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Saturday, December 6, 2008

High oil prices may boost nuclear power

Oil, priced at US$147 a barrel three months ago, was predicted to hit US$200 a barrel, strengthening calls for alternative energy sources. Current oil prices, hovering at US$50 a barrel, have mostly muted the resistance to oil in the United States for the time being. However, the lower prices are only temporary, and US$100 a barrel is likely to end up being the norm.

In comparison, nuclear energy is cheaper. Organizations like Greenpeace are not as vociferous in their opposition to nuclear power as they previously were. This is probably due to the fact that future energy demands can largely be met with nuclear power, while alternate renewable sources like solar and wind energy can only supplement nuclear, coal and hydroelectric sources.

Coal, gas and oil can provide energy at current levels of consumption for the next 30 to 40 years. Although coal with clean technology will outlast oil, plans for alternative energy sources have to be put in place now, otherwise blackouts in the United States within the next 30 years are a distinct possibility. On the other hand, the excessive use of coal without the means to strip it of harmful carbon dioxide will contribute to global warming.

However, the possibility of nuclear energy becoming the main source of energy, setting aside the incidents of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, needs to be reexamined. The United States has not granted a license for the construction of a new nuclear power plant in 30 years, while France continues to build them and produces around 78 percent of its electricity through nuclear power.

The French have advanced with closed fuel cycle technology, which minimizes the dumping of spent nuclear fuel. Stung by the high cost of energy and global warming, the United States has now begun considering nuclear energy as a feasible alternative. Six applications to construct new nuclear power plants have already been filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, two of which may receive a go ahead in 2009.

There is not much oil left in the world, except in Russia, Alaska and some offshore locations. The wells in the Middle East will run dry from around 2030 to 2040, while natural gas may last 30 to 40 years longer. The oil-producing Middle Eastern countries are aware of this fact and, wishing to maximize their advantage, have been raising oil prices over the past three years.

In the heydays of oil exports, oil-producing nations were spendthrifts. In order to maintain expensive lifestyles, they hiked oil prices. For example, Saudi Arabia needs a minimum of US$65 per barrel to pay for its expenses. Kuwait needs US$50 per barrel, Iran US$75 and Venezuela US$90 to balance their budgets. If oil prices fall below US$70 per barrel on average, these nations have to dip into their cash reserves, which will quickly be exhausted. So these nations wish to keep oil prices floating well above the US$75-$90 mark.

Now the question is whether or not nuclear power generation is cost-effective. Studies published before 2006 assumed oil prices to be US$50 per barrel. As the floor for oil prices will be higher than this estimate, it is necessary to take a fresh look based on present-day market conditions. Let us examine a few details of previous studies.

First, what is the kilowatt-hour power cost? A 2005 study undertaken by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development assumed oil prices at US$50 per barrel in 2010 and provided statistics for power generation costs for three energy sources – nuclear energy, coal and gas. Unfortunately, their studies were limited to developed and almost-developed countries.

(Figures in the following table are shown in cents/kilowatt hour for nuclear energy, coal and gas, respectively, at an 85 percent load factor.)

France: 2.54, 3.33 and 3.92

Japan: 4.80, 4.95 and 5.21

Canada: 2.60, 3.11 and 4.11

USA: 3.01, 2.71 and 4.67

Based on the above, oil at US$90 per barrel with corresponding increases in natural gas prices will push gas power generation costs much higher.

Reliable data on India and China is unavailable, but preliminary studies indicate China and India’s nuclear power generation costs are a bit higher due to local conditions.

The point is, geography also affects power generation costs. France and Canada are nuclear energy producers with the lowest costs, having mastered the art of nuclear technology over the past 40 years. The United States is not too far behind. Japan’s high costs are due to its geography and lack of natural resources.

Second, the main factors that drive up power plant costs are capital cost of the plant, operating costs, and fueling and refueling costs.

Each factor acts differently for different geographical locations. If a country is rich in gas or in close proximity to gas fields, an advantage is low transportation costs. Until a decade ago, coal was the cheapest source of energy and most countries had it in abundance. The impact of carbon dioxide on global warming has pushed most countries, except China, to look for alternate sources of energy.

Soon, carbon dioxide-emitting power plants will have to clean up their act at a high cost or cease operations altogether. Already, global warming has melted glaciers, reduced river water levels and is melting the all-important polar ice caps.

Natural gas is the next best option to coal. It creates less greenhouse gas. As it is found in abundance underground, it can be easily transported over long distances. However, due to excessive use, these wells will run dry soon.

Nuclear energy is likely to meet the world’s growing energy needs, as it is cost effective. Like coal, it has its disadvantages, including high capital costs for “brown fields” – properties contaminated with hazardous materials, blighted or functionally obsolete – the requirement of a highly trained workforce, problems with disposing spent fuel and the West’s monopoly on nuclear technology.

Supply needs for coal, gas and nuclear plants differ from country to country. Coal is abundant in most countries, except Japan. New sources of gas all over the world make it a better source of energy than coal.

In comparison, uranium, the raw material for nuclear power plants, is in limited supply. Well-developed mines in Canada, Australia, Russia, Central Africa and the United States supply uranium under internationally supervised safeguards. India and China have only a limited supply of uranium and therefore depend upon others for it. India was forced to seek out the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal this year, after its existing nuclear power plants began to run at 50 percent capacity due to scarcity of uranium.

A similar deal was negotiated by China a decade earlier. The Chinese are planning to construct 30 nuclear power plants with the help of Western nations in the next 20 years. Since China’s first preference is still coal over nuclear energy, they plan to continue building coal-fired power plants as well.

Sooner or later, a properly safeguarded uranium and plutonium supply cycle will be developed. The West holds a close monopoly on nuclear technology to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It has a point; the dual use of nuclear power scares everyone. Future technological developments will prevent plutonium from being extracted from spent fuel, which will reduce attention toward its potential ill use.

In summary, nuclear energy is a better option to meet the world’s energy needs. The United States must take the initiative for the sake of its own energy security and develop safer technology for others.

India supports the United States in this endeavor. While the United States has stopgap options, namely, exploiting oil reserves in Alaska and offshore reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, India does not have that luxury and so must build nuclear power plants quickly. In contrast, China, with its own mindset, will most likely continue building coal-fired power plants and polluting the earth.

(Source: UPI Asia)