April 09, 2006
Saudis See Peak Oil Within 2 Decades

FuturePundit thinks he ought to join the peak oil pessimist camp. The Saudis do not think the oil producers can keep up with growing oil demand from China, the United States, and other developing and developed countries.

But demand for the world's premiere source of energy is rising so fast _ by around 2 million barrels per day each year _ that even Saudi Arabia's vast resources will be unable to cope without drastic help, oil executives and analysts say.

Remarkably, even Saudis, who control over a quarter of the world's known oil, are calling for relief from relentless consumption.

"The current out-of-control demand is not good for us," Ghazi Al-Rawi, head of private equity at Gulf One Investment Bank, said in a recent interview. "When you have this kind of demand, you're forced to supply beyond the optimal rate. That's not a positive thing."

So then $80 per barrel oil is not out of the question. Demand is going to get throttled back by rising prices. How much will this slow the world's rate of economic growth?

The guy formerly in charge of Saudi Aramco's oil production, Saddad al-Husseini, says that at best Saudi Arabia could boost production 35% and hold it there for 2 decades.

If such help doesn't materialize and Saudi Arabia maxes its output _ cranking out perhaps 35 percent more oil than it does today _ the kingdom's proven reserves might only sustain those gushing flows for a couple of decades before starting to dwindle, al-Husseini said.

Keep in mind that many nations have already reached their oil production peak and are on the way down. The Saudi peak will probably come later than for any other country. Therefore the world oil peak comes sooner than 2 decades from now. The demand for coal, oil tar sands, and oil shale will skyrocket unless we shift to nuclear and accelerate research into cheaper ways to make photovoltaics.

The heir apparent to head France's large Total oil company says the world is never going to see the widely projected 120 million barrels of oil per day.

THE world lacks the means to produce enough oil to meet rising projections of demand for fuel over the next decade, according to Christophe de Margerie, head of exploration for Total and heir presumptive to the leadership of the French energy multinational.

The world is mistakenly focusing on oil reserves when the problem is capacity to produce oil, M de Margerie said in an interview with The Times. Forecasters, such as the International Energy Agency (IEA), have failed to consider the speed at which new resources can be brought into production, he believes.

“Numbers like 120 million barrels per day will never be reached, never,” he said.

Want more oil? Fuggedaboutit. We are at about 82 million barrels per day. If the Saudis at best hope to add 5 million barrels per day then the world oil production ceiling isn't even going to be 100 million barrels per day.

We need to ask ourselves what we should do about the coming peak in oil production. Some of my readers advocate for the development of nuclear power plants based on Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) designs. Those designs would supposedly be cheaper than the current Light Water Reactor (LWR) designs. MSR would use much less fuel since it would burn the fuel far more thoroughly and also would therefore produce far less waste. Sounds good to me.

We also need acceleration of battery development so that most cars can get powered by elecrticity generated from nuclear, solar, and wind power. We also need acceleration of research into photovoltaics as well.

Matthew Simmons argues (see his book Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy) that the Saudis have greatly exaggerated the size of their oil reserves. He's expecting an even earlier oil production peak and has some recommendations for what to do about it. See my post Matthew Simmons On Softening Oil Peak Impact. My guess is that many obvious things to do will happen in response to rising prices. But the costs of the transition would be lessened greatly if the public had a much clearer view of when the peak will come and how expensive oil will get. For example, new housing construction would feature much better insulation and other energy efficiency enhancing features.

Update: How soon and to what extent will people and businesses adjust to reduce their use of oil and natural gas? The New York Times reports that so far consumers have resisted changing their lifestyles to use less gasoline.

Still, the biggest surprise so far is that high prices seem to have had little impact on driving habits. Gasoline demand, which averaged 9.1 million barrels a day last month, remains very strong; in fact, it is up by 2 percent since January 2004 when oil prices began to rise. Analysts are puzzled.

"The real question is, What will consumers do?" said John Felmy, the chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's main trade group. "That's a key part of the equation."

Anecdotes from rural areas suggest that people are moving away properties that require longer commutes to work. Maybe a shift is already underway and will show in coming months. But it could be that consumers are waiting to see whether prices will remain high. Once they become convinced that higher prices are to stay for a long time then I would expect more movements and job changes to reduce commute times, bigger efforts to insulate houses, shifts toward buying more efficient vehicles, and other longer term adjustments.

What I'd like to know: How high can oil prices go? I do not buy the predictions of $200 per barrel oil because before that happened high prices will curtail demand and also cause a stampede toward substitutes. The potential for Fischer Tropsch Coal-to-Liquid is the most obvious reason why oil won't go to $200 per barrel. Wood and corn for space heat, wind for electricity, and other substitutes would all become cost effective before $200 per barrel oil was reached.

One problem with substitutes is the time it takes to develop them. Oil shale and oil tar sands can also come on line and provide many millions of barrels of oil per day. But construction to ramp up either would take many years.

Maybe $200 per barrel oil is possible. But for how long? Such a price would cause a deep worldwide recession.

Update II: Stanford geophysicist Jon Claerbout wrote a review of Simmons' book in which he finds Simmons' arguments quite plausible.

Failure to find any more oil than the Hawtah Trend since 1967 was not for lack of trying. Saudi ARAMCO has access to ample capital and the world's top talent. Exploration technology has seen major developments since then, but technology does not guarantee results. In 2005 ARAMCO's budget for exploration and development is $2.7 billion. Alaska's Prudhoe Bay is a clear example that while new technology may add something, it cannot keep up with depletion, even with the recent runup in prices.

Of course there is much more to an oil field than its area shown by this map. Simmons' book provides us with much such information that he has distilled from 200 papers published with the Society of Petroleum Engineers. ARAMCO ceased publication of production statistics by oil field when it was nationalized in the late 1970s, but their engineers continue to publish technical papers on problems, successes, and difficulties.

Alarmingly, the development of horizontal drilling has added nothing to reserves while hastening the speed at which they can be drawn down.

I am worried. The world economy looks like it is heading toward much higher energy prices for an extended period of time. But necessity is the mother of invention. So I also expect to see a big acceleration of energy research and development once the realisation sinks in that the world's oil production peak is near.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 April 09 10:51 AM  Energy Fossil Fuels


Comments
Paul Dietz said at April 9, 2006 2:21 PM:

So, have you invested in Rentech or Syntroleum? It's a lot more likely, IMO, that synfuels will come on than we'll see significant nuclear-battery-electric propulsion in two decades.

Note: I own neither of those two stocks (unless unknown to me they are in one of the mutual funds I own shares of), and they appear to be very volatile. Invest at your own risk.

AA2 said at April 9, 2006 4:24 PM:

My belief from looking at the production numbers is that conventional light sweet crude has already peaked. And is hanging around the same level as 2000. Meanwhile nonconventional oil is ramping up, especially deep sea drilling. Like the drilling going on off the coast of Africa right now. Tar sands obviously is starting, like in Alberta the province next to mine. Total oil production and consumption are still growing healthily at this point.

AA2 said at April 9, 2006 4:27 PM:

http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/energy/2005-10-16-oil-1a-cover-usat_x.htm


Rising global demand for oil

There's no question that demand is rising. Last year, global oil consumption jumped 3.5%, or 2.8 million barrels a day. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects demand rising from the current 84 million barrels a day to 103 million barrels by 2015.

Wolf-Dog said at April 9, 2006 4:34 PM:

In the Popular Mechanics Magazine, there was an article about Ethanol from corn. According to this article, it is not true that making Ethanol is taking more energy than what Ethanol is capable of delivering. Also biodiesels are definitely possible. Note that many universities are working on new organic energy sources round the clock.

One VERY interesting claim in the latter article, is that because corn absorbs carbon dioxide in order to grow (by its nature), when corn-based Ethanol is burned, the resulting amount of CO_2 that is released, is exactly equal to the CO_2 that the corn absorbed from the atmosphere in order to grow. This means that corn-based Ethanol is CO_2 neutral. Ethanol creates no net increase in CO_2 when it is burned.

The Molten Salt Reactor, unfortunately, is still in the "science" phase, which means that unless there is a government sponsored Manhattan Project (at least $100 billion per year for just this program), we will not see these reactors for another 2 or 3 decades. With this oil lobby in control of the government, there will not be any nuclear energy crusade in the US. Note that France became an 80 % nuclear energy based country, only because this was a government controlled national project that was decided by those who were in the know over there. And this was during the 1970s. What do the French have that we don't have in the United States? It's not the brains that we don't have, but it's just a national survival instinct. It is possible that the Democrats would be more inclined to sponsor a Manhattan Project for energy than the Republicans, since they are probably less influenced by the oil industry.

Ivan Kirigin said at April 9, 2006 7:00 PM:

Even if corn-ethanol is not as inefficient studies claim, isn't ethanol produced from sugar better?

Also, I'm far from an expert in these things, so please correct anything flawed below...

I've found that my Vespa gets 75mpg. My CRV gets ~27mpg. If my vespa were covered, it would be even more efficient. I'm thinking of a tear-drop shell. It would have the added benefit of being safer and protected from the elements. If the engine to payload ratio remains roughly the same, let's say that you can get 2-3 times better milage by driving a small, covered motorcycle.

Then let's say that you make it a plug-in hybrid. I've read that 80% of driving is

Now make the fuel E85, meaning 85 percent of the fuel is ethanol (from corn or sugar -- whatever). That means for each mpg of fuel, you're really getting ~6X the mpg of gasoline.

So...
start with a 25mpg car.
Move that to 75 with a covered motorcycle.
Move that to 375mpg with a PHEV covered motorcycle.
Move that to 2250mpg of gasoline with a flex-fuel PHEV covered motorcycle.

Am I missing something? Yes, the weight of the shell and batteries and added equipment for the PHEV. So how good could you get? With bigger/lighter batteries, even more miles would be all-electric.

Again, I'm far from an expert, so please correct anything.

Jake said at April 9, 2006 7:18 PM:


Wolf-dog;

"It is possible that the Democrats would be more inclined to sponsor a Manhattan Project for energy than the Republicans, since they are probably less influenced by the oil industry."

Are you kidding me? The Republicans with the support of the President put into the last energy bill a measure to streamline the permit process for nuclear power plants (before it took 10 years). The Democrats violently objected to this proposal, but they were outvoted. A plant in Alabama is going to be constructed as a direct result of this legislation.

The Democrats oppose any and all energy projects because they have a hysterical fear of technology. They are the oil companies' best friend. Because of the Democrats' restriction of our energy supply the oil companies can sell the oil out of their reserves at $80 a barrel. If Republicans had their way, oil would be $30 a barrel.

Let's look at influence peddling:

The Republicans spent $400 million in the last election. Oil interests donated $15 million-less than 4%.

The Democrats spent $600 million. The trial lawyers donated $128 million. George Soros, who benefits greatly from energy restrictions, gave $28 million.

Wolf-Dog said at April 9, 2006 8:20 PM:

Jake,

Good point. I agree that the Democrats are also corrupt in different ways, but note that the previous opposition of the Democrats to nuclear energy, was due to the unpopularity of nukes among the left wing supporters of their party at that time. For example, the Integral Fast Reactor project was terminated by the Democrats many years ago. But once nuclear energy becomes more popular among left wing people after it is demonstrated that new improvements make this technology more realistic and much safer, then the Democratic opposition will vanish as a result. But then this would be precisely when the oil companies would get upset. Note that building one or two nuclear electric plants for electricity in Alabama, does not hurt the business of oil companies, only switching to electric cars charged by an additional 300 new reactors would. Also please note that even without finanical campaign contributions by the oil companies, the Republicans are more influenced by the oil companies, because many Republican politicians are connected with the oil companies, while this is less so for the Democrats. The gimmick that Bush did with his microscopic hydrogen initiative, was just to divert attention from the more feasible other possibilities, which require big money.

Joe Deely said at April 9, 2006 9:19 PM:

I think it will take $4 per gallon in US to see a signinficant dropoff in demand for gasoline.

Americans have too much dispoable income.

Jake said at April 9, 2006 9:31 PM:

Wolf-dog

I don't think the nuclear power industry needs any help.

After all nuclear power plants are being built all over the world with France leading the way with 80% of their electricity coming from nuclear power. Nuclear power plants are safe, clean and reliable now.

What we need is for the government of all levels and the courts to get out of the way of plant construction.

AA2 said at April 9, 2006 10:05 PM:

Thats right we don't need a breakthrough like molten-salt reactors for nuclear to be viable. We already have real nuclear plants that have been operating right here in America for decades.. and providing competively priced power.

In the future I expect nuclear plants to get better in terms of cost per installed megawatt, in terms of the fuel burn up percentage, and other measures. Cost probably being hte most important. If molten salt reactors come along, and the government checks to see if they are safe.. Then utilities can look at all the factors and decide if they want to go for molten salt reactors.

Wolf-Dog said at April 9, 2006 10:17 PM:

Jake,

You wrote: "Nuclear power plants are safe, clean and reliable now."
-----------------------------------------------------------------

This is NOT true for very large scale operations because of the following facts:
Note that the initial French nuclear reactor design was the 30 years old Westinghouse design. And only recently there is a better Westinghouse design, but these are still the traditional pressurized water reactors, meaning that they burn only a small fraction of the Uranium, approximately 1 % of the uranium, and they also leave behind a lot of nuclear waste that is long term. Even the Pebble Bed reactor is a disaster because it generates a lot more waste than other reactors (it is safe and cheap to build, and this is why it is emphasized). Note that in order to replace oil by electric cars, we need at least 300 additional reactors to generate to charge the batteries. If all the world switches to nuclear energy, this means thousands of new reactors in the world. This is why the current design will NOT do. This is because building hundreds of new reactors will create an Uranium shortage in the world, similar to the oil shortage unless we use the breeder reactors that are 100 times more efficient: The Molten Salt Reactor, or the Integral Fast Reactor, or something in between is needed. The latter reactors burn 100 % of the Uranium since these are BREEDER reactors, and they also burn the long term waste. But a lot more work is needed to commercialize this. France took a terrible risk to build these reactors and they still have a lousy system. Unless we spend at least $100 billion per year to really make these things perfect, there will not be a nuclear energy crusade. (Or any kind of crusade.)
Additionally, so much long term nuclear waste will simply be unmanageable unless we use the new generation of breeder reactors that internally burn their own long term nuclear waste as fuel, leaving behind only the short term nuclear waste which has a half life of only 300 years. (In that case the nuclear waste accumulation is manageable, otherwise the problem is not solvable.)

PacRim Jim said at April 9, 2006 11:06 PM:

Peak Saudi oil will be much sooner, once some biohacker introduces petroleum-digesting bacteria into the Middle East. Don't laugh, it could happen sooner than you think.

Brett Bellmore said at April 10, 2006 3:39 AM:

The oil has been there so long, that one would expect petroleum digesting bacteria to have already eaten it, if there weren't some fundamental obstacle to that.

I agree that for the long term current reactor designs are not suitable. However, because of risk aversion, and the long history of nuclear power being suppressed in this country, if we do start building significant numbers of reactors again, the first ones are probably going to be conventional designs; Who wants to take the risk of building a new design AND of the regulators changing their minds again halfway through?

Paul Dietz said at April 10, 2006 6:01 AM:

Breeder reactors make little sense unless uranium becomes much more expensive. Right now, plutonium is not a worthwhile material to extract from spent fuel -- it actually has negative worth, since you can't just drop it into an existing fuel element fabrication line that uses uranium. Safe handling of ton-quantities of Pu is difficult (this would also be true of 233U, due to the high alpha activity, particularly if denatured with 232U; hence the interest in molten salt reactors.)

I expect seawater uranium extraction to become common before breeder reactors do.

CASpears said at April 10, 2006 8:17 AM:

If they fail to modernize their economy and use large surpluses they are getting from petroleum now to move into high technology and service sector fields, their will be chaos in the Middle East for decades when the money runs out.

Poorer countries that can not afford the infastructural investment it will take to use new technologies that are less petrolium dependent will fall even further behind the developed world.

Wolf-Dog said at April 10, 2006 10:29 AM:

The other reason Breeder reactors will be important is because long term nucler waste is accumulating, and this problem will be unmanageable if we build thousands of reactors in the world. The closed cycle breeder reactors can burn all the long term nuclear waste as fuel.

Separately, here is some information about sea water uranium:
The Uranium mining rate is currently below the rate of consumtion because due to the peace treaty with the Soviet Union, both sides reduced their military warheads, and hence some of the Russian and American Uranium and Plutonium is being blended with nuclear reactor fuels, to provide cheap electricity. 20 % of the electricity is nuclear.

But apparently, almost half of the military uranium and plutonium that was earmarked for civilian reactors, is already burned, and many of the uranium mines have been neglected for many years. Here is a web site about the statistics:

http://www.fraw.org.uk/mobbsey/papers/oies_article.html

And the long term price of uranium is graphed in this web site:

http://www.cameco.com/investor_relations/ux_history/index.php

The current price of Uranium is at $41/lb, and the price has actually quadrupled since the year 2000.

As mentioned by other commentators above, only a small fraction of the nuclear electricity is due to the price of uranium, because it's the cost of operating the nuclear reactor that is high. Thus even if the price of uranium quadrupled once again to $160/lb, this will not affect the price of electricity too much.

But around $120/lb, the uranium that is dissolved in the sea water, becomes extractable, and there is more than 4 billion tonnes of uranium in the seas.

Dezakin said at April 10, 2006 12:46 PM:

"I expect seawater uranium extraction to become common before breeder reactors do."

No way paul. The time horizon where seawater uranium becomes less expensive than conventional ores is a good several centuries away, and a lot can happen in a couple of centuries.

tdean said at April 10, 2006 1:17 PM:

Jake: "The Republicans spent $400 million in the last election. Oil interests donated $15 million-less than 4%."

You should get try to get your facts straight. http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.asp?Ind=E01
The oil and gas industry gave over $26 million, 80% of it to Republicans in 2004. If Democrats are such great friends of the oil biz, they sure don't seem to realize it. To get ex- oil execs Bush and Dick "Halliburton" Cheney and friends elected in 2000 the industry spent over $34 million. The entire energy/mining indudustry spent over $52 million in 2004, overwhelmingly to the Republicans. And they certainly got a great deal - billions of dollars of favorable legislation and pollutor-friendly EPA rules from the Bush administration. The numbers confirm the public perception that Republicans are always willing to trade the health and well-being of the public for campaign contributions and promises of life-long cushy jobs for ex-politicians.

"If Republicans had their way, oil would be $30 a barrel." How far up your butt can you get that pinhead of yours? The Republicans have had their way since they controlled Congress in '94 and the price of oil has quintupled. The money tells everyone who the friends of petroleum really are.

tdean said at April 10, 2006 1:22 PM:

Jake: "The Republicans spent $400 million in the last election. Oil interests donated $15 million-less than 4%."

You should get try to get your facts straight. http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.asp?Ind=E01
The oil and gas industry gave over $26 million, 80% of it to Republicans in 2004. If Democrats are such great friends of the oil biz, they sure don't seem to realize it. To get ex- oil execs Bush and Dick "Halliburton" Cheney and friends elected in 2000 the industry spent over $34 million. The entire energy/mining indudustry spent over $52 million in 2004, overwhelmingly to the Republicans. And they certainly got a great deal - billions of dollars of favorable legislation and pollutor-friendly EPA rules from the Bush administration. The numbers confirm the public perception that Republicans are always willing to trade the health and well-being of the public for campaign contributions and promises of life-long cushy jobs for ex-politicians.

"If Republicans had their way, oil would be $30 a barrel." How far up your butt can you get that pinhead of yours? The Republicans have had their way since they controlled Congress in '94 and the price of oil has quintupled. The money tells everyone who the friends of petroleum really are.

gmoke said at April 10, 2006 1:37 PM:

Those who read globalguerrillas know that it is only a question of time before somebody blows up a critical link and Saudi oil will stop. Nigeria is already experiencing political violence that is making real problems for their oil industry. We are on the downside from the Hubbert Peak already and, if we are not, it is probably wise to start acting as if we are.

As for nuclear, check out the information below:

http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid171.php#E05-15
E05-15, Mighty Mice (PDF-595k)
The most powerful force resisting new nuclear may be a legion of small, fast and simple microgeneration and efficiency projects. In this guest article in the UK-published Nuclear Engineering International, Amory Lovins explains to the industry who its most formidable competitors are: not central coal- or gas-fired power plants, but micropower and efficient use. These are already adding more than ten times as much global capacity per year, and, being much cheaper, provide more climate solution per dollar and per year. (29 December 2005).

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/02/japan_solar_pho.php

US utilites are spending their time quibbling over growth in coal vs nuclear, nervous about continued natural gas price volatility upsetting the prospective ROI, should an investment be made. Meanwhile in Japan, "The photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules market in Japan, estimated to be 640 Megawatts (MW) in capacity or 209 billion yen in value of shipment, will rapidly grow to 2,350 MW or 665 billion yen in value in fiscal 2008 by recording an average growth of 30 to 40% every year". This in a marketing report "New Energy System Market (PV Power Systems) 2005" recently published by Yano Research Institute Ltd. Report is 67 pages and available in English. Interestingly, the cited MW addition rate equates to the output of one or two new nukes per year.

Also from the press release: "The report revealed that Japanese PV cells and modules manufacturers are dominating the world market by exporting more than half of their production (358 MW in capacity or 126 billion yen in fiscal 2004), and are expected to keep leading the market by exporting 1,531 MW in capacity or 450 million yen in value in fiscal 2008".

First Sweden declares an "oil free" goal for the entire nation, then Japan declares victory over world world SPV markets. Feeling surrounded? Welcome to "Island USA", a delightful new novel in which the entire US governing elite and pundit class, following a Peak Oil/Gas-induced ending of the "Ostrich Maneuver", has too much sand in their collective eyes to see what is happening.

from http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/04/how_many_wind_t.php

According to the March 31, 2006 London Daily Mail: - "The cost to the taxpayer of making Britain's nuclear power stations safe has soared to nearly £70 billion [US$122 billion], it emerged last night. Funding the cleanup of nuclear waste and decommissioning 20 civilian sites including Sellafield in Cumbria and Dounreay in Caithness, northern Scotland will cost far more than the original £48 billion estimate. The figure could be higher still because officials admitted they will not know the 'full costs' until 2008. And if the Government decided to reclassify plutonium as waste rather than as an asset, the costs would be pushed up by another £10 billion. The massive burden on the taxpayer was revealed as ministers confirmed the sale of British Nuclear Group, which will hand over control of Sellafield to the private sector". We thought this news item adds needed perspective to the notion that mitigating climate change with nuclear energy will be cost effective over the full life cycle. New sites will at some future point again have to be made "safe." Much of a wind turbine will have positive scrap value at the end of it's design life; while much of a nuclear generation station, and all of its uranium series waste will have a negative value.

Wolf-Dog said at April 10, 2006 4:22 PM:

As I was mentioning above, the price of Uranium is currently $41/lb, but the price at which sea water based uranium becomes extractable, will probablbe $120/lb. If the world ends up building thousands of light water reactors to substitute for oil, then this will mean that the regular uranium mines will last no more than 50 years. But it is clear that the price of mined uranium will almost certainly increase a lot more, probably to $200/lb within a few more years, and possibly to $500/lb. At that time, sea water based uranium would become economical for sure.

But my main point was that developing the futuristic breeder reactors was not just because of the need to economize uranium, but to eliminate the long term waste that will accumulate like crazy otherwise. The closed cycle reactors can burn all the long term waste as fuel, leaving behind only shor term low level waste with a half life about $300 years. Otherwise even many hundreds of Yucca mountains in the world will not be enough to get rid of the long term waste.

Paul Dietz said at April 10, 2006 4:56 PM:

No way paul. The time horizon where seawater uranium becomes less expensive than conventional ores is a good several centuries away, and a lot can happen in a couple of centuries.

In that case, breeder reactors are also in limbo for several centuries. If uranium prices are too low for seawater recovery to compete, then they're also too low for breeders to compete with once-through burner reactors.

Paul Dietz said at April 10, 2006 5:07 PM:

But my main point was that developing the futuristic breeder reactors was not just because of the need to economize uranium, but to eliminate the long term waste that will accumulate like crazy otherwise. The closed cycle reactors can burn all the long term waste as fuel, leaving behind only shor term low level waste with a half life about $300 years. Otherwise even many hundreds of Yucca mountains in the world will not be enough to get rid of the long term waste.

This fails to be a justification for breeders. It's cheaper to just put spent fuel (after a decade of cooling in water) into armored sealed containers, so-called 'dry cask storage'. The miracle of nonzero interest rates means you spend less money if you wait to reprocess until... well, until reprocessing becomes a hell of lot cheaper, however long that takes.

Reprocessing also has the problem of taking nuclear waste that is sealed in nice intact fuel elements and dispersing it into much more mobile forms. Some of this will inevitably escape into the environment -- look at the cleanup bill for Rocky Flats, which over its entire life processed about 50 tons of plutonium. A large scale nuclear economy will involve orders of magnitude more plutonium.

I suspect this sort of reprocessing, on that large a scale, will only ever be done off the planet entirely, for example on the moon. Of course, being able to transport spent fuel off the planet also allows you to store it there without reprocessing it, with little risk of it returning to Earth.

tdean said at April 10, 2006 6:46 PM:

Gmoke,

Your excellent sources and comments make the irrefutable case that when the true full cycle/subsidized costs of nuclear are considered it isn't even in the running. And still, the subsidy of free insurance via the Price/Anderson act isn't considered, even by your very compelling sources (that I saw, anyhow). That cost may only become clear when a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility reminds everyone why the nuclear industry needs the PAA to be viable in the first place.

Distributed/renewable, coal/carbon sequestration and combined heat/power expansion is much cheaper and much safer and reliable than any Gen X nuclear technology that is on the drawing board or in the mind of an engineer.

gmoke said at April 10, 2006 7:39 PM:

You can see video of my most recent solar experiments at http://solarray.blogspot.com or http;//energyvision.blogspot.com

I know that LED bike lights and solar/dynamo radio/flashlight battery chargers aren't as sexy as nuclear reactors but I think that they may be a lot more accessible to everybody around the world. One of my end goals is a solar rechargeable reading light so that any and every child in the world can decide whether or not they want to read in bed.

John Faughnan said at April 10, 2006 8:20 PM:

Canadian gas sells for about $6/gallon in US terms -- largely due to Canadian taxes. I have not heard from my Canadian relatives that the price of gas greatly influences their choices.

By extension gas in the wealthier US will need to hit at least $7/gallon before we change where we live.

AA2 said at April 10, 2006 8:45 PM:

Thats about right John.. where I live its around 5-6 dollars a gallon. When I go out I see big pickup trucks and SUV's all over the place. I think its sort of silly personally to be spending that much money.. But then again many people will pay 30,000$ more for a car that is marginally better in utilitarian terms, but is higher status.

AA2 said at April 10, 2006 8:55 PM:

We won't have to worry about uranium running low for a long time. And when we do, we will have nice reserves of uranium right in the the pits where we bury the spent fuel. And even for sources of uranium that today can't be mined and produce a net energy gain.. that doesn't mean with tomorrow's technology the same will be true.

When we moved to the oil economy pessimists could have said, 'so what it will run out eventually, why bother?'. But then we wouldn't have gotten all the benefits we have gotten from oil thus far. And we wouldn't have an economy as large as ours is to think about moving to the next levels.

Randall Parker said at April 10, 2006 9:02 PM:

John Faughan,

I just checked a Canadian newspaper that put gasoline up there at 85 to 90 cents (Canadian) per liter. A gallon is 3.7852 liters. Well, taking the higher 90 cents per liter figure that works out to $3.40 Canadian dollars per gallon and even less in US dollars. Not much more than the cost in some parts of the US.

tdean said at April 15, 2006 1:19 PM:

Biotechnology could easily prove the savior of hydrocarbon guzzling Americans. http://www.nrel.gov/docs/legosti/fy98/24190.pdf

A very foreward looking twenty year study of biodiesel production using algae fertilized by CO2 from coal fired power plants showed very promising results before it was shut down by the Republican congress in 1998. According to the final report "...we project costs for biodiesel which are two times higher than current petroleum diesel fuel costs." Since petroleum prices have quadrupled since '98, maybe it is time to give this technology another look.

As it turns out, algae has the potential to produce 30 times the amount of oil per acre as corn or soybeans with a photosynthetic efficiency approaching 10%. A major problem with algae-based oil production is that the species of algae that produces oil does so in response to environmental stress, generally low nutrient conditions. But since those same conditions limit productivity we have a Catch 22 situation. If the genetic "lipid switch" can be found, algae may be an incredibly productive source of transportation fuel. With the enormous strides in genetic engineering recently, there can be little doubt that a relatively tiny amount of research money (compared to the billions wasted on nuclear power research) would yield a method of producing plenty of desperately needed transportation fuel while utilizing polluting agriculture runoff and CO2 that would otherwise contribute to global warming. Given that the environmental impacts of algae production are overwhelmingly positive, this technology could come to commercial fruition far faster than any Gen X nuclear wizardry.

Engineer-Poet said at April 15, 2006 2:05 PM:

gmoke wrote:

http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid171.php#E05-15
E05-15, Mighty Mice (PDF-595k)
The most powerful force resisting new nuclear may be a legion of small, fast and simple microgeneration and efficiency projects. In this guest article in the UK-published Nuclear Engineering International, Amory Lovins explains to the industry who its most formidable competitors are: not central coal- or gas-fired power plants, but micropower and efficient use. These are already adding more than ten times as much global capacity per year, and, being much cheaper, provide more climate solution per dollar and per year. (29 December 2005).
RMI ignores (as usual) the inconvenient truth that these microgeneration and efficiency projects still rely on depleting and unreliable supplies of fossil energy.  So what if Britain can get twice as much out of a cubic meter of natural gas, if the pipeline has been shut off by Russia?  And once supplies are down to half of today's figures, you're right back in the same box you were before but with even fewer options.  (This is a lot like "ethanol will save us".)

Energy security requires supplies which are either domestic (the best situation) or multi-sourced and sufficiently available and compact to be storable over the long term.  No chain which begins with petroleum or natural gas meets this criterion for Britain or the USA.  We both have plenty of coal, but that brings its own problems.  Nuclear, with its ability to store a year's worth of fuel in a semi truck, fits beautifully.  So do wind, wave, solar and biomass.

themotie said at April 24, 2006 2:29 AM:

First: Uranium fuel. Fuel costs are a very small part of the cost for nuclear energy, so whether uranium costs twice or four times as much doesn't matter greatly. So seawater extraction is likely economically feasible in the medium term.

Second: Breeder reactors. Noone have made a working, safe, commercially implementable breeder yet. Breeders are almost like fusion; nice technology, a pity it doesn't work (yet). Also, having tons of molten sodium around isn't exactly a walk in the park.

Third: Nuclear reactors being built all over the world. Yeah right. France's reactors are decades old and the result of a conscious national security decision. They decided they didn't care whether nuclear was economically sound or not. It was the only way they could guarantee their electricity in the 60's, when they were planned.
Nuclear have been free for any company or state to build in most of the world. Molten salt reactors have conceptually and technically been around for decades, yet noone's built them. See above on breeders.
Sure there are some being built, but not that many. It's like several countries are building about one each, which will take about a decade to build. How many finished ones per year is that? Building boom? Not quite. Germany alone is building the equivalent of one nuclear reactor every six months in wind power, and several countries are not far behind. One of these is the US incidentally. Wind is actually being built, and at an increasing rate. Nuclear is much talked about but has little to show for it. Toys for boys is what it is. Cool and monumental and boner-inducing and all technical. In the meantime wind is adding the energy. WITHOUT all this uranium-is-scarce or what-do-we-do-about-the-spent-fuel stuff. Why is nuclear so talked-up? You haven't noticed there is a gigantic industry very interested in building these things, (some other energy related industry inadvertently springs to mind ...) if only someone – you and me that is – will subsidize them since they are not economically worthwile on their own, and give them an escape clause in case of an accident.

Fourth: The cheapest kilowatt hour (by very far) is the one saved. But this is so unsexy – even less sexy than wind – that virtually noone will talk about it. Use fluorescent bulbs instead or iridescent, or even better LED lamps. Isolate your house. Don't leave lamps burning in rooms where you're not. Etc etc. If we save most of what we _easily_ could we wouldn't have electrical scarcity anytime soon, nuclear or no nuclear, wind or no wind. But it IS so unsexy ...

Robert Dinse said at June 5, 2007 9:26 PM:

I believe that you're giving the democrats a fowl rap with respect to nuclear. In the past when it's been opposed, there wasn't a clear understanding of a need, but there was a clear understanding of risk.

Chernobyl, I think in many ways was actually a good thing for nuclear power, because there have actually been so few deaths that resulted from what really was a worst cast scenario. People living in the exclusion zone actually have a lower death rate than counterparts living in urban areas. That really places the risk into perspective. If you're worried about a potential Chernobyl, you should be more worried about living in a city because even nearby such a disaster your risks are lower.

Radioactive elements could not be dispersed so efficiently in a pressurized water or boiling water reactor, it was the burning graphite that provided that, even so deaths were largely confined to the fire fighters directly battling the fire.

There have been many cases of thyroid cancer but because it is highly treatable they only resulted in a handful of deaths. Contrast that to the number of people who die of black lung coal mining, or the problems that coal fired plants cause by spewing mercury and other toxins into the air and Chernobyl actually looks pretty good, and it was really a worst case.

An integral fast flux facility with on-site pyrolytic reprocessing will improve the amount of energy that can be recovered from Uranium ore from around .7% (7 tenths of 1 percent) to more than 60%, and as much as 96% if optimal separation can be achieved. A molten salt reactor is one solution, but sodium or lead cooled reactors can also be actinide burners. The Japanese have one sodium cooled reactor. Sodium is highly reactive with air, so the primary coolant loops are surrounded by a nitrogen (no oxygen) atmosphere. The secondary loops are not, and they did have a fire resulting from a leaking pressure sender. No radiation was released, there was no threat of that kind of an accident releasing radiation.

With that kind of energy efficiency, extracting Uranium from seawater becomes cost effective, and doing that would provide energy for millions of years.

But there are other developments as well, Iran has developed a bacteria that can separate uranium from low grade ores at about 1% of the cost of traditional methods. This has obvious ramifications for the value of high grade ore mines and I think that has a lot to do with the attention on Iran's nuclear program. Somehow that little factoid never makes the news.

And then there is the Thorium fuel cycle, Thorium being 3x more plentiful in the Earth's crust, is fertile with slow neutrons and fissionable with fast. So it can either be used in a thermal breeder reactor design or a fast-flux reactor.

I vote along Democratic lines and I can honestly say that I would support a robust nuclear power program if it were done in a safe efficient manner. But I would not support expansion of the
current 1-pass method that is inefficient and generates a lot of long term waste.

I don't think that nuclear or any other single option is ideal, but I think nuclear is one option that done right could supply clean cheap plentiful energy for millions of years and can scale well. Many other options are cheap and clean, like wind, but how fast and how far we can scale them is questionable.

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