We were utterly fascinated to read this article in the New York Times revealing that a full 50% of the nuclear fuel used in reactors in the United States comes from recycled nuclear bombs, primarily from Russia. Which pretty much explains why disarmament has been happening! And it has a nice swords-to-plowshares narrative, to boot.
Eventually, however, the available supply of decommissioned nuclear weapons will run out, and nuclear power plants will have to turn to much more expensive unenriched uranium ore from mines around the world. An MIT study estimates that there is enough ore in the ground to “fuel the development of 1000 reactors over the next half century and to maintain this level of development over a 40 year lifetime of this fleet,” although there are dipsutes over how efficiencies in ore extraction and recycling will affect long-term supply.
Does that take care of the problem, then?
The mere fact that there is a lot of uranium does not speak to nuclear power’s economic (never mind political) feasbility as a replacement to hydrocarbon-based power. When one sees construction cost numbers like $7.5 billion per gigawatt for wind versus $5 billion per gigawatt for mini-nuclear that WSJ threw out this past June, it is hard to say whether the estimates contemplate issues like the idiosyncratically higher cost of future supplies.
Trouble is, there’s very little consensus about the true costs of the various low-GHG energy technologies — this is as likely to do with the fact that the scale is enormous, many factors are hidden or incidental (and counted some of the time and not counted others), and the standard unknowns of forecasting decades into the future, as it is with poltical wrangling. Witness this battle between Mark Jacobson (Stanford) and Mark Delucchi (UC Davis), whose paper on switching to all wind, water and solar by 2030 was featured this month in Scientific American, and Barry Brook (University of Adelaide), critiquing the paper on BraveNewClimate for implicitly adding in the GHG output of a minor nuclear war into nuclear power’s footprint over the next thirty years, among other sins.
Our point is that, for a layperson, it always seems possible to find some authority poking unfillable holes in the well-intentioned argument of another authority and never know who’s right. Still, we are all better off that the debate is occuring out in the open.
[Photo: Atlas thermonuclear warhead, whose payload may be powering the laptop upon which this post was written! (x-ray delta one/flickr)]