Anti-nuclear nonsense

Helen Caldicott is one of  the more notable distorters of truth among Australian “public intellectuals”. Like the Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton, though on a global stage, she appears to rank making an ideological point well ahead of accuracy or acknowledgment of inconvenient contrary evidence. Caldicott’s Wikipedia entry mentions a couple of examples of this propensity:

Her media presence sparked in 1982, when she was featured in the Canadian Oscar-winning documentary If You Love This Planet. Caldicott claimed that the Hershey Foods Corporation produced chocolate carrying strontium 90 because of the proximity of the Three Mile Island disaster to Hershey’s Pennsylvania factory. According to Caldicott, strontium 90 that fell on the Pennsylvania grass found its way into the milk of the local dairy cows. Caldicott provided no evidence to support her claim and specialists in the field consider it an absurd, irresponsible claim. According to EPA reports, Strontium 90 was not among the radionuclides emitted by Three Mile Island as only gases were emitted. …

Caldicott’s investigative writings had the distinction of being nominated and subsequently chosen as Project Censored’s #2 story in 1990. Citing the research of Soviet scientists Valery Burdakov and Vyacheslav Fiin, Caldicott argued that NASA’s Space Shuttle program was destroying the Earth’s ozone and that 300 total shuttle flights would be enough to “completely destroy the Earth’s protective ozone shield”. Once again, this claim lacked any substantial basis in scientific evidence.

In fact, Caldicott is still regaling sympathetic audiences with her Hershey chocolate bar story, as this bizarre transcript from only last month indicates (it’s well worth reading in full purely for the entertainment value):

These materials concentrate in the food chain by orders of magnitude. And you can’t taste strontium 90 in Hershey’s milk. Why do I say that? Hershey’s is 13 miles from Three Mile Island. I have secret documents given to me by a whistleblower from Hershey’s labs. They froze the milk or pow[d]ered it until the radioactive iodine became spent, but many radioactive isotopes got out too. We don’t know the ground measurements around where the cows grazed and produced the milk for the chocolate.

Not surprisingly, Caldicott’s latest book, Nuclear Power is Not the Answer to Global Warming or Anything Else, appears to exhibit the same cavalier disregard for accuracy or evidence. Blogger and frequent Club Troppo commenter Robert Merkel, who knows rather more about matters nuclear than me, reviews Caldicott’s book here. However, I want to concentrate on a specific assertion that Caldicott has repeated in just about all her recent media appearances, namely the claim that there’s not enough uranium in the world to sustain long-term nuclear power.

It’s an assertion now echoed by other nuclear opponents, a very recent example being an article by Chris Harries at Online Opinion only a couple of days ago:

Just like oil, uranium is a non-renewable resource, except there is much less of it. With expected growth in the industry the world’s known uranium reserves are predicted to run out in about 40 years’ time.

Like oil, uranium production will peak, then go into decline, well before it runs out – most likely in about 25 years time. This is within the lifespan of new power plants being built and this is also when uranium prices will shoot through the roof. As with oil, this is when uranium politics will cause much international tension and potential conflict, even warfare.

Even well before that peak, will come another spike. Because there are not sufficient uranium mines open to fuel existing reactors (and it takes at least ten years to get things going), there will be a significant shortfall of nuclear fuel in about 15 years time. This too will push uranium prices through the roof. Again, the financial benefit to uranium producers is obvious.

Harries is a former adviser to Greens Senator Bob Brown, so I suppose we can’t really expect much better. But these claims appear to be simply false as far as I can tell. We should no doubt regard the World Nuclear Association as an equally suspect source as Caldicott or her acolytes, but the following account appears to summarise the real facts accurately (I’d welcome any comment box corrections from readers able to indentify any specific inaccuracies or omissions):

Background

In the years immediately following the discovery of nuclear fission, uranium production was largely directed at nuclear weapons programs. When, in the early 1960s, the potential for electricity production using nuclear power was recognised, known uranium resources were relatively meagre. At that time it was thought that uranium was a scarce commodity. After the first ‘oil shock’ in 1973 there was a major increase in orders for nuclear reactors, as many countries recognised that the nuclear option was a means of satisfying some of their increasing energy demand. Many utilities stockpiled uranium in sufficient quantity to cover the planned life of their new reactors. Uranium prices rose sharply as power utilities competed to obtain adequate supplies.

The increasing demand and rising price stimulated uranium exploration. New deposits were discovered in Australia, North America and Africa. These led to the development of a number of mines, financed primarily by long-term contracts with utilities to supply uranium.

However, expansion of nuclear power was less rapid than had been predicted by many utilities. By the late 1980s large uranium inventories had accumulated in a number of countries. A secondary ‘spot’ market for uranium developed, but the price fell, eventually to one eighth (in constant dollars) of its peak value of the late 1970s.

As a consequence, some uranium mines closed, particularly in the United States, or reduced production, and exploration activity declined. Although uranium mining has continued, a significant portion of reactor fuel has come not from newly extracted uranium but from inventories. Since 1985 Western uranium production has been less than reactor requirements, and by 2000 it had fallen to only half of the annual usage.

 

Current situation

According to the summary of uranium resources published jointly by the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD and the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, known reserves of uranium from conventional sources are slightly more than 3 million tonnes. Reactor requirements are fairly steady at about 60,000 tonnes per year. Thus there is about 50 years supply of uranium known at this stage to be available.

This is, however, an oversimplification of the situation. It is now clear that uranium is not scarce and it is known that it averages almost two parts per million of the Earth’s crust. There are substantial resources that are not yet fully proven. These so-called speculative resources are likely to be of the order of 10 million tonnes, about three times the known reserves. While prices remain low, there is no incentive for exploration activities to identify new deposits. Experience with other commodities has shown that increased demand has led to increased prices, and a subsequent increase in exploration and discovery.

 

Fuel supply

Newly mined uranium is not the only source of nuclear fuel. Reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium and uranium for use in new reactor fuel is already being undertaken in a number of countries. This displaces about 2000 tonnes of mine production each year, but the potential for recycling is considerably greater than this.

The utilisation of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from military sources, by diluting it to the low level of enrichment required for civil nuclear reactor fuel, is replacing about over 10,000 tonnes of newly mined uranium each year. However, once again, the potential is somewhat higher. If all of the world’s military nuclear material were to be made available for electricity generation, even more natural uranium could be replaced.

 

Reactor design

Improvements in reactor design and changes in reactor operation have led to increases in the amount of electricity produced from a given quantity of uranium. These increases have been small compared with the potential that may be realised by new reactor designs.

Prototype breeder reactors, in which fissionable plutonium is produced from non-fissionable uranium (U-238), have been operated for many years. Such reactors can increase the energy available from a given quantity of uranium by a factor of about sixty.

 

The future

Currently, there is little financial advantage to be obtained from extensive use of recycling, and the breeder reactor technology is not clearly economic. With about fifty years of proven reserves there is no urgency to utilise these approaches to extending uranium resources.

However, it is clear that any concerns regarding the availability of uranium to fuel increased deployment of nuclear reactors are unfounded. Even a significant increase in the use of nuclear power will not cause a shortage of nuclear fuel for several hundred years.

I’m by no means an uncritical advocate of the nuclear power option as a solution to global warming. The danger of nuclear weapons proliferation remains real and serious, as does the risk of unsafe operation of nuclear plants, at least in third world countries where corruption, mismanagement and poor maintenance are endemic problems. And it remains to be seen whether nuclear power will prove economically competitive even with a substantial carbon tax or tradeable emissions permits. But availability of nuclear fuel is clearly not a problem, and the sooner Caldicott’s claims to the contrary are exposed for the nonsense they are the better.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Rex Ringschott
Rex Ringschott(@rex-ringschott)
15 years ago

I’m surprised that the current reserves in your WNA reference only serve for fifty years. That does seem a short time to me, especially given that reactor lives themselevs are only 30-60 years.

There may well be additional reserves and improved reactor design which will stretch that out, but an increase in overall reactors built will correspondigly shrink it.

It looks rather like a stop gap measure to me rather than a strategic solution.

Rex
Rex
15 years ago

The Fast Breeder link seems to miss something that I recall from the dim and distant, and that is that N-waste from these devices is many times more toxic and dangerous than from a conventional reactor. Perhaps that’s a function of the creater concentrations of fusion products because more of the source material is utilised.

If so, then it makes the waste containment strategy much more expensive as well.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

Helen Caldicott is, I believe, a paediatrician by trade. I certainly wouldn’t allow someone with such disrepect for evidence near my children. I actually suspect she’d be off into “complementary medicine” before you can blink.

On uranium reserves:

– these estimates come from proven reserves of ore – “proven” means viable at current prices. Given nuclear’s unpopularity, until recently no-one has bothered seriously looking for new ore bodies. There’s almost certainly undiscovered ore out there, and if the price rises then lower grade ores not currently included in proven reserves will be viable.

– anyway, extracting uranium oxide from seawater costs only about five times as much as current prices. Buying yellowcake is currently less than 2% of a nuclear reactor’s total lifetime cost, so getting it from seawater adds only about 8% to total cost. That’s why any nuclear weapons aspirant with a coastline need not worry about raw uranium sanctions.

arch
arch
15 years ago

I was surprised by these numbers too:

Currently “16% of world electricity is generated from nuclear power, using uranium as the fuel” (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/faq.htm).

If nuclear energy was to displace other forms of electricity production to make up say 48% of energy production, then reactor requirements would increase from 60,000t per year to 180,000t per year. Less 12,000t of recycling leaves 168,000t per year.

Thus 3 million tonnes of known reserves would last less than 20 years.

So as you say, nuclear power production as a solution to green-house emissions is likely to be “stop-gap”.

Doesn’t this actually support Caldicott’s and Harries’ assertion that fuel availability IS a problem? If I was investing in a power station, I’d like to know I could keep it running for its design life before I parted with the cash.

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

The real story here isn’t that Helen Caldicott is a liar, but that some people apparently still think she’s worth talking about.

Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
15 years ago

Yobbo, there are still enough people taking her seriously to justify a regular stream of debunking. If good people to say nothing ….etc.

arch
arch
15 years ago

Ken,

I know very little about minerals exploration reporting. Stock-markets insist reserves described as “proven” are very well defined, but how well are “so-called speculative resources” (inferred & indicated mineral resources?) converted into proven reserves?

Extrapolations like:

“Experience with other commodities has shown that increased demand has led to increased prices, and a subsequent increase in exploration and discovery” , and

“These increases have been small compared with the potential that may be realised by new reactor designs.”

may well turn out to be true, but are speculative (exaggerating the positives?) – and are central to WNA’s argument that supplies will be sufficient.

I agree Caldicott exaggerates the negatives – but what lobbyist (be they environmental or industrial) doesn’t focus on the issues that support their cause. Based on this paper, I’m inclined to say her claims are at worst “probably” untrue – and overly pessimistic.

J
J
15 years ago

We can keep finding finite resources to exploit, while at the same time creating massive problems with the corresponding pollution/waste &C. &C., but this in itself is not a long-term solution to the problem. In fact, the problem is not the resources at all; the problem is our consumption of them. We’re going to have to accept the fact that our way of life is not sustainable – our days of comfort and plenty are coming to an end. To make any suggestion to the contrary is to selfishly suggest that our “way of life” is more important to us than a healthy world for future generations; an assertion which is not, I think, a great position to take for anyone with a claim to being a loving parent.

jen
jen
15 years ago

Cheer up! J

There’s good news too

‘a healthy world for the future’ and ‘comfort and plenty’ are not mutually exclusive ideas.

The alternative energy question is like loving lots of sugar in tea and not loving overweight, teeth rot and diabetes. You can replace sugar with synthetic sugar. It works. Nice and sweet. The other way is to change the taste. Drink something else. This is tricky when you are wired to enjoy tea, but possible. And I’m not saying this has been unequivocally successful in my life, ….. although it is marvellous what a difference Milo makes.

My prediction. The world will surge and stutter along with every kind of energy producing device possible and even probable and then the problem will be solved. Rich people will enjoy ‘comfort and plenty’ and poor people will watch them enjoy ‘comfort and plenty’.

Sacha Blumen
14 years ago

Citing the research of Soviet scientists Valery Burdakov and Vyacheslav Fiin, Caldicott argued that NASA

Jean-LuK
Jean-LuK
7 years ago

To consider (carefully), Thorium