer and i'll continue to dig.


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