Twin Peaks - Coal and Uranium Rserves Insufficient? Part II

In our first installment of this two part series, I stated the conclusions of the Energy Watch Group with respect to coal and uranium energy resources and explored the implications of an impending scarcity of either. Here I will comment upon the methodology of the Group and how they arrived at their disturbing findings.

But before I do, I would like to offer a somewhat extraneous observation, another something to think about.

The findings of the Energy Watch Group have been almost completely ignored by the mainstream press and by most energy publications, for that matter. Most environmental pubs have been similarly silent. Nobody much cares other than editors of the various peak oil journals and blogs, who, rightly or wrongly, are regarded as cranks by many in the alternative fuels space.

If you read the studies, and you really should, you will quickly come to the conclusion that the members of the Group are careful, conscientious researchers who refrain from sketching doomsday scenarios or engaging in impassioned advocacy. There is none of the sarcasm and name calling and sheer rant that unfortunately characterizes much of the writing on peak oil available on the Web. So why haven’t they gotten a hearing?

It’s not as if there is no public interest in energy issues. The numerous major scientific studies on global warming garner plenty of press. But the fact is that as serious as the climate change problem is, its dire effects will probably manifest themselves gradually. Production peaks, on the other hand, are inherently disruptive, especially when they coincide with steeply rising demand, precisely the situation today.

We are all egoists at base, and our political concerns are predicated upon personal concerns. So which event is more likely to exert an immediate, profound impact on my life and your life, a gradual warming of the atmosphere or a sudden lessening in the supply of motor fuel and/or electrical capacity?

Few remember the two gas crises of the nineteen seventies, but I do, and I would suggest that both are instructive. OPEC output briefly dipped a few percent on each occasion and there were enormous spikes in retail prices, panic buying, and a degree of incivility among ordinary citizens that was frightening. If those two brief shocks were that bad, what would a steady year by year decline portend, a decline on the order of two to four percent according to most mathematical models?

And why isn’t anyone talking about this? Why the exclusive focus on the plight of polar bears or even the plight of Bangladesh? In the spirit of St. Francis I will say that I devoutly hope that Brother Bear will make it through this bad patch he’s in now and that my brothers and sisters in Bangladesh will be able to preserve their lowlands realm against rising seas. But egoist that I am, I also think of myself and the prospect of spending my declining years in a world of energy scarcity. I think also of the plight of my son who now faces a lifetime of the same. I think of his love of motorcycles and the irony implicit therein—that two wheeled vehicles might actually represent the future as they did the past, just because they sip so little to go so fast.

In any case, I can’t provide a totally convincing explanation of the silence of the press and of our leaders on the subject of declining fossil fuel production. I can suggest, however, that for someone building a business based on alternative fuels those production peaks—bitter irony—will be the very best of good news.

Running the Numbers

The contention of the Energy Watch Group is that both coal and oil reserves have been subject to a similar sort of misreporting as most of the peak oil crowd believes to have occurred within the petroleum industry in regard to estimated reserves. Countries, it seems, have the habit of maintaining the same reserves on the books year after year even as they are extracting the resource as fast as they can and without reporting major new discoveries. But if extraction is proceeding apace and nothing more is being found, ipso facto the total resource must be diminishing. And that is precisely the conclusion of the Energy Watch Group. This conclusion is given special weight in the case of uranium by the frequency with which various countries have drastically downgraded resource estimates within the last few years.

What makes their papers so persuasive is the sheer amount of detail provided—current and past estimates for all the major producers of either resource and trend lines linking the estimates from year to year. And they’re hoisting the coal and nuclear industries on their own petards, so to speak. All of the figures cited have been internally generated, and, taken in aggregate, they are insufficient to support current levels of consumption very much longer, let alone anticipated increases.

It must be said, however, that the situations of the coal and uranium industries differ from one another in many respects, and the strength of these studies is in acknowledging those differences explicitly.

Nuclear Time Bomb

In the case of uranium, the total resource is vastly smaller in sheer tonnage though not in the number of BTUs that might ultimately be extracted, and, furthermore, the metal is very rarely found in highly concentrated form. The very best uranium ore exceeds a one percent concentration by weight. Only in Canada is much of that high grade ore still available, though. Most ore is one, two, even three orders of magnitude less, and at the lower figure the costs of recovery begin to grow prohibitive. Too much energy must be expended to extract the metal found in low grade deposits; stated another way, the energy return on investment is poor and is in fact under unity in some cases. Consequently, most of the uranium in the world will probably never be extracted. The payoff simply isn’t there for the bulk of the supply.

But there are other reasons why nuclear power is unlikely to figure prominently in the world’s energy mix as the century proceeds, and these are described in detail in uranium paper—and, no, they don’t have to do primarily with disposing of spent rods.

The larger issue is the routine decommissioning of nuclear power plants and the tardiness with which new ones are being constructed. Nuclear generating facilities cannot be operated safely beyond a certain time span, and when the end of useful life is reached, the entire plant must be shut down permanently and carefully dismantled. It’s not like a coal plant where one simply replaces a combustor or turbine when it is no longer serviceable, and then continues operation as usual.

Therefore, once a nuclear plant has lived out its useful life, its capacity is not and will not be available, and the total contribution of nuclear power to the grid diminishes accordingly. It follows that unless new nuclear facilities are being brought on line as fast as old ones are being decommissioned, then the total amount of nuclear power is waning. And that in fact is the case because relatively few new facilities are being constructed or even planned on a global basis relative to the existing footprint. And given the enormous cost of constructing and permitting nuclear facilities and the growing concerns as to their safety, a timely construction boom is unlikely.

There are, however, a couple gambits open to the nuclear industry which could infuse fresh life into it, and both are mentioned though not explored in the study.

The first of these is a general commitment on the part of the industry to fourth generation fast neutron designs, popularly known as “breeder reactors”. These operate on plutonium rather than uranium 235, and plutonium, an essentially man made element, is produced by the radioactive bombardment of uranium 238. In other words, it is “bred”.

The replacement of existing reactors with breeders would leverage available supplies of uranium fuel by a factor of forty approximately, and would long delay the peak of nuclear fuel production. And since the fuel is recycled in such reactors, disposal issues are somewhat less pressing.

Producing plutonium out of uranium 238 is not a new or unproven technology, and such a process was used to build the Nagasaki bomb in 1945 and countless atomic bombs, triggers, and warheads ever since. And that’s just the problem. Breeder reactors could tremendously increase the amount of weapons grade fissionable material in the world.

The idea of operating a reactor on plutonium is not new, the notion has been kicked around since first reactors came on line in the sixties. But the world community of nuclear powers, whatever their differences in other areas of nuclear policy, has been united in opposing breeders. This may change, but it won’t change quickly enough to make much difference in the midterm. The members of the Energy Working Group believe that no fourth generation plants will be in commercial operation by 2030. And they could well be right.

The other gambit involves thorium reactors of which at least two types have been developed, both experimental. Much less research has been done in this area than in the technology of the fast neutron reactor.

Thorium is a rather intriguing fuel source. Radioactive thorium has never been used for either nuclear weapons or electrical generation, and so it has not been extensively harvested. A supply sufficient for at least a century of extensive, large scale electrical generation exists, and Carlo Rubia, a Nobel Prize winning physicist who developed one type of reactor known at an energy amplifier, believes that most of the energy needs of the world could be met by thorium reactors for centuries to come.

Furthermore, thorium is generally considered much safer than uranium and plutonium, because, unlike the latter, thorium has no critical mass. You can’t make a nuclear bomb out it, and you can’t suffer a runaway reaction of the Chernobyl variety. Indeed, in order to sustain a reaction at all, one has to bombard the thorium fuel continously with subatomic particles, and so the reactor can literally be turned on and off. And better yet, the half life of the radioactive wastes is about 500 years, not thousands, so disposal problems are far less intractable.

Thorium reactors definitely merit a lot more research dollars than they’re getting in my opinion, but the feasibility of either design has not been established. Put simply, thorium is not a sure bet. The Energy Working Group does not predict thorium taking up the slack from conventional designs within their 24 year time frame, and that’s probably an accurate assessment.

An Energy Constrained Future?

Coal is the biggest source of energy for electrical generation while nuclear is an important minority source. Non-stranded conventional natural gas, which is arguably approaching the peak of production right now, cannot make the good the deficiency in base line electrical power that would arise from a decline in either coal or uranium production. Unconventional sources of natural gas such as coal bed methane, tight gas, shale gas, deep gas, geopressurized zones, and gas hydrates possess in aggregate the sheer energy content to permit a protracted nonrenewable energy future, but they remain difficult and expensive to extract, when they can be extracted at all, and in most cases they are stranded, i.e. remote from pipeline facilities.

So what’s up ahead? A lot more renewables of necessity. Just don’t expect a smooth transition.