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January 31, 2007

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There's only enough proven uranium reserves to produce current levels of power for about a century, unless we do reprocessing of spent fuel.

Reprocessing could extend that limited supply for thousands of years.

There's just the little problem of plutonium production. Keeping track of all that plutonium isn't an easy job.

And from what I've read, it is absolutely possible to make a small nuke with as little as 6 lbs. of plutonium. It may be possible to make one with as little as a pound.

I don't think that it is worth pursuing nuclear power unless there is reprocessing, but I don't think the risk of stolen plutonium is worth it.

Global warming just isn't going to be that big a deal that we can't just deal with the problems it causes as they come up. Adaptation is the answer.

In theory, nuclear power is the answer, of course. I haven't yet heard good solutions to the problems of nuclear waste, nuclear meltdowns, and nuclear terrorism, though.

Proven reserves are based on what's profitable to mine based on the current price. If prices double, a lot more uranium becomes available, and the physical uranium is only 5% of the cost of nuclear power generation so that would have only a minor impact on the final price of electricity, more than compensated for by assumed future technological developments making nuclear power plants more efficient.

Nuclear energy is a nearly infinite source of power that won't run for thousands of years.

The concern about nuclear material falling into the wrong hands is overblown. Despite our best efforts, India and Pakistan have the bomb and North Korea and likely Iran will have a nuclear weapon in the near future (if they haven't already.) Nothing was smuggled out of the US to build their programs (but I am worried about something being smuggled in). Their programs were homegrown or they bought technology and expertise. If a nation wants a nuclear device bad enough, they will get it unless stopped. NK has no problem destroying their country to possess a nuclear device. The US should have a real program in place for nuclear power. We have the technology and people to do it. It would create good jobs for regular workers as well as nuclear scientists. Reprocess the fuel, it can be done, the French do it (if anyone should be reallly worried abut terror, it is them, and I think they are and scared shitless about it. I have been to a those "suburbs" by accident an few years ago, and it is no joke.)
Nuclear accidents are the result of shit systems and designs like Chernobyl. In and of itself, nuclear power is the safest and cleanest way to go that is realistic. The US Navy has been doing this stuff for decades on ships and subs. Why should we wait? We are only going to need more electricity in the future. The sooner we start, the easier it will be, not to mention cheaper.

The concern about nuclear material falling into the wrong hands is overblown. Despite our best efforts, India and Pakistan have the bomb and North Korea and likely Iran will have a nuclear weapon in the near future (if they haven't already.) Nothing was smuggled out of the US to build their programs (but I am worried about something being smuggled in). Their programs were homegrown or they bought technology and expertise. If a nation wants a nuclear device bad enough, they will get it unless stopped. NK has no problem destroying their country to possess a nuclear device. The US should have a real program in place for nuclear power. We have the technology and people to do it. It would create good jobs for regular workers as well as nuclear scientists. Reprocess the fuel, it can be done, the French do it (if anyone should be reallly worried abut terror, it is them, and I think they are and scared shitless about it. I have been to a those "suburbs" by accident an few years ago, and it is no joke.)
Nuclear accidents are the result of shit systems and designs like Chernobyl. In and of itself, nuclear power is the safest and cleanest way to go that is realistic. The US Navy has been doing this stuff for decades on ships and subs. Why should we wait? We are only going to need more electricity in the future. The sooner we start, the easier it will be, not to mention cheaper.

Nuclear waste: storage solutions seem OK. Ultrareliable transport for large volumes of the stuff is a bit of a hassle, but the cost of a spilled railcar of radioactive waste isn't infinite. The engineering and actuarial parts of this problem seem pretty solvable, it's the political NIMBY problem that seems more difficult. But with enough money you can get around that too.
Nuclear meltdown: this is also an engineering problem, which the French and Japanese seem to have done pretty well at. I admit that if nuclear power undergoes a resurgence, I'll be somewhat worried about its proliferation to less developed countries, since some of them may have less than adequate engineering staff for proper maintenance and supervision. But there are also designs that are basically meltdown-proof.
Nuclear terrorism: terrorist groups don't have the sophistication required to make a nuclear bomb. Consider that they seem unable to produce on their own even mundane engineering artifacts like a heatseeking missile. A plutonium implosion bomb requires electronic detonators controlled to go off simultaneously (within nanoseconds of each other), machined lenses of differing high explosives manufactured under careful quality control, a fancy neutron initiator, and probably other things I'm forgetting... and that's just for the little single-stage A-Bomb. The terrorists we actually have often seem to have trouble even manufacturing a working peroxide bomb, which is more or less high-school level chemistry. Almost all their weapons are stolen or supplied by supporting states.

Excellent points, HS. Nuclear fission is an almost infinite, cheap, clean source of energy. The fact that "environmentalists" are so anti-nuke only illustrates the absurdity of allowing Al Gore's brand of apocalyptics guide policy.

It's frustrating that someone as smart and well-informed as Mankiw is so obsessed with raising taxes. I guess when all they do at Harvard is study government regulation hammers, everything looks like nails.

One disagreement. A carbon tax would penalize coal-based plants as well, so I would expect that a Pigovian tax on carbon fuels would work be effective, while a gasoline-only tax would be much less effective for all of the reasons you cite.

In any event, the regulations on nuclear power plants need to be improved to put nuclear energy on a level playing field.

-Mercy

The fact that "environmentalists" are so anti-nuke only illustrates the absurdity of allowing Al Gore's brand of apocalyptics guide policy.

I don't think that's a fair characterization of environmentalists. A lot of them are for nuclear power.

I heard that the US (and the Soviet Union) sold enriched uranium to all these countries (including Iran) which we are now surprised and scared used it to develop nuclear weapons, instead of power plants. So I guess Pandora's box has been wide open for years, and we shouldn't keep ourselves in energy inefficiency over a moot point.

This isn't where I first heard this, but it was the first link I found from google just now:
http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/
2003548840_atomic31.html

I don't think that's a fair characterization of environmentalists. A lot of them are for nuclear power.

This makes sense, but I've never actually met any who were.

Most environmentalists I have run across are are too busy feeling righteous and lecturing on how bad the American lifestyle is and how it is hurting other countries, the sea, too much meat in our diets, raping the land with development, etc...I do feel that there are some valid points they have, but it is mostly just preaching and bullshit about what we should be doing and and about How They Know Better. People would take enviornmentalists more seriously when instead of lecturing us about overpopulation, they might mention how illegals are wrecking pristine areas and contributing to that overpopulation in America. The Sierra Club had a little internal spat over this, but public silence. They support illegal immigration and are against overpopulation. The two are not muutually exclusive. They bitch about US pollution and rightly so, but nary a mention of that fact that European nations didn't meet their own emission standards. Don't even ask about their opinion on China and India when it comes to greenhouse gases. They don't have one. Plenty of whining about the spotted owl, but no mention of how the Chinese are basically despoiling tropical Asia for wood. The point is this. We need electricity. What is the best way to get it? Nuclear energy. I want environmentalists to be invloved, but simply opposing everything is not the answer. I suspect that mnay environmentalists are really watermelons. reen on the outside, but red on the inside. I ran into these types in college all the time. They don't oppose only cars and cheap, abundant energy but the mobility and lifestyle they offer. The "smart growth" people are pretty much the same in the end too.

"The fact that "environmentalists" are so anti-nuke only illustrates the absurdity of allowing Al Gore's brand of apocalyptics guide policy."

I don't think that's a fair characterization of environmentalists. A lot of them are for nuclear power

"A lot" here meaning a small minority. James Lovelock is the exception that proves the rule. When a group of over a hundred big name environmentalists sign a declaration in support of nuclear power, I will cheerfully concede the point.

Hi Half Sigma
I have to apologize for suggesting that you misunderstood the Pigou Clubs aims. I thought the Pigou Club was advocating the carbon tax - which would make sense - but it doesn't appear so. But a logical extention of the Pigou Clubs aims would be a tax on all CO2 production from all sources. Prof. Mankiw would understand this.

You are absolutely right that the natural way to fight global warming is to switch to Nuclear. This is a point that is getting more coverage. Also hydroelectric is a big player too. France produces 90% of their electricity from Nuclear and Hydro. I think Canada produces nearly 75% of their electricity from Hydro. The US actually imports a lot of energy from Canada produced by the Hydro Quebec plant - one of the biggest hydro plant in the world.

A carbon tax definitely would make Nuclear and Hydro more attractive, but both are heavily regulated by the government so without a big Federal push, there probably won't be any new Nuclear or Hydro plants.

>>Proven reserves are based on what's profitable to mine based on the current price. If prices double, a lot more uranium becomes available, and the physical uranium is only 5% of the cost of nuclear power generation so that would have only a minor impact on the final price of electricity, more than compensated for by assumed future technological developments making nuclear power plants more efficient.

That makes a lot of sense for more common energy supplies like coal and oil, but not for uranium. It's just not that common, and to my knowledge there isn't anything like oil shale that becomes economic to mine if the price of oil gets high enough.

But with reprocessing and breeder reactors, you actually make more fissile material than you started with. That's how you get your uranium supply to last thousands of years.

The other thing is nuclear waste. Reprocessing takes care of a lot of it. It becomes fuel instead of waste.

Regarding plutonium, there are ex-government employees who know how to make bombs. With as little a 6 lbs. of material, you could have one of these people making a bomb without any government control over it whatsoever. That's how a terrorist could get one.

Because the production of plutonium in nuclear reactors is a random process, you can't know ahead of time exactly how much plutonium will be made. Thus, reprocessing is inherantly risky in terms of material being stolen. It could be stolen and you'd never know it.

Like I said, the risks don't outweigh the rewards. Global warming isn't that big a deal.

Engineer,

The value of a uranium mine is based upon the expected price for Yellow cake (natural uranium with the progeny removed).

When the value in the 90's went to five dollar per pound, the U.S. mines closed. If the 30 reactors currently being planned by the nuclear power industry come on line by 2020, the price will go up and probably cause the reopening of some mines in the western United States.

The Engineer said, "That makes a lot of sense for more common energy supplies like coal and oil, but not for uranium. It's just not that common, and to my knowledge there isn't anything like oil shale that becomes economic to mine if the price of oil gets high enough."

Actually, uranium is ubiquitous. There is more of it in the Earth's crust than tin or silver (which mankind has been mining for millenia). The Radon gas that people worry about seeping into their basements is part of the decay chain of Uranium as it goes to becoming Lead. The reason the proven reserves haven't gone up much in recent years is because there has been little incentive to look for the stuff. The Megatons to Megawatts program depressed the world price of uranium to the point that many mines were forced to close. That program is winding down and with the spot price going through the roof, you can bet the old mines will restart and mineral companies are back to sending geologists hither and yon to look for more.

If there is an equivalent to oil shale, it might be the world's oceans. The japanese have developed a process to extract it from sea water. At current prices, it is probably economically viable.

there isn't anything like oil shale that becomes economic to mine if the price of oil gets high enough.

seawater at $200-400 per pound.

Allright, seawater is a new one. Haven't seen that before.

So you guys think that a once through reactor cycle, which I guess would deal with waste via vitrification, will work long term (longer than a century)?

If I believed that, I would be a lot more pro-nuclear than I am now.

There are two archetypes of environmentalists, in my mind. The moderate one, like the radical one, is concerned about the effects of pollution and global warming. But whereas the moderate seeks alternatives, the radicals seek a starry-eyed retreat into nature.

Sadly, the radicals seem to have captured the debate - making someone like Bjorn Lomborg, who points out that things aren't as bad as commonly claimed (like 1-2 ft rise in tides predicted by scientists vs. the 20ft of Al Gore film) so controversial.

George Reisman wrote a good piece, paeans to libertarianism excepted, on radical environmentalists, dissecting their philosophy and revealing it to be basically hatred of humanity, available here (http://www.mises.org/story/1927 )

Long-term uranium supply is not an issue, for reasons touched upon by many posters above. We’ve barely even begun to look for it (since we quickly found all that we needed, for decades, after just a cursory exploration effort). The discovery cost for uranium (in dollars per energy content) is ~300 times lower than that of oil or gas. The ore cost is only ~2-3% of the total power cost, so the price could go up dramatically w/o significantly effecting nuclear’s economics. At a significantly higher price, the amount of uranium that can be economically extracted exponentiates.

For all these reasons, it is likely that the amount of high-grade ore that remains undiscovered is at least ~100 times the amount of known reserves. Only then will we have to go to lower grades. There is enough uranium in the ground to meet all our needs for several centuries, even assuming the once-through fuel cycle (no reprocessing or breeding) and significant growth in nuclear. A more detailed discussion of all this can be found at:

http://www.americanenergyindependence.com/uranium.html

and,

http://216.94.150.122/investor_relations/speeches/speech_text.php?spid=49

Concerning “acceptable” solutions to accident risk, waste and proliferation….,

Western nuclear power plants have never released a significant amount of radiation (or any other type of pollution) into the environment over their entire ~40-year history. The have never had any measurable impact on public health. In stark contrast, coal plant emissions cause ~25,000 premature deaths every year in the US alone (hundreds of thousands worldwide), and are the leading cause of global warming. This annual death toll, from normal operations, is far greater than the total eventual effects from Chernobyl (for which credible estimates of eventual deaths range from ~100 to ~10,000). The worst possible effects from any Western plant meltdown would be far less.

Nuclear has had a perfect record for ~40 years. And even if the dreaded severe meltdown scenario were ever to come to pass (due to accident or terrorist attack), the consequences would be far less than the ANNUAL consequences of fossil fuel plants. Why is this not good enough?

continued....

In terms of waste, rigorous analyses show that any release at all from the repository (over the entire time period the waste remains significantly toxic) is unlikely. In the event that some material is released, it is very unlikely that the maximum dose rate for any individual will exceed a few millirem/year (i.e., ~1% of natural background). There is a tiny (< 0.1%) chance that a few people could be exposed to a few hundred millirem (i.e., a dose rate still within the range of natural background, about equal to what all the people living in Denver are continually receiving right now).

This is not a real issue. Assuming direct burial of spent fuel in Yucca Mtn., the overall effect on public health per kW-hr generated (even considering a full million year timeframe) for nuclear power is negligible compared to that of fossil fuels. By any reasonable definition, the waste problem has been solved. Yucca is clearly an “acceptable” solution, as the risks associated with this waste management approach are negligible compared to those involved with other energy sources.

continued....

Adding more nuclear plants in the US, where we already have ~100 plants (as well as having the bomb) will have absolutely no impact on proliferation. This “issue” is a red herring. Insufficient quantity is not the reason why US spent fuel has never been used to make an illicit weapon. It’s because stealing spent fuel from a US plant (w/o detection) and reprocessing it to extract the plutonium is an absurdly difficult approach for obtaining weapons material; one which is vastly more difficult than any other method. It is much easier to dig up and enrich one’s own uranium (in Iran, etc..) or to steal/procure the material from places like Russia or Pakistan. These are the areas where we should focus our attention.

There may be SOME risk associated with introducing nuclear power to several small, developing (and perhaps unstable) nations, although the risk is small unless those nations build fuel enrichment or reprocessing facilities. However, the nations that already have nuclear plants account for the vast majority of energy use, CO2 emissions, and pollution. Thus, almost all the benefits of increased nuclear power can be realized even if we refrain from introducing nuclear power to any new nations. Nations with nuclear programs should use more nuclear, so that our remaining fossil fuels can be saved for the nations that are not yet able to use nuclear responsibly. This will delay (or avoid) the day when those nations are forced to start using nuclear.

Allright Jim, you've convinced me. Once through, with waste vitrified and buried at Yucca mountain.

Actually, according to my ComEd bill, over 90% of my electricity comes from nuclear. Seeing that I'm only paying 10 cents per kW-hr, nuclear is good for me.

Agree with Jim also. Nice summary. Except of course

Nuclear has had a perfect record for ~40 years.

You already mentioned Chernobyl, so you know this isn't quite true (even if we grant that Three Mile Island was really a nonevent).
It's nice to see the coal death figures stacked up alongside the non-deaths from nuclear. You can even add the death toll from coal mining accidents for rhetorical purposes, though really the price of coal already captures that cost.

I was referring to Western nuclear power's safety record. Sorry for being unclear. I should have started the 2nd paragraph with "Western nuclear", as I did in the first paragraph.

We would have way more nuclear power plants (and less reliance on middle-eastern crude) if it were not for the irrational anti-nuclear hysteria that afflicted the boomers starting in the 70's. This hysteria is largely a boomer phenomenon and will die off along with the boomers. So, simply have to a wait another 20 years or so for enough of the boomers to die off (during which time much of Asia will be nuclear powered), then convert over to nuclear power at this time.

Unfortunately, this will result in a 20-30 period of slow economic growth in the West as it labors under the influence of misguided "greenhouse" regulation, the financial burden of the retired boomers, and the anti-nuclear energy hysteria created by all of those boomers. For me personally, this is not so bad because 90% of my business sales are in Asia (I sell supplies to the semiconductor industry) and I will most likely be living in China during much of this time. China, having 9% growth rate, offers me far more opportunities to succeed financially than the U.S. with its paltry 3% (soon to be around 1% with the above burdens).

I think the result of these three negative influences will be lots of young people as well as educated entreprenureal types moving to Asia, rather than put up with the above three burdens. This will benefit China's economy over the U.S. economy.

30 years from now, we can buy all of the land we want in the U.S. for retirement (and investment).

H.L. Menchen said it best when he said that people end up with the government they want. Another way of putting it is, "sayonara suckers".

Kurt9: We would have way more nuclear power plants (and less reliance on middle-eastern crude)

Actually very little crude is used to generate elecricity in the U.S., domestically produced coal and natural gas are the primary fossil fuels used to produce electricity.

The problem is that natural gas is a scarce resource that we are using up. It's a waste to use it to generate electricity when it's more valuable for heating buildings.

And coal is cheap, but dirty. More miners have died mining coal than people have died in nuclear power plants.

We would have way more nuclear power plants (and less reliance on middle-eastern crude) if it were not for the irrational anti-nuclear hysteria that afflicted the boomers starting in the 70's. This hysteria is largely a boomer phenomenon and will die off along with the boomers. So, simply have to a wait another 20 years or so for enough of the boomers to die off (during which time much of Asia will be nuclear powered), then convert over to nuclear power at this time...

I'm a Boomer Nuke... All my non-nuke friends have come around to believing Nuclear Power is the only way forward. The only folks I know that are anti are those that are profiting from enflaming the fears of the ignorant. However, I recognize that the blame for ignorance lies with our generation. Hopefully, my son and his generation will continue to question the actions (in-action) of their parents. If we can get a politician to utter the N-word, I'm sure the pro-N boomers would rise in support. We pay the ever-increasing energy bills, have experienced oil embargos, seen gas go from $0.25 to $2.5/gal, seen the air get dirty then clean then Hg and fine particulates become health hazards and cancer rates increase... Many of these attributable to our irrational fear of nuclear power.

This is an old thread, so perhaps no one will see it, but one point I'm surprised hasn't been raised is this:

I don't see how environmentalists alone could maintain the regulation of nuclear power for the last 6 years. Bush has shown a public interest in building new nuclear plants, yet of all the regulations that were removed or eased in the last 6 years (those on coal mining being a relevant example), nuclear power hasn't been affected.

My best guesses are that:
* This is likely out of fear of terrorists getting access to nuclear material. This has been largely invalidated by previous posts.
* The current economic position for the power giants that are best placed to influence nuclear legislation and build those plants is more favorable for oil and coal production; and since the arguments above are that nuclear power is so much cheaper, I'm guessing coal and oil are favored because the power giants have near monopolies on them, that they wouldn't necessarily have on less-regulated nuclear power.
* Current legislators are wary of new technologies, especially ones that have been shown to be dangerous in the past and that they might not understand how much they've improved.

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