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Everything you want to know about Nuclear Power.

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Our Need for Energy

A modern technological society like Australia makes substantial use of energy to make our lives better and more enjoyable. Besides having direct benefits, access to cheap electricity and energy enables some aspects of sustainability, such as recycling, to thrive. For example steel-producing mini-mills require substantial amounts of electricity but do not need Coking Coal, Iron Ore and reuse waste products which would otherwise be dumped somewhere in the environment.

While we can do much to conserve energy, the fact is that Australia has increased its energy consumption by over 2% per year since 1970. Our total energy needs are forecast to increase by 50% in total by the year 2020. Meeting this demand requires building many large power-plants over the next 15 years. If we do not do this and our energy demand grows as expected, we will be faced with large scale blackouts. For example, the State of Victoria had a reserve energy deficit of 500 Megawatts in the summer of 2005 which was twice the 229 Megawatt deficit of 2004. This deficit will continue to grow without substantial new electricity generation capacity. However Australia currently produces more Greenhouse Gas per Capita than every other OECD country. If we build new Coal-fired plants we will make this situation even worse.

This is just Australia. The rest of World's use of energy will rise even faster. This is the inevitable consequence of the development of former third-world nations like China and India. Almost all Third World countries (and certainly China and India) intend to raise their standard of living to Western levels. Indeed if China's economic growth continues as it has for the last 25 years, it will obtain per-capita wealth comparable to Australia's current income in the decade of the 2040's. India will likely take a few decades more.

Both these Countries have populations of around 1 billion people and such developments will more than double the world demand for energy. Note that this will happen. It is not something we in Australia or even the USA or Europe could stop even if we wanted to. The "Developing World" will use energy at a rate comparable to what we did before the end of the 21st Century.

China has identified Nuclear Power as an important component of its future energy mix. India has long-term plans to develop a fully indigenous Nuclear Power program to meet its own vast energy needs.

It is quite possible to utilize Nuclear Power to provide the vast majority of an entire country's need for electricity. The French Nuclear Power program is the exemplar of this. In France, Nuclear Power provides 77% of the nation's need for electricity (the remainder being Hydroelectricity). France generates a surplus of electricity which it exports to neighbouring countries at a profit. It does this while costing the dismantling of its reactors and disposing of its waste products in the price of the electricity it generates.

The current electrical energy consumption for the entire planet is 1517 GW of continuous power. There are currently 439 nuclear power plants with a capacity of 371 GW. These provided 16% of the electrical power production of the world.

The Australian Broadcasting Commission recently aired an excellent investigation into Nuclear Power, entitled "Who's afraid of Nuclear Power?". You can download this program from this link.

How Nuclear Reactors Work

When an atom undergoes fission it splits into smaller atoms, other particles and releases energy. Read about the physics of fission. It turns out that it is possible to harness the energy of this process on a large enough scale for it to be a viable way of producing energy. Read about how power plants work.

The fundamental point about nuclear energy is that the energy content of 1 gram of Uranium is equivalent to approximately 3 tonnes of coal. This means that we need to consume about 3 million times less material with Nuclear Power compared to using Coal or any other Fossil Fuel. This substantially reduces the volumes of fuel and waste of nuclear power compared to Fossil Fuels.

The Different Types of Nuclear Reactors

There are are a number of different types of Nuclear Reactors currently in operation throughout the world. Some of the most common types are described here.

Pressurized Water Reactors

Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR's) are by far the most common type of Nuclear Reactor deployed to date. Ordinary water is used as both neutron moderators and coolant. In a PWR the water used as moderator and primary coolant is separate to the water used to generate steam and to drive a turbine. In order to efficiently convert the heat produced by the Nuclear Reaction into electricity, the water that moderates the neutron and cools the fuel elements is contained at pressures 150 times greater than atmospheric pressure. You can find out more details of PWR reactors at the following link.

Pressurized Water Reactors.

Boiling Water Reactors

In a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), ordinary light water is used as both a moderator and coolant, like the PWR. However unlike the PWR, in a Boiling Water Reactor there is no separate secondary steam cycle. The water from the reactor is converted into steam and used to directly drive the generator turbine. These are the second most commonly used types of reactors. Find out more about Boiling Water Reactors at the following link.

Boiling Water Reactors.

High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactors.

High Temperature gas cooled reactors operate at significantly higher temperatures than PWRs and use a gas as the primary coolant. The nuclear reaction is mostly moderated by carbon. These reactors can achieve significantly higher efficiencies than PWRs but the power output per reactor is limited by the less efficient cooling power of the gas. You can find out more about these types of reactors at the following link.

High Temperature, Gas Cooled pebble reactors

Heavy Water Reactors

Heavy Water reactors are similar to PWRs but use water enriched with the deuterium isotope of Hydrogen as the moderator and coolant. This type of water is called "heavy water" and makes up about 0.022 parts per million of water found on Earth. The advantage of using Heavy water as the moderator is that natural, unenriched Uranium can be used to drive the nuclear reactor. You can find out more about these reactor types at the following link.

CANDU Heavy Water Reactors

Advanced Nuclear Fission Technology

Please read the physics of fission before reading this section.

Uranium Fast Breeder Reactors

Natural Uranium consists of 0.7% 235U and 99.3% 238U. All commercial Power reactors used in the world today utilize the 235U component in natural Uranium as the primary means of maintaining a chain reaction. The most troublesome component of nuclear waste are the tran-Uranic elements that occur when 238U captures a neutron and transmutes to 239Pu. Further neutron captures on this element lead to a buildup of long-lived transuranic nuclei. However 239Pu is also fertile and undergoes fission like 235U. Advanced reactor designs exploit this to convert the 238U to 239Pu. If the reactor avoids the slowing down, "thermalization" of neutrons, there are sufficient excess neutrons that it is possible to convert more 238U to 239Pu than 235U is consumed. These reactors use the unmoderated "fast" neutrons directly produced via the fission process.

Thus these reactors "breed" 239Pu from 238U and so produce more fuel than they consume. The use of fast-breeder technology makes it possible to increase the efficiency of Uranium use by over a factor of 50. It is then possible to exploit the vast quantities of depleted Uranium stockpiled around the world to generate electricity. In addition the excess neutrons can be used to transmute the long-lived transuranic waste from current Nuclear Power reactors to ever-heavier isotopes until they eventually fission. Thus these reactors can be used to "burn" the most troublesome component of nuclear waste.

There have been a number of reactors that demonstrated that the Fast-Breeder concept works in principle at large scale. The superphenix and monju reactors in France and Japan have had serious technical issues and superphenix has been shut down. This type of reactor is more costly to construct and more difficult to operate than a conventional second-generation Power Reactor. Never-the-less these experiments have provided valuable data that will be used as input for the "Fourth Generation" nuclear reactors presently under research and development.

Thorium Breeder Reactors

Thorium is an element that is 3 times more abundant than Uranium on earth. It has a single stable isotope 232Th. In a nuclear reactor this isotope can capture a neutron and be converted to 233U. 233U undergoes fission like 235U and 239Pu. However when 233U fissions it releases more neutrons than either 235U or 239Pu. Consequently it is possible to to construct a breeder reactor that utilizes thermal neutrons to both generate energy and to breed 233U from Thorium given sufficient initial quantities of 233U mixed with 232Th.

A further advantage of Thorium breeders is that the amount of transuranic waste is vastly decreased compared to a Uranium or Plutonium based reactor.

The Indian Nuclear Power program has a long term goal of utilizing the Thorium cycle to obtain energy independence.

Accelerator Driven Fission.

Over the last 10 years the idea of using a high current, high energy accelerator to drive Nuclear Fission has emerged. These are the Accelerator Driven Systems or ADS. Unlike a Nuclear Reactor, an ADS drives Nuclear reactions that will stop if the proton beam from the accelerator stops. Thus there is no prospect of nuclear chain reactions proceeding out of control. ADS can be used to either generate energy or to transmute transuranic long-lived waste into much shorter lived radio-nuclei, or they can be used to do both. In addition these systems hold prospect of efficiently burning 238U and naturally occurring Thorium, which is 3 times more abundant than Uranium. Over the last 10 years the ADS has progressed from proof of principle experiments to one tenth scale test facilities.

More details of Accelerator driven Fission systems are found here

The Fourth Generation Reactors

In 2002 the Gen iV Internation Forum (GIF) nations (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, Korea, South Africa, Switzerland, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States of America) proposed a long term research and developement program to investigate 6 promising new reactor designs.

The six design concepts are:

These reactor concepts are designed to address the energy needs of the World into the far future (post 21st century).

  • They efficiently utilize Uranium (many can employ depleted Uranium or "spent" fuel from current reactors).
  • Destroy a large fraction of nuclear waste from current reactors via transmutation.
  • Generate Hydrogen for transportation and other non-electric energy needs.
  • Be inherently safe and easy to operate.
  • Provide inherent resistance to Nuclear Weapons proliferation.
  • Provide a clear cost advantage over other forms of energy generation.
  • Carry a financial risk no greater than other forms of energy generation.

These reactor concepts are at various levels of development. The first deployments of Generation IV reactors are not expected until 2015. Most will not be ready before 2025. However the long term potential of these projects is enormous. For example one Molten-Salt Reactor designed to consume one tonne of Uranium per year, could supply sufficient Hydrogen to supply 3 million passenger vehicles. The waste from the plant's year's operation would occupy half the volume of a typical domestic refrigerator. The radioactivity of the waste would diminish to background levels in about 500 years.

Safety of Nuclear Power Plants

Safety is taken very seriously by those working in nuclear power plants. The main safety concern is the emission of uncontrolled radiation into the environment which could cause harm to humans both at the reactor site and off-site. A summary by the nuclear world association on environmental, health and safety issues can be found at the Nuclear World Association website.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has an extensive website devoted to the detailed safety issues faced by American Nuclear Power Industry. These provide an interesting perspective on the importance both of a vigilent safety culture and a pro-active regulatory oversight.

Safety Mechanisms of a Nuclear Power Reactor

By regulation, the design of the nuclear reactor must include provisions for human (operator) error and equipment failure. Nuclear Plants in the western world use a "Defense in Depth" concept which is a system with multiple safety components, each with back-up and design to accommodate human error. The components include:

1. Control of Radioactivity

This requires being able to control the neutron flux. Recall that in a nuclear reactor when a neutron is captured by a fuel nucleus (generally uranium) the nucleus splits releasing radioactive particles (or undergoes fission). Hence if we decrease the neutron flux we decrease the radioactivity. The most common way to reduce the neutron flux is include neutron-absorbing control rods. These control rods can be partially inserted into the reactor core to reduce the reactions. The control rods are very important because the reaction could run out of control if fission events are extremely frequent. In modern nuclear power plants, the insertion of all the control rods into the reactor core occurs in a few seconds, thus halting the nuclear reaction as rapidly as possible. In addition, most reactors are designed so that beyond optimal level, as the temperature increases the efficiency of reactions decreases, hence fewer neutrons are able to cause fission and the reactor slows down automatically.

2. Maintenance of Core Cooling

In any nuclear reactor some sort of cooling is necessary. Generally nuclear reactors use water as a coolant. However some reactors which cannot use water use sodium or sodium salts.

3. Maintenance of barriers that prevent the release of radiation

There is a series of physical barriers between the radioactive core and the environment. For instance at the Darling Nuclear Generation Station in Canada the reactors are enclosed in heavily reinforced concrete which is 1.8m thick. Workers are shielded from radiation via interior concrete walls. A vacuum building is connected to the reactor buildings by a pressure relief duct. The vacuum building is a 71m high concrete structure and is kept at negative atmospheric pressure. This means that if any radiation were to leak from the reactor it would be sucked into the vacuum building and therefore prevented from being released into the environment.

The design of the reactor also includes multiple back-up components, independent systems (two or more systems performing the same function in parallel), monitoring of instrumentation and the prevention of a failure of one type of equipment affecting any other.

Further, regulation requires that a core-meltdown incident must be confined only to the plant itself without the need to evacuate nearby residence.

Safety is also important for the workers of nuclear power plants. Radiation doses are controlled via the following procedures,

  • The handling of equipment via remote in the core of the reactor
  • Physical shielding
  • Limit on the time a worker spends in areas with significant radiation levels
  • Monitoring of individual doses and of the work environment

See the following websites for more detailed information and further references,

World Nuclear Association Summary on Nuclear Reactor Safety

Wikipedia information on Nuclear Reactors

Safety Mechanisms at a Canadian Nuclear Power Station

Final report of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the Advanced Westinghouse AP1000 Nuclear Reactor design

In addition readers should be aware that the safety of any large scale industrial activity is an on-going concern and must always be taken seriously. Nuclear Power is certainly no exception and unfortunately the US Nuclear Industry did not give it the full attention it needed before the Three Mile Island accident. An excellent description of the safety issues surrounding early nuclear power plants is provided by Robert Pool. It can be downloaded from here. The article describes how complex interacting technologies offer substantial challenges to safety. Consequently a major goal of 3rd generation Power plants is to provide inherent safety and simpler design.

Accidents at Nuclear Power Plants

Like any large scale industrial activity, there have been numerous accidents and mistakes at Nuclear Power plants and reprocessing facilities. A partial list of these is available from this wikipedia link.

However two large accidents have had the greatest impact on global consciousness regarding Nuclear Power. These are:

Here are additional links that describe the after effects of the Chernobyl accident.

The Chernobyl accident resulted from a lack of "safety culture" at the plant, design flaws in the RBMK reactor and a violation of procedure. The lessons learned from Chernobyl and the phasing out of the older reactor design means that an accident of this type is most unlikely to occur again.

Since the contained meltdown at Three Mile Island reactor, many improvements have been made to Nuclear Reactor design. The third generation reactors currently proposed are designed so that a failure leading to a contained core melt-down, (which would destroy the commercial value of the reactor) should occur at the rate of 1 in 2-million reactor-years. If the cost of a new reactor is 2 billion dollars and operates for 60 years, this risk would amount to an extra $80,000 insurance.

After the events on September 11th, 2001, many people were reasonably concerned about the safety of nuclear power plants from terrorist activities. However the containment facilities of nuclear reactors and the structures holding spent fuel rods are very strong and make hard terrorist targets.

Radiation

Dose

The biological effects of heavy particle ionising radiation are measured with a quantity called Absorbed Dose. However, while two differing particles may have the same amount of energy, they may have very different responses from our living, biological cells, so a factor called Relative Biological Effectiveness (RBE) is also used. RBE is a measure of the amount of cell damage a given type of particle causes as compared to a dose of x-rays with the same energy. The combination of RBE with Absorbed dose is measured in units called Sieverts.

Estimated dose (Micro-Sieverts) Activity
5 sleeping next to your spouse for one year
10 a year of watching TV at an average rate
10 a year of wearing a luminous dial watch
10 a year of living in the USA from nuclear fuel and power plants
10 a day from background radiation (average, varys a lot throughout the world)
20 having a chest x-ray
65 flying from Melbourne to London, via Singapore
300 Yearly dose due to body's potassium-40
460 maximum possible offsite dose from Three Mile Island Accident
400 - 1000 Average annual dose from Medical sources
7,000 having a PET scan
8,000 having a chest CT (CAT) scan
50,000 off-site dose from accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (estimates vary widely)
2,000,000 Typical single dose to Cancer region from Radiation Therapy
700,000 - 13,000,000 staff and firefighters at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant during and immediately after the accident
65,000,000 Typical total dose to Cancer region from Radiation Therapy

Background, naturally occurring environmental sources of radiation include cosmic radiation (which occurs when subatomic particles from outside the solar system interact with the Earth's atmosphere and produce a shower of gamma rays, neutrons and leptons), terrestrial radiation (due to naturally occurring radionuclides such as uranium, radium and thorium which are present in rocks, soil and water), internal radionuclides (most common is potassium-40 which emits beta and gamma particles as it decays, and may be found as a fraction of the total amount of potassium in the body). The largest source of our dose from background radiation is from radon-220 and radon-222 gases, which are the airborne products of the decay of terrestrial uranium. Inhalation of radon gas contributes approximately two-thirds of the dose that is received from natural, background sources.

Biological Effects of Radiation.

Thus we can see that during our normal daily activities we are continually exposed to ionising radiation both from natural and human-made sources. The passage of ionising radiation through the body may produce adverse biological effects. The effects of concern are primarily, although not solely, due to damage to the genetic material inside the cell; the DNA or `double-helix' molecule that carries genetic information. The current scientific data suggests that there is no safe minimum, or threshold, for adverse radiation effects on the DNA of biological systems and that even small doses can produce consequences for the organism. The low-dose response of biological systems it believed to be linear - that is, smaller doses of radiation produce a proportionately smaller risk of adverse effects like a straight-line graph.

The biological effects fall into the following categories;

Cell Death or Apoptosis

- biological systems are composed of many individual tiny cells; each with its own DNA (only red blood cells don't have any DNA - they lose it during development). If there is catastrophic damage to vital cell function by radiation energy absorption the cell may cease to function and `die'.

Cancer Induction

- in this case the DNA is damaged or altered but the alteration is not lethal to the cell. If the normal regulator genes which control the rate at which cells divide and die are rendered malfunctioned the cell may become `immortal' and multiply at an abnormal rate producing an out-of-control growth of a line of abnormal cells. This is a cancer. Most tissues can produce cancers with enough radiation damage but rapidly dividing tissue lines, such as blood-forming `haemopoietic' lines which may produce leukemias, are particularly vulnerable. The risk for cancer production in the general population is estimated to be approximately 0.06 cases per million Micro-Sieverts of absorbed dose.

Genetic Damage to Future Generations

- this can arise because mutations, or changes in the pattern of bases in the DNA, can occur in the DNA that ends up in sperm or eggs and becomes a permanent feature of any resulting babies. Most often, radiation induced damage to such egg or sperm DNA is incompatible with the life of the fetus in utero but there is a finite chance of a live baby being born with defects. This is of particular concern because the damage to the genetic material can then be passed on to all future generations and become a permanent feature of the gene-pool; damaging many individuals. Of course, such mutations are also a natural part of life and the evolution of biological systems. The concern is that we do not want to increase the mutation rate above the natural background rate. The estimated risk of permanent damage to a second generation (grandchild) individual is 0.02 cases per million Micro-Sievert of exposure.

Dose-Response Tissue Reactions

- or `radiation burns'. These are the sorts of effects seen immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima; but lesser effects can occur with smaller doses. However, there does seem to be a `threshold' for this kind of effect with very small doses encountered in normal life (apart from sun-burn!) not producing detectable damage.

More information on the biological effects of radiation can be found at the International Commission on Radiological Protection web site.

A Study on Childhood Cancers in Great Britain

A study on the incidence of childhood cancer around nuclear power plants in Great Britain by the Health Protection Agency for the committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the environment concluded that there have been no increase in childhood cancers for children living less than 25km from a nuclear power plant. The report was published in 2005.

Download the report here.

Waste from Nuclear Power

What is Nuclear Reactor Waste?

The generation of electricity in a Nuclear Power Plant is made by splitting uranium atoms. The uranium used as fuel in a nuclear plant is formed into ceramic pellets about the size of the tip of your little finger. The uranium atoms in these pellets are bombarded by atomic particles, they split (or fission) to release particles of their own. These particles, called neutrons, strike other uranium atoms, splitting them. When the atoms split, they also release heat. This heat is known as nuclear energy and is essentially responsible for creating electricity.

Other reactions also take place in the nuclear reactor such as neutron capture. Neutron capture is a term used for the scenario where a neutron comes close to a nucleus (in this case uranium) and the nucleus captures it and becomes a different nucleus. In this case when uranium-238 captures a neutron it becomes uranium-239. After uranium-239 emits a beta particle (electron) it becomes neptunium-239. Then neptunium-239 also emits a beta particle and becomes plutonium-239. The plutonium can also be used as nuclear fuel.

Certain changes take place in the ceramic fuel pellets during their time in the reactor of the nuclear power plant. The particles left over after the atom has split are radioactive. During the life of the fuel, these radioactive particles collect within the fuel pellets. The fuel remains in the reactor until trapped fission fragments begin to reduce the efficiency of the chain reaction. Some of the fission products are various isotopes of barium, strontium, cesium, and iodine. The spent fuel also contains plutonium and uranium that was not used up. The fission products and the left over plutonium and uranium remain within the spent fuel when it is removed from the reactor and are called high level waste as they are extremely hot and very radioactive.

A Short Review of Radioactive Isotopes and Half-lives

In this subsection a review on radioactivity is provided so that the reader will have a better understanding of the nuclear waste issue.

An atom that is radioactive will decrease its radioactivity in time and eventually decay. How fast the radioactivity decreases depends on the half-life. The half-life is defined as the time it takes for half of the radioactivity to decay. Hence an isotope with a short half-life will decay quickly. The half-life is also inversely proportional to the intensity of radioactivity. Therefore the higher the intensity of radioactivity the shorter the half-life.

The approximate half-lives of some of the isotopes in the spent nuclear fuel are listed below:

Isotope Half-life
Strontium-90 28 years
Caesium-137 30 years
Plutonium-239 24,000 years
Caesium-135 2.3 million years
Iodine-129 15.7 million years

It is clear from the table above that the left over nuclear isotopes from the generation of electricity through nuclear power are extremely long lived and therefore must be shielded from humans and the environment for a long time.

Storage and Disposal of High Level Nuclear Reactor Waste

Since the spent nuclear reactor (SNF) fuel is highly radioactive initially it is too dangerous to handle and thus it is very important to shield the radioactivity from humans and the environment. The radioactive material in the SNF generally falls into three categories: (1) un-reacted fuel, usually uranium, (2) fission products, and (3) activation products, most notably plutonium. Because of the nature of radioactivity, on a per-atom or by-weight basis the fission products are by far the most radioactive, and have the shortest half-life. The un-reacted uranium and the plutonium have vastly longer half-lives, but are correspondingly less radioactive. Once the SNF has been removed from the nuclear reactor it is placed in interim storage at the reactor site. Usually this consists of putting the nuclear waste into large pools of water. The water cools the radioactive isotopes and shields the environment from the radiation. Nuclear waste is typically stored in these supervised pools between 20-40 years. As the SNF ages the radioactivity decreases, reaching the point where it does not need to be water cooled and can be placed in dry storage facilities. Throughout this time there is a great reduction in heat and radioactivity and this makes handling of nuclear waste safer and easier.

After this “cooling off” period the high level waste can be handled in different ways. It can be reprocessed then disposed of permanently or directly disposed permanently in a geological repository.

1. Reprocessing

Recall that the spent nuclear fuel contains uranium and plutonium which are used as fuel in a nuclear reactor. It is possible to isolate much of the uranium and plutonium from the other fission products in spent nuclear fuel so that it can be recycled as fresh fuel to power the nuclear reactor. This is called reprocessing. After reprocessing the left over waste is largely liquid. It is then embedded into borosilicate glass and put into interim storage. Eventually it will be disposed of permanently deep underground.

2. Final Disposal

Eventually the nuclear waste will have to be stored indefinitely because of the long time it takes for some of the waste isotopes to decay to a safe level. The consensus of most waste management specialist for final disposal is to bury the waste deep underground. In doing so we must ensure that the radioactive waste does not move from its burial site or that it does not escape into the environment. If it does it could have dire consequences for future generations such as contamination of drinking water. To ensure that the radioactive waste is contained the current consensus is to use a multi-barrier system to store the waste. The geological disposal system consists of firstly surrounding the conditioned and packaged solid waste by several human made barriers then placing this at a depth of several hundred meters in a stable geological environment. The geological formation is the most important of the isolation barriers. The barriers act in concert to initially completely isolate the radioactive particles so they can decay and then limit their release to the environment. The combination of man made and natural geological barriers is called a multibarrier system.

The solidification of nuclear waste (which is necessary for final disposal) usually consists of dispersal in a glass matrix. However, alternative techniques are being researched. One such technique consists of embedding the waste into a ceramic matrix such as Synroc.Synroc is a “synthetic rock” invented in 1978 by Professor Ted Ringwood of the Australian National University. Synroc can incorporate nearly all the elements contained in high level waste.

The barriers surrounding the solid waste vary from country to country. However most countries believe that the barriers should be made of materials that occur naturally in the earth’s crust. In Sweden, the barriers consist of

1. A copper canister with a cast iron insert. This barrier is closest to the waste and its function is to isolate the fuel from the environment.

2. The second layer consists of bentonite clay called a buffer. Its function is to protect the the canister against small movements in the rock and keep it in its place. The clay also acts as a filter in case any radioactive particles escape form the canister.

3. The geological rock. The rock also stops leaking of radioactive particles into the environment but its main function is to protect the canister and buffer from mechanical damage and to offer a stable environment for the isolation of the waste.

Current Programs for final disposal of nuclear waste

Currently, no country has a complete system for storing high level waste permanently but many have plans to do so in the next 10 years. There are a number of well-developed proposals from the USA, Sweden, Finland and France for the disposal of long-lived radio-active waste.

All the proposed disposal techniques employ multiple barriers, as discussed above, to isolate the waste from the biosphere for at least 100,000 years. Nevertheless every one of the proposed disposal methods faces strong opposition from environmental groups and it is true that humans have never attempted to do anything on this sort of timescale. However nature has plenty of examples of systems that are stable for much longer periods. The most spectacular being the trans-uranic products of the Oklo natural nuclear reactors, which are discussed below, which have not appreciably moved in over 1.7 billion years.

The World Nuclear Industry appears to have reached a consensus to pursue Geologic disposal as final phase of Nuclear waste management. The US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine also conclude that deep Geologic Disposal can provide a safe means of disposing high level waste.

There are a number of programs that have seriously mishandled the issue of waste from Nuclear Power. The British decision to reprocess spent-fuel appears to have been both an environmental and financial mistake. The Nuclear Weapons program at the Hanford site in Eastern Washington State, U.S.A, created an enormous environmental impact that has so far cost 5.7 billion dollars to clean up.

Currently waste from Nuclear Power plants is being held in temporary storage facilities until such time as long-term disposal is decided. This is a feasible option because of the relatively small amount of material used to generate Nuclear Power.

New Technologies for Waste Disposal

Another option for disposal of long-lived (trans-Uranic) waste is to burn it via either Accelerator Driven Systems or within Fourth Generation reactors. However these technologies are not yet mature. Since the waste is stored in large tanks of water for 20-40 years first, it may be that by this time these new technologies will be sufficiently developed so that waste can be destroyed using these new methods.

Read an article on transmutation from The Economist.

There are also proposals to use a Fusion-Fission Hybrid for waste-disposal. These devices use the powerful neutrons from a Deuterium-Tritium plasma to drive nuclear transmutation. In some respects this technology is similar to Accelerator driven waste transmutation and the proponents believe that a fleet of 6 Fusion-Fission hybrids, when used in conjunction with a reprocessing waste cycle, would be sufficient to destroy the remaining long-lived nuclear waste from a fleet of 100 commercial power-reactors.

Finally there are experiments with Deep-Burn where fuels originating from reprocessed nuclear-waste would be used to power Very High Temperature Reactors (VHTR). The result would be that a single fuel loading derived from 4 years of operation of a light-water reactor could be used to deliver all the energy needed over the 60-year life of a VHTR. This technology would not only destroy most of the long-lived waste, it would make the existing stockpiles a very valuable source of energy, since it could be used to deliver ten times the energy of the original fuel.

How much high level nuclear waste is produced in a nuclear reactor?

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency a nuclear reactor which would supply the needs of a city the size of Amsterdam – a 1000MW(e) nuclear power station – produces approximately 30 tonnes of high level solid packed waster per year if the spent fuel is not reprocessed. In comparison, a 1000MW(e) coal plant produces 300,000 tonnes of ash per year.

Currently, worldwide, nuclear power generation produces 10,000m3 of high-level waste per year.

Who is responsible for the nuclear waste?

In most countries it is the responsibility of the power companies to take care of the waste. They are responsible for all the cost of nuclear waste management. In fact most countries are obliged to set aside a certain amount of money each year for waste management. Furthermore there are strict guidelines imposed by governments and other bodies for safe and responsible nuclear waste management. For example the International Atomic Energy Agency runs frequent conferences on the science of nuclear waste disposal, setting and enforcing safety standards, monitoring safety and security of nuclear waste. Recent conferences can be found on the IAEA website.

A natural nuclear reactor

Eventual final disposal of nuclear waste means that the radioactive isotopes will be buried (with appropriate barriers - see "Final disposal" above) in an appropriate disposal site for a very long time. One of the serious questions we should consider is are there going to be any problems far in the future associated with the burial of the waste. The system for final waste disposal is usually based on naturally occurring phenomena. One such natural analogue is naturally occurring nuclear reactors in Gabon, West Africa in the Oklo mine called the Oklo nuclear reactors.

About 1.7 billion years ago, deep underground in Africa, favorable natural conditions prompted nuclear reactions to take place. These natural conditions were sufficient amounts of Uranium-235 and the evolution of plants which subsequently caused rainwater to filter down through cracks in rocks. The water was necessary to slow down the neutrons emitted via uranium decay so that they could interact with other particles and produce nuclear chain reactions. The reactors operated for about 1 million years. The reactions stopped because the uranium depleted to amounts that were too small to keep the reactions going.

It has been shown that the Oklo reactors fissioned Uranium-238, Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239. This is exactly the elements that are fissioned in todays man-made nuclear reactors. Note also that there was no Plutonium-239 on earth when the Oklo reactors formed. This means that the reactors themselves must have produced this isotope. This is also the case for man-made nuclear reactors.

Once the natural reactors burned out they left radioactive nuclear waste. This waste is very similar to the waste generated by nuclear power stations. The nuclear waste was held in place deep underground by granite, sandstone and clays surrounding the reactors' site. The important point is that the waste has not moved much over approximately 2 billion years (see the fact sheet from Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, USA and the article by Walton and Cowan from the "Proceedings of a Symposium on the Oklo Phenomenon", 1975 listed in the bibliography at the end of this section).

The Oklo reactors give us an opportunity to observe the effects of storing waste deep underground for billions of years. By analyzing the remains of these ancient natural nuclear reactors and gaining an understanding of the conditions needed to secure and contain the nuclear waste, we can apply the same techniques to the final disposal of man-made nuclear reactor high level waste. The study of the Oklo nuclear reactors means that we can have reasonable confidence in final disposal.

Bibliography for Waste from Nuclear Power

The sources on man-made high level nuclear waste have been,

International Atomic Energy Agency Factsheet on Nuclear Waste

Nuclear Energy Agency

Swedish Nuclear Waste Management

Finland Nuclear Waste Management

French Nuclear Waste Management

USA Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Mangagement

Synroc

Technical Report series no. 43, International Atomic Energy Agency, 2003, "Scientific and Technical Basis for the Geological Disposal of Radioactive Wastes"

The sources for the Oklo natural nuclear reactors have been,

R.D Walton Jr., G.A. Cowan, "Relevance of Nuclide Migration at Oklo to the Problem of Geologic Storage of Radioactive Waste", from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, 1975, "Proceeding of a Symposium on the Oklo Phenomenon".

Curtin University Information on Oklo

Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, USA - Oklo Fact Sheet

Other information on natural nuclear waste storage can be found through the following link,

Natural Analogues of Nuclear Waste Storage

Transport of Nuclear Waste

The task of transporting the waste from a Nuclear Reactor to its eventual disposal destination is a problem that needs to be solved. The US Department of Energy currently proposes that a dedicated train be used for this purpose. This is a matter of great concern for many people, particularly those who live near the routes taken by the train. Sweden uses sea transport to move its Nuclear Power waste to disposal facilities. This appears far less controversial. There is continual research into the transport of radioactive materials. An overview of the current activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with regard to transport of materials is available here.

Nuclear Weapons Proliferation

A connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons exists because both require fissile materials. Some of the technology that can be used to produce or purify a fissile material for a nuclear power plant could also be applied to producing nuclear weapons. There are three main fissile materials that are used in nuclear reactions:

Uranium-233 (233U)

Uranium-235 (235U)

Plutonium-239 (239Pu)

In addition, Plutonium-240 (240Pu) and Plutonium-241 (241Pu) are produced and consumed in Nuclear Power production but neither can be used for Nuclear Weapons.

Out of these three materials only 235U exists naturally as an isotope of natural uranium with concentrations of 0.7%. Plutonium-239 and Uranium-233 are created by neutron capture on 238U and Thorium-232 (232Th) respectively.

Uranium-235

This is currently the most common fuel in nuclear reactors. Natural Uranium must be enriched to contain about 3-5% 235U before it can be used in most conventional reactors. The CANDU Heavy-Water reactor can use natural Uranium. To create a weapon Uranium must be enriched above 80%. Highly enriched Uranium (more than 20% enrichment) is also used for reactors in naval vessels and for research reactors.

Various techniques can be used to enrich Uranium. Any of these techniques used to enrich Uranium for power plants could in theory be further used to produce 235U in pure enough quantities for nuclear weapons.

Plutonium-239

This is the preferred isotope for Nuclear weapon design as it has a lower critical mass and is easier to produce in large quantities than 235U. 239Pu and 240Pu are produced in nearly all nuclear reactors by neutron capture on naturally occurring 238U, and can be easily separated from the Uranium. However, for the purposes of Nuclear Weapon's 240Pu is an unwanted component as it has a high rate of spontaneous fission which limits the a nuclear weapon from achieving critical mass for long enough to consume a large fraction of the fissile material. Weapons grade Plutonium is defined to contain no more than 7% 240Pu. That said, the USA exploded a nuclear weapon in 1962 with a 240Pu content in excess of 7%. The World Nuclear Association estimates that the 240Pu concentration of the device was 10%. Other people estimate that the concentration of 240Pu in the test may have been much higher and that weapons with "reactor grade" plutonium are possible.

This has very important consequences for Nuclear Weapons proliferation. If a batch of Plutonium has more than 7% 240Pu, it is unlikely to used for a Nuclear Weapon. Firstly because of the difficulty is creating a useful weapon with this material and because the mass difference between 240Pu and 239Pu is too small to allow normal isotopic enrichment procedures to work satisfactorily so that the plutonium cannot be enriched in 239Pu.

Nuclear reactors must be operated in a special and easily detectable way in order to create 239Pu with a sufficiently low abundance of 240Pu to be used in a Nuclear Weapon. What happens is this: Starting from a fuel that consists solely of 238U and 235U, the 238U will capture a neutron and convert to 239U. Shortly there-after the 239U will decay to Neptuium-239 (239Nu). The 239Nu then decays to 239Pu. Now 3 out of 4, neutron reactions on 239Pu initiates fission which destroys the 239Pu. However one in four neutron reactions are neutron captures which instead convert 239Pu into 240Pu. 240Pu does not undergo fission and so the relative abundance of 240Pu compared to 239Pu increases with the time the nuclear fuel spends in the reactor.

See the figure below.

Consequently in order to create weapons-grade plutonium, the fuel of the reactor must be removed before the concentration of 240Pu has a chance to exceed the 7% threshold. As is shown in the figure this means the fuel must be removed before it has spent 4 months in the reactor.

For this reason, Light Water reactors are what are called "proliferation resistant". In order to remove the fuel, the reactor must be shutdown. Shutting down a 1 GigaWatt reactor is very easy detect and is clearly not in the best interests of power production. When such events occur it is easy for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect the fuel rods and verify that no weapons grade Plutonium has been created or diverted. A standard light-water reactor that has been operated continuously for more than 4 months is not capable of producing weapons grade plutonium.

However other types of reactors such as Heavy Water reactors and some types of Breeder reactors do not have this built-in safe-guard. In these reactors fuel can be removed without a power-down. They require much more serious monitoring to ensure that weapons-grade Plutonium is not being created.

Uranium-233

Uranium-233 is produced by neutron capture of Thorium-232 in much the same way as Plutonium-239 is produced. There is very little information on the use of Uranium-233 for constructing nuclear weapons. There are also no commercial Thorium breeder reactors.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was designed to limit the spread of Nuclear Weapons. In exchange for full access to the most advanced Uranium fuels and nuclear technology, countries must agree to detailed inspections by the IAEA. In the past the IAEA has not always successfully detected non-compliance. For example in Iraq before the 1991 war. The IAEA has been recently successful detecting suspicious behavior, such in North Korea and Iran. The IAEA has also been forthright in declaring the absence of such behavior such as in Iraq in shortly before the second Iraq war. Director-General of the IAEA Dr. ElBaradei and the IAEA itself were awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2005.

The Australian Inquiry into developing Australia's non-fossil fuel energy industry has received submissions critical of the IAEA and its ability to adequately implement the NPT. Many of these were refuted by a subsequent submission by the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO).

Availability of Usable Uranium

Uranium is present at an abundance 2 - 3 parts per million in the Earth's crust which is about 600 times greater than gold and about the same as tin. The amount of Uranium that is available is mostly a measure of the price that we're willing to pay for it. At present the cost of Natural Uranium ($165 per kg) is a small component in the price of electricity generated by Nuclear Power. At a price of $US110 per kg the known reserves amount to about 85 years supply at the current level of consumption with an expected further 500 years supply in additional or speculative reserves. The price of Uranium would have to increase by over a factor of 3 before it would have an impact of the cost of electricity generated from Nuclear Power. Such a price rise would stimulate a substantial increase in exploration activities with a consequent increase in the size of the resource (as has been the case with every other mineral of value). The price of Uranium rose to a peak of over 300/kg in 2007 but has since declined to around $100 by mid 2010. Identified reserves of Uranium have increased by around 100% since the end of 2003.

However advanced technologies are being developed which are far more efficient in their use of Uranium or which utilize Thorium which is 3 times more abundant than Uranium. If perfected these technologies can make use of both the spent fuel from current nuclear reactors and the depleted Uranium stocks used for enrichment. Taken together these provide enough fuel for many thousands of years of energy production. This will mitigate the demand for newly mined Uranium.

Size of the Uranium Resource

Uranium is a dense metal found at an abundance of 2.8 parts per million in the Earth's crust. It is a highly reactive metal that does not occur in a free state in nature, commonly occurring as an oxide U3O8. Prices for Uranium in the world market are quoted in $US per pound of U3O8. The amount of Uranium commercially recoverable depends upon the market price of the metal. The market price in mid 2010 is around US$100/kg, after peaking at over $300/kg in 2007. In the early 1990's the spot price of Uranium reached historical lows of less than US$22/kg [1]. The cost of mining Uranium is a very small factor in the cost of running a nuclear power station and so movements in the price have little effect on the price of the power produced.

The sources of uranium are: mining, commercial inventories (from earlier periods of oversupply), reprocessing of spent full rods from nuclear power plants and down blending (mixing of enriched uranium with natural or depleted uranium) of highly enriched uranium from dismantled nuclear weapons. Consumption of uranium at the end of 1999 was 61600 tonnes of Uranium metal (tU) per annum [2] of which 56% is sourced from uranium mining. The majority of the balance comes from stockpiles and down blending in former Soviet countries as they reduce or eliminate their stock of nuclear weapons. The importance of this source and that of commercial inventories is expected to diminish over the next ten years.

Reasonably assured reserves (or proven reserves) refers to known commercial quantities of Uranium recoverable with current technology and for the specified price. As well there are estimates of additional and speculative reserves in extensions to well explored deposits or in new deposits that are thought to exist based on well defined geological data. These are necessarily subject to a larger uncertainty, however, the historically low price of uranium over the past ten years has provided a disincentive to exploration. This is beginning to be rectified as the price recovers. Further exploration will reduce the uncertainty in the estimates of additional reserves. There are around 4000 million tU in sea water at a concentration of approximately 3 parts per billion. Extracting this Uranium is a significant challenge [3] but substantial progress has been demonstrated by Seko et al. These researchers recovered approximately 1 kg of Uranium in a 16 square meter cage submerged for 240 days off the coast of Japan. A patent related to these efforts has been granted. This technology has continued to be developed by Tamada. He estimates that the cost of his process is currently $220/kg [8].

As of the beginning of 2003 World Uranium reserves were

  • Reasonable Assured Reserves recoverable at less than $US130/kgU (or $US50/lb U3O8) [4] = 3.10 - 3.28 million tU [2,5].
  • Additional reserves recoverable at less than $US130/kgU (or $US50/lb U3O8) = 10.690 million tU [2].

As of the beginning of 2005 World Uranium reserves were

  • Reasonable Assured Reserves recoverable at less than $US130/kgU (or $US50/lb U3O8) = 4.7 million tU [6].
  • Additional recoverable Uranium is estimated to be 35 million tU [6].

As of the beginning of 2009 identified World Uranium reserves were

  • Reasonable Assured Reserves recoverable at less than $US300/kg = 6.3 million tU [7]

The substantial increase (almost 100%) from 2003 shows the results of the world-wide renewed exploration effort spurred by the increase in Uranium prices which commenced in 2004. This increase in activity has continued through to 2010. Thus, the provable uranium reserves amount to over 100 years supply at the current level of consumption with current technology, with another 500 years of additional reserves. Around 24% of the proven reserves are in Australia.

With current technology, 235U is the only fuel for nuclear reactors. Uranium-235 represents 0.72% of natural uranium. Future technological developments could allow other elements to fuel nuclear reactors. Thorium-232 is a possible nuclear fuel and has a similar abundance to uranium, though there are as yet no commercial reactors operating or planned that would utilize thorium. Fast breeder reactors could utilize both 235U (Uranium-235) and 239Pu (Plutonium-239) as a fuel. Plutonium-239 is created when 238U (99.27% of naturally occurring uranium) is bombarded with neutrons. Plutonium-239 is a by product of nuclear power generation with the current mix of 235U and 238U. It is currently a waste product of concern due to its extreme toxicity and link to nuclear weapons. If reactors could be made to utilize 239Pu the potential of known reserves of uranium would be greatly extended since 238U could then be turned into a fuel. The Super Phoenix fast breeder reactor in France has demonstrated the technology. Currently electricity from such a plant would cost around three times the amount per kilowatt as that from conventional nuclear power plants. Fast breeder reactors have a higher risk profile due to the need to handle large quantities of Plutonium, and so present a different balance between utility and risk than the other types of reactors.

[1] The Market for Uranium: An overview of supply, demand and prices 2004--2025,
International Nuclear Inc., in Western Mining Corporations Ltd Target Statement (for the takeover by BHP), December 2004.
[2] Survey of Energy and Resources 2001, World Energy Council (WEC)
[3] See van Leeuwen and Smith and references within.
[4] Though the cost of extraction could be more than twice the current spot price of Uranium, the spot price is a function of the current, and speculated future, supply and demand situation and is virtually independent of the price of electricity finally produced from nuclear power.
[5] Supply of Uranium, World Nuclear Association, July 2005
[6] Global Uranium Resources, IAEA, June 2006
[7] http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/PressReleases/2010/prn201009.html
[8] Tamada: Masao Tamada, Current status of technology for collection of uranium from seawater. Erice Seminar 2009

Cost of Nuclear Power.

The cost of generating power via nuclear energy can be separated into the following components:

  • The construction cost of building the plant.
  • The operating cost of running the plant and generating energy.
  • The cost of waste disposal from the plant.
  • The cost of decommissioning the plant.

Quantifying some of these costs is difficult as it requires an extrapolation into the future.

Construction Costs

Construction costs are very difficult to quantify but dominate the cost of Nuclear Power. The main difficulty is that third generation power plants now proposed are claimed to be both substantially cheaper and faster to construct than the second generation power plants now in operation throughout the world. The Nuclear Industry says its learned the lessons of economy-of-volume demonstrated by the French Nuclear Program, and that these will be employed for the new power plants. In 2005 Westinghouse claimed its Advanced PWR reactor, the AP1000, will cost USD $1400 per KW for the first reactor and fall in price for subsequent reactors. A more technical description is here. Proponents of the CANDU ACR and Gas Cooled pebble bed reactors made similar or stronger claims. However the first wave of new plants in the USA are expected to cost over $3500 per KW of capacity. Additional costs increase the price even more.

The General Electric ABWR was the first third generation power plant approved. The first two ABWR's were commissioned in Japan in 1996 and 1997. These took just over 3 years to construct and were completed on budget. Their construction costs were around $2000 per KW. Two additional ABWR's are being constructed in Taiwan. However these have faced unexpected delays and are now at least 2 years behind schedule.

Meanwhile the Chinese Nuclear Power Industry has won contracts to build new plants of their own design at capital costs reported to be $1500 per KW and $1300 per KW at sites in South-East and North-East China. If completed on budget these facilities will be formidable competitors to the Western Nuclear Power Industry.

Given the history of Nuclear Plant construction in the U.S.A., the financial industry sees the construction of the new generation of reactors as a risky investment and demands a premium on capital lent for the purpose. The Energy Bill recently passed by the US Congress assumes this risk and provides production credits of 1.8 cents per KW-Hr for the first 3 years of operation. This subsidy is equivalent to what is paid to Wind Power companies and is designed to encourage new nuclear reactor construction in the USA.

If the AP1000 lives up to its promises of $1000 per KW construction cost and 3 year construction time, it will provide cheaper electricity than any other Fossil Fuel based generating facility, including Australian Coal power, even with no sequestration charges. This promise appears to have been unfulfilled. The cost of the first AP1000 is expected to be over $3500 per KW.

Construction Cost Over-Runs

There were massive cost overruns for plants built in the USA in the 1970's and 1980's. There were several reasons for these.

  • Design Flaws. There were significant design flaws which led to the reactor leak and operator confusion that caused the Three Mile Island accident. After these were exposed, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), undertook an extensive review of Nuclear Plant designs and in many cases ordered changes. These changes were both expensive and time consuming to fix. They led to extensive construction delays at a time of very high interest rates and so significantly increased the cost of the Capital required to build the plant.
  • Two hurdle licensing. Up until the mid-1990's developers of nuclear power plants had to obtain both a license to build a Nuclear Power then a subsequent license to operate the plant. This also delayed the start of plant operation which significantly increased the cost of the plant. The worst situation was that of the Shoreham Plant which was completed on Long Island in New York State at a cost of 5 Billion dollars but was never allowed to operate.
  • Non-uniform designs. The US Nuclear Power Industry never achieved economies of volume because every reactor design was different. Each developer put in their own tweaks and much of the equipment was custom built for each plant. This compounded the difficulties of obtaining NRC licensing approval since the NRC had to evaluate each individual design.

In contrast the French Nuclear Power program settled on a standard design which satisfied the French Regulatory Commission. Industry was able to achieve economies of volume in the production of plants and to complete construction on time.

Operating Costs

These costs are much easier to quantify and are independently verified as they relate directly to the profitability of the Utilities which operate them. Any discrepancies are soon discovered through accounting audits. Company's that operate the USA's nuclear power reactors have made excellent profits over the last five years. The US Nuclear Power industry has at last lived up to its promise made in in 1970's to produce electricity reliably and cheaply. Since 1987 the cost of producing electricity from has decreased from 3.63 cents per KWHr to 1.68 cents per KWHr in 2004 and plant availability has increased from 67% to over 90%. The operating cost includes a charge of 0.2 cents per KW-Hr to fund the eventual disposal of waste from the reactor and for decommissioning the reactor. The price of Uranium Ore contributes approximately 0.05 cents per KWHr.

Management of Nuclear Plant Operations

It's clear from both the French and US experience that pro-active Industry organisations are vital in obtaining efficient plant utilisation and in minimising running costs. In the US in the late 1980's and early 1990's there was little pooling of knowledge and experience amongst Nuclear Power Operators. This was caused by a combination of industry inexperience, the lack of standardised designs and the fragmentation of the industry. Once again this was in contrast to the French experience where the uniform design and the single state-owned organisation allowed knowledge to be more easily shared.

The US industry has has since gone through several cycles of consolidation and the operation of the USA's fleet of Nuclear Reactors has mostly been taken over by specialist companies that specialize in this activity. In addition the industry has learned the benefits of pooling knowledge. This combination has demonstrably improved the performance of the US reactor fleet and is reflected in the share price of the nuclear operation companies.

Waste Disposal

In the USA, Nuclear Power operators are charged 0.1 cents per KW-Hr for the disposal of Nuclear Waste. In Sweden this cost is 0.13 US cents per KW-Hr. These Countries have utilized these funds to pursue research into Geologic disposal of waste and both now have mature proposals for the task. In France the cost of waste disposal and decommissioning is estimated to be 10% of the construction cost. So far provisions of 71 billion Euros have been acquired for this from the sale of electricity.

Decommissioning Costs

The US industry average cost for decommissioning a power plant is USD $300 million. The funds for this activity are accumulated in the operating cost of the plant. The French and Swedish Nuclear Industries expect decommissioning costs to be 10 -15 % of the construction costs and budget this into the price charged for electricity. On the other hand the British decommissioning costs have been projected to be around 1 Billion pounds per reactor. Cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Weapons reactor is budgeted at 5.6 Billion dollars but may cost 2 to 3 times this much.

Model of Projected Costs

The following simple model gives a reasonable guideline to the cost in US cents of electricity per KW-Hr based on various assumptions for construction cost, interest rate and construction time. The model assumes that the capital for the entire project is delivered up-front before construction commences. This is a conservative approach. A better financing deal would to acquire capital as it needs to spent during construction. A 40-year lifetime is assumed. The operating costs are assumed to be 1.3 cents per KW-Hr in line with the second best-quartile of the American Nuclear Plant average. The plant availability is assumed to be 90% in-line with the full American average since 2000. The plant is assumed to have a 1 GW capacity.

The current discount interest rate in the USA is about 5%. China appears to be taking the Nuclear Power industry at its word that it can deliver generating power at USD$1500 per KW of capacity. As of August 30th, 2005, reports state that China expects to pay USD$6 Billion dollars for 4 GW worth of Nuclear Plant and that this will come on-line by 2010. Reports from December, 2006 state that the Chinese have contracted to buy 4 Westinghouse AP1000's with start up expected in 2013. The final price of the contract is unclear this time. If the Nuclear Power Industry delivers generating capacity at $1500 per kilowatt it will likely place the price of electricity produced at around 3 US cents per KWHr. This would be similar to the price of electricity generated by Eastern Australian Coal-Power which is in the range of 2.2 - 4.5 AUD cents per KWHr. It will be well worth watching to see if the Industry can deliver this outcome. Reports from 2009 indicate the initial cost of an AP1000 in America is over $3500 per KW.

The construction costs expected by the Chinese are far lower than what the Nuclear Industry delivered in the 1980's. For example the ill-fated Shoreham facility, which was never allowed to operate, cost 5 Billion dollars for a plant rated at 1 GW. Case 5, shown below, shows the what our model predicts for this scenario.

Case 1, Construction Cost = $1 Billion. (Westinghouse claim for its AP1000 reactor after volume production.)

(The numbers in all the tables are the costs to generate electricity in US cents per KWHr for different interest rates and construction times)

Interest rate 3 years 4 years 5 years 7 years
5% 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.7
6% 2.4 2.5 2.7 3.1
7% 2.6 2.8 3.0 3.6
8% 2.8 3.0 3.3 4.4
9% 3.0 3.3 3.7 5.5
10 % 3.3 3.6 4.2 7.2

Case 2, Construction Cost = $1.4 Billion. (Westinghouse claim for its first AP1000 reactor)

Interest rate 3 years 4 years 5 years 7 years
5% 2.6 2.8 2.9 3.3
6% 2.9 3.0 3.2 3.8
7% 3.1 3.3 3.6 4.6
8% 3.4 3.7 4.1 5.6
9% 3.7 4.1 4.7 7.1
10 % 4.0 4.6 5.4 9.5

Case 3, Construction Cost = $2.0 Billion.

Interest rate 3 years 4 years 5 years 7 years
5% 3.2 3.4 3.6 4.1
6% 3.5 3.9 4.1 4.9
7% 3.9 4.2 4.6 6.0
8% 4.3 4.7 5.3 7.4
9% 4.7 5.3 6.1 9.6
10 % 5.2 6.0 7.1 13.1

Case 4, Construction Cost = $2.5 Billion.

Interest rate 3 years 4 years 5 years 7 years
5% 3.7 3.9 4.2 4.9
6% 4.1 4.4 4.8 5.9
7% 4.6 4.9 5.5 7.2
8% 5.0 5.5 6.3 9.0
9% 5.6 6.3 7.4 11.7
10 % 6.2 7.1 8.6 16.1

Case 5, Construction Cost = $5 Billion (Shoreham, Long Island, 1985).

Interest rate 3 years 4 years 5 years 7 years
5% 5.8 6.1 6.5 7.6
6% 6.6 7.1 7.6 9.2
7% 7.5 8.1 8.9 11.3
8% 8.5 9.4 10.5 14.2
9% 9.5 10.7 12.4 18.2
10 % 10.7 12.3 14.7 24.1

Greenhouse Emissions of Nuclear Power

There is world-wide concern over the prospect of Global Warming primarily caused by the emission of Carbon Dioxide gas (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels. Although the processes of running a Nuclear Power plant generates no CO2, some CO2 emissions arise from the construction of the plant, the mining of the Uranium, the enrichment of the Uranium, its conversion into Nuclear Fuel, its final disposal and the final plant decommissioning. The amount of CO2 generated by these secondary processes primarily depends on the method used to enrich the Uranium (the gaseous diffusion enrichment process uses about 50 times more electricity than the gaseous centrifuge method) and the source of electricity used for the enrichment process. It has been the subject of some controversy. To estimate the total CO2 emissions from Nuclear Power we take the work of the Swedish Energy Utility, Vattenfall, which produces electricity via Nuclear, Hydro, Coal, Gas, Solar Cell, Peat and Wind energy sources and has produced credited Environment Product Declarations for all these processes.

Vattenfall finds that averaged over the entire lifecycle of their Nuclear Plant including Uranium mining, milling, enrichment, plant construction, operating, decommissioning and waste disposal, the total amount CO2 emitted per KW-Hr of electricity produced is 3.3 grams per KW-Hr of produced power. Vattenfall measures its CO2 output from Natural Gas to be 400 grams per KW-Hr and from coal to be 700 grams per KW-Hr. Thus nuclear power generated by Vattenfall, which may constitute World's best practice, emits less than one hundredth the CO2 of Fossil-Fuel based generation. In fact Vattenfall finds its Nuclear Plants to emit less CO2 than any of its other energy production mechanisms including Hydro, Wind, Solar and Biomass although all of these processes emit much less than fossil fuel generation of electricity.

Energy Lifecycle of Nuclear Power

The performance of Nuclear Power can also be measured by calculating the total energy required to build and run a Nuclear Power plant and comparing it to the total energy it produces. The following set of calculations is also taken from the independently audited, Vattenfall Environmental Product Declaration for its 3090 MW Forsmark power plant. A more detailed description is here. Vattenfall have also made available the aggregated data set as a spreadsheet. You can download it from here.

The following table displays the source and the amount of energy required to produce 1 KW-Hr of electricity from the Forsmark power plant. The table includes the energy used in construction of the plant, mining the Uranium, enriching it, converting it to fuel, disposing the waste and decommissioning the plant. The Forsmark plant is assumed to run for 40 years. There is an additional 0.026 grams of Uranium consumed in generating this one KW-Hr of electricity. This 0.026 grams includes the Uranium used to generate power at Forsmark and the Uranium consumed by the French Nuclear Power plants that produced the electricity that enriched the Forsmark Fuel.

Energy Source Contribution by mass Conversion to Energy Energy Contribution
Coal 0.467 grams 0.00676 KW-Hr/gram 0.0031 KW-Hr
Crude Oil 0.32 grams 0.011 KW-Hr/gram 0.0035 KW-Hr
Lignite 0.234 grams 0.0038 KW-Hr/gram 0.00089 KW-Hr
Natural Gas 0.115 grams 0.015 KW-Hr/gram 0.00173 KW-Hr
Hydro-Electricity 0.00146 KW-Hr 1 0.00146 KW-Hr
Wood 0.041 grams 0.0042 KW-Hr/gram 0.00017
Total     0.0107 KW-Hr

So the Forsmark Plant produces 93 times more energy than it consumes. Or put another way, the non-nuclear energy investment required to generate electricity for 40 years is repaid in 5 months. Normalized to 1 GigaWatt electrical capacity, the energy required to construct and decommission the plant, which amounts to 4 Peta-Joules (PJ), which is repaid in 1.5 months. The energy required to dispose of the waste is also 4 PJ and repaid in 1.5 months. In total this is less than 0.8% of the all the electrical energy produced by the plant.

The calculations of the operating energy costs include the energy required to mine and mill the Uranium. In the case of the Forsmark power plant some of the Uranium is sourced from the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia. This mine has a rather low Uranium concentration (0.05% by weight). A detailed and audited environmental description of the Olympic Dam mine is available here. A succinct description of the energy inputs of the mine is here. These data show that the Olympic Dam mine supplies enough Uranium for the generation of 26 GigaWatt-years of electricity each year (including the Uranium needed to run the power plants for enrichment). The energy consumed by the the mine is equivalent to 22% of a GigaWatt-Year. The energy gain is over a factor of 100. The Olympic Dam mine energy cost includes the energy required for mining and smelting it's huge Copper production.

Another Uranium source for Forsmark is the Rossing Mine in Namibia. A description of the operations of the mine is available here. The Rossing mine produced 3037 tonnes of Uranium in 2004, which is sufficient for 15 GigaWatt-years of electricity with current reactors. The energy used to mine and mill this Uranium was about 3% of a GigaWatt-year. Thus the energy produced is about 500 times more than the energy required to operate the mine.

It is worth noting that the widely quoted paper by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith (SLS), which gives a rather pessimistic assessment of the Energy Lifecycle of Nuclear Power, assumes a far larger energy cost to construct and decommission a Nuclear Power plant (240 Peta-Joules versus 8 Peta-Joules(PJ)). The difference is that Vattenfall actually measured their energy inputs whereas Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Smith employed various theoretical relationships between dollar costs and energy consumed. This paper also grossly over-estimates the energy cost of mining low-grade Ores and also that the efficiency of extraction of Uranium from reserves would fall dramatically at ore concentrations below 0.05%. Employing their calculations predicts that the energy cost of extracting the Olympic Dam mine's yearly production of 4600 tonnes of Uranium would require energy equivalent to almost 2 one-GigaWatt power plants running for a full year (2 GigaWat-years). You can follow this calculation here. This is larger than the entire electricity production of South Australia and an order of magnitude more than the measured energy inputs.

The Rossing mine has a lower Uranium concentration (0.03% vs 0.05% by weight) than Olympic Dam and the discrepancy is even larger in the case of Rossing. Here SLS predict Rossing should require 2.6 Giga-Watt-Years of energy for mining and milling. The total consumption of all forms of energy in the country of Namibia is equivalent to 1.5 GigaWatt-Years, much less than the prediction for the mine alone. Furthermore, yearly cost of supplying this energy is over 1 billion dollars, yet the value of the Uranium sold by Rossing was, until recently, less than 100 million dollars per year. Since Rossing reports it's yearly energy usage to be 0.03 GigaWatt-years, SLS overestimates the energy cost of the Rossing mine by a factor of 80.

Additionally SLS predict that the yield of of Uranium extracted from low grade Ores will fall to 0 at concentrations of 0.0002% (2 ppm). The Olympic Dam mine extracts gold at high efficiency at concentrations of 0.0005% (5 ppm (parts per million)) and there are many other gold mines which produce gold profitably at this concentration. Given the huge Uranium reserves present at 5 ppm, it unlikely we will ever need mines that operate lower than this.

The energy cost of the Olympic Dam mine is the sum of all the operations for mining Copper, Uranium, Gold and other minerals. It is therefore the upper limit of the energy cost of extracting the Uranium alone. The Rossing mine which only produces Uranium, is a better measure of the energy cost future Uranium mines.

It is interesting to see what effect using the correct energy cost of 8 PJ for the construction, decommissioning and waste disposal of a power plants and the measured energy consumption of the Rossing mine has within the methodology of Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Smith. If we assume that the energy cost of extraction scales inversely with concentration and employ the Rossing experience as a benchmark, ore concentrations as low as 0.001% (10 ppm) provide an energy gain of 16. This also (and very unrealistically) assumes no further progress in mining technology or efficiency improvements in Nuclear Power operations over the course of hundreds of years. As shown here there is an estimated 1 trillion tonnes of Uranium at concentrations of 10 ppm or higher within the Earth's crust. This provides a resource over a factor of 300 times greater than predicted by Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Smith to be recoverable. So once the correct energy cost for plant construction and mining operations are used, the work of Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Smith imply that resource exhastion will not be a problem for Nuclear Power for the foreseeable future.

Storm and Smith have released a rebuttal of this argument. You can find this rebuttal here. We have responded in detail to the questions raised by Storm and Smith. You can find our reponse here. Storm and Smith have issued a rebuttal to our response. It is here. Our answer to this is here.

Our additional investigations strengthen the conclusion that there is far more minable Uranium than predicted by Storm and Smith.

Comparison of Energy Sources

What sort of energy source is used for a particular purpose should in the end be reflected in the price of the energy generated by the source.

Fossil Fuels

The World's Fossil Fuels are a finite resource that will be consumed within 500 years at present and projected future rates of consumption. In addition these are often accompanied by substantial pollutants and of course their major waste by-product, carbon-dioxide gas, is the major Greenhouse emission of concern.

There is general consensus within the Scientific Community that a new phase of global warming induced by carbon-dioxide emissions is currently underway and that the World's temperature will rise significantly within the next century. There is still substantial debate about the climatic consequences of this temperature rise although there is little doubt that the world's climate will be different in 100 years time if we continue to increase our rate of consumption of fossil fuels. Given that there is no clear consensus on the outcome of the global warming and that some of the consequences are very dire indeed, the safe course of action is to limit the amount of Global Warming and hence to limit the amount of Greenhouse gas emission.

To date the cost of the carbon-dioxide emissions from Fossil fuels has not been priced into to their use.

Recently Carbon Dioxide Sequestration has emerged as potential solution to the global warming problem. This is the process of trapping Carbon in the bio-sphere instead distributing it within the atmosphere. There are now a number of methods proposed to achieve this which range from developing new bio-masses (forests, algae) to injection of C02 into Deep Oceans or storing in underground reservoirs including Natural gas and Petroleum fields. Many of these may be implemented within 20 years and could potentially be paid for via a carbon tax. A document providing an overview of various CO2 sequestration options is available here. This study estimates that 80 years worth of current CO2 production could be stored at a cost of about 50 Euros (80 AUD) per tonne CO2 stored.

Oil

Oil is the most precious and least abundant of the world's fossil fuels. Never-the-less the amount of Oil on the Earth is likely at least the range of several trillion barrels of Oil once non-conventional sources of Oil are considered. These include the Heavy Oil deposits of South America, the Oil sands of Western Canada and shale Oil found through out the World. In addition as the price of Oil increases, previously abandoned fields become economic to re-extract. Consequently despite constantly increasing Oil production throughout the world, there is likely at least a century of usable Oil available in the world. A more useful question is: At what price will petroleum and gasoline be widely displaced as the fuel of choice for transport? It has already been largely displaced as a fuel for Electricity. For a period from 2006 until 2008 the world demand from Oil was such that OPEC could no longer control its price and output from the most readily refined petroleum had peaked. In July, 2006, the Australian Broadcasting Commission televised an excellent documentary about high Oil prices. You can download it from here. The Chicago tribune have produced an excellent series on Peak Oil in their July 29th, 2006 edition. You can find it here. Recent updates on upcoming large scale projects combined with a projected increase in supply from Iraq imply that oil production could continue to grow until 2018, given sufficient demand.

Coal

Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel. It is found throughout the world and current proven reserves are sufficient for at least 300 years of exploitation. Although coal is cheap, it is dangerous to mine (thousands of miners die every year all over the world) and is bulky and expensive to transport. Because coal has relatively low energy content for its weight, a lot of it is required to produce a given amount of electricity. For example, A 1000 MW coal power station requires about 8,600,000 kg of coal per day, compared to 74 kg per day of uranium for the equivalent sized nuclear power plant. In addition coal-based power plants produce vast amounts of pollutants, including radioactivity, in addition to the C02 emissions which contribute to global-warming.

Natural Gas

Natural Gas reserves are intermediate between Coal and Oil. It is currently the most favoured fuel source for new electricity production with the USA. Natural gas combined-cycle generators can reach 60% efficiency for converting heat energy into electricity. Natural gas also produces 40 -50 % fewer CO2 emissions for the same amount of electricity generated as Coal. However the price of Natural Gas is steadily rising and the costs associated with sequestration of the generated CO2 are not yet included in the price of electricity passed on the consumer. The following table from a comprehensive study of the cost of electricity production from coal and gas in the USA without sequestration charges or other pollution charges shows the price sensitivity of natural gas production. All prices for Natural Gas are shown in units of thousand Cubic Feet (MCF).

Source C gas price Electricity price (cents/Kw-Hr)
Coal   4.2
Gas (Low price) $3.77 3.8
Gas (moderate) $4.42 4.1
Gas (High) $6.72 5.6

The following table shows the effects of a Carbon tax to pay for sequestration.

Source $50/tonne C $100/tonne $200/tonne C
Coal 5.4 6.6 9.0
Gas (low) 4.3 4.8 5.9
Gas (moderate) 4.7 5.2 6.2
Gas (high) 6.1 6.7 7.7

The price of Natural Gas delivered via long-term contracts as Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) is typically around $6 per MCF.

Within the USA, Natural Gas prices had been extremely volatile over the past few years as production had not been able to keep pace with demand. However of March, 2009 the price has fallen to below $4.00 per thousand Cubic Feet (MCF). It is not clear whether is drop is due to the current recession or from greater utilization of unconventional gas resources, such as Coal Seam Methane and "Tight Gas" from shale formations. World-wide, reserves of unconventional Natural Gas are estimated to be over 32,000 Tera Cubic Feet (TCF) while conventional natural gas reserves are estimated to be 7200 TCF. World-wide natural gas production in 2007 was slightly over 100 TCF.

Australian reserves of Natural Gas have risen dramatically since 2006 through the rapid development of Coal Seam Methane, which accounted for 13% of Australian production in 2008, up 40% in 2008 over 2007. Australia's Natural Gas reserve base (including Coal Seam Methane), is currently estimated to be 400 TCF.

Nuclear Fission

The cost of Nuclear Fission Power is dominated by the capital cost of construction of the plant. Proponents of next generation, (3rd generation), Nuclear Power plants were initially projected to be around $1000 - $1200 per KW (Westinghouse AP1000, Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, Advanced CANDU Reactor, South Africa HTGR). These reactors also have significant increases in Uranium efficiency and substantial increases in operating life of the plant (60 years). In addition the proponents claim a ten-fold increase in safety of operation over previous generation reactors. Electricity generated from such plants was initially projected to cost less than 3.5 US cents per KW-Hr. However recent reports imply the capital cost of these plants to be over $3500 per KW. Additional costs for infrastructure upgrades, financing and inflation take the total expected cost to around $17 Billion for a twin unit AP1000 with 2.2 GW capacity. Electricity produced at these rates would be substantially more expensive than Eastern Australian coal powered electricity prices of 2.3 - 4.0 US cents per KW-Hr. Disposal of Nuclear Waste remains a topic of intense debate and controversy. However the USA, Sweden, Finland and France have well-developed programs for waste disposal funded from the sale of electricity.

Current Australian electricity prices do not include any sequestration charges. Although Australia has not signed any treaty requiring compliance with the reduction of carbon emissions, (citing National Interest reasons), we may be compelled by the international community to do so in the future.

Nuclear Fission is currently unique in that the costs of decommissioning and waste disposal are fully reflected in the price of the generated electricity.

The nuclear industry has longer-term plans to develop advanced reactors that are over 50 times more efficient in their use of Uranium and which consume a large fraction of the long-lived waste generated from current (2nd generation) reactors. In addition these plants may also be used to efficiently produce Hydrogen for use as a transportation fuel and to de-salinate sea water. These are the Fourth Generation Nuclear Reactors and are not expected to be ready for deployment before 2020.

There is a large and very vocal opposition to Nuclear Fission power because of the radioactive material produced in the process of generating energy and from Nuclear Proliferation concerns. There are also claims that Nuclear Power is more expensive than alternative energy generation schemes. There are also numerous websites and documents that counter such claims and offer strong opinion that Nuclear Power is the best energy option.

Nuclear Fusion

Nuclear Fusion is often proposed as the ultimate energy source. Great progress has been made in this field in the 50 years since it was first proposed. Construction has started for the next generation Fusion Test Reactor (the ITER). Its projected start date is 2016. It will be operated for the 10 years following to learn the about the Physics and Engineering required to build and operate a commercially competitive Power Plant. It is projected to produce 500 MegaWatts of energy at full power. See The ITER Fusion project. Like Nuclear Fission, the size of the resource (Deuterium and Lithium) consumed in generating this energy is essentially unlimited. However much research and development still needs to be done on the project. The proponents project the Capital Cost of a commercial plant, built in 2050, generating electricity via Nuclear Fusion to be around $4000 per KW.

Solar

Solar energy has made significant progress and is displacing fossil fuel technologies from many niche applications.

Solar Thermal

These are technologies that concentrate sunlight to produce intense heat or light. Many significant technology hurdles have been overcome through ingenious design and the use of advanced materials. Nevertheless despite many years of effort these technologies produce electricity at far higher cost than coal-based production. The exceptions are when these are located in sunlight rich regions with poor access of Fossil Fuels or where the full cost of Fossil Fuels are passed on to the consumer. Solar Thermal power plants in Spain have grown significantly because of feed-in tariffs in excess of $USD 0.20 per KWHr. These are over 5 times higher than the prices received by Australian utilities. The Blythe Solar Project in South West California is in the final state of it's Environmental Review. It is a nominal 1 GW power facility, with a 5.5 year construction time and an expected capital cost of $6 Billion. It is expected to produce 2-3 billion KW-Hours of electricity per year. The projected cost of electricity sourced from the facility is thus well over 20 cents/KWHr.

Solar PhotoVoltaics

PhotoVoltaic systems convert sunlight directly into electricity by utilizing the Quantum-Mechanical properties of light. There has been great progress at both increasing the efficiency of solar cells for use in concentrator systems and in decreasing the cost of large array converters. The current world market for PhotoVoltaics is around 1.2 GW of peak power per year and is growing at an annualized rate of 30% per year. This amounts to some 1 billion-kilowatt-hours of electricity production once the 10% duty factor of photo-voltaic systems are taken into account. The current world consumption of electricity is around 13,000 billion kilowatt hours per year and is projected to rise to 23,000 billion kilo-watt hours per year by 2025.

If the current rate of growth of the PV market is maintained for 20 years, it will still amount to less than 5% of electricity production by 2025. More-over much of the growth in electricity demand will take place in places where solar power is not abundant.

In Australia distributed solar voltaic power from rooftop panels could be a useful adjunct to power produced from the grid since it is most effective at the times of peak demand on the very hot days. This is the idea behind some of the programs in the Solar Cities initiative. For a detailed look at solar energy in Australia see the SA government's information page on solar power. Furthermore, Sliver Cell technology, developed at The Australian National University, promises a factor of 4 reduction in overall PhotoVoltaic costs.

Wind

Wind Power utilizes modern-versions of wind-mills to produce electricity. Its use is growing world-wide. The current installed base is is over 50 GW of peak power with a growth rate of around 10% per year. In countries with high-cost electricity production, favourable geography and anti-nuclear policies, it is almost cost-competitive with conventional electricity generation as an additional source of power-production. Its main drawback is its intermittent availability. This means that on average it produces only about 25 -35% of its peak capacity when averaged over a year and so it requires backup for windless days. Large-scale wind use requires capital to both build the wind-powered turbines and backup facilities. Denmark uses a mix of Wind, local coal power and imported electricity from it's Nordic neighbours. Unlike Norway and Sweden, Denmark found its electricity prices increased after a period of deregulation. Denmark also has a substantial "Green Tax" which makes it's electricity prices much higher than France or Sweden, which have vigorously pursued Nuclear Power. Furthermore, there are reports that suggest wind power suffers diminishing rates of return as it's fractional use within an electricity network exceeds some threshold (typically 10%) due to it's fluctuating availability. Within Australia, Wind is the fastest-growing renewable form of electricity generation. Its use within Australia is driven from Government subsidies in the form of the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET). It is most useful as a supplement to Hydro Power which can be conserved and used on windless days during peak demand.

Electricity generated from wind power within Australia is currently more expensive than that from coal plants. The Challicum Hills wind farm, one of the first in Victoria, cost $76 million for a 52 MW peak output. After operating for several years, the average capacity of the facility has been measured at 30%. The Capital Cost of the facility is therefore $USD 3660.00 (AUD$ 4880.0) per KW. Studies of US Wind Farms suggest the effective charge for on-going maintenance of the system works out at around 2 cents per KWHr. Assuming a 7% interest rate, we estimate the cost of producing Wind Power from Challicum Hills to be 7.6 AUD cents per KWHr.

There is a vocal environmental opposition to Wind Power from those who oppose the visual impact of wind-turbines on the landscape, its danger to bird life and noise. There are numerous websites that counter such claims.

Biomass

Biomass projects utilize various biological processes to generate hydrocarbon fuels like Methane Gas and Diesel fuel. Modern Biomass projects focus on methane gas from refuse and biodiesel fuel from algae, plants and waste products.

There is intense, world-wide research into this energy source as Biodiesel could well become cost competitive as the price of conventional Oil increases. There are numerous hobbyists who create Biodiesel fuel for their own use.

However, presently available crops are rather inefficient at converting sunlight into useful fuel which makes biomass unsuitable for large-scale electricity production. Estimates are that providing feedstock for a 1 GigaWatt power plant for one year would require 2500 square kilometers of the best quality land. Modern biomass projects efficiently utilize agricultural waste and provide a useful energy resource in some locations, in particular from sugar production or forestry regions, however their potential elsewhere is limited.

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy relies on converting heat trapped underground to generate useful power. In most cases this means converting the heat to electricity via the same techniques employed by Fossil Fuel power stations. There are in addition several locations in the world where Geothermal energy is also used to provide district heating.

It is classed as a renewable resources although in some locations Geothermal energy consumes a region of heat trapped in the Earth's crust. Once consumed, the resource is exhausted. Other locations continuously generate heat from a large local Uranium concentration. There are some very large reserves of heat and these have been exploited in different parts of the world.

Geothermal has the advantage over Wind and Solar power of being available 24 hours a day. In Australia it is employed to generate 150 KW of electrical power in Birdsville from hot water extracted from the Great Arterial Basin.

Within an Australian context, there is much interest in exploiting Hot Dry Rocks, which are both very hot (awards of 200 degrees Celsius) and within drilling distance from the surface. The idea is to inject water under high pressure at the surface, generate fractures within the heated rock, allow the water to permeate through the fractures and extract it from another hole some distance away. The water is heated as it passes through the rock and can be used to generate electricity at the surface via a conventional heat engine. This processes is known as Enhanced Geothermal energy.

The potential reserve of Geothermal energy contained within Hot Rocks in central Australia is estimated be in excess of 300,000 PJ which is sufficient to supply all Australia's current electrical power needs for over 400 years. However to date this type of Enhanced Geothermal power generation has not been exploited commercially.

There are a number of companies attempting to commercialize this technology in Australia. Two of the more prominent are Geodynamics and Petratherm. Geodynamics has the rights to exploit large heat reserves in the Cooper Basin in South Australia and Queensland as well as the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.

Petratherm has a variety of conventional Geothermal prospects elsewhere in the world as well as proposals for Enhanced Geothermal near mines in outback South Australia.

This is promising technology but there remain a number a barriers to it's full exploitation at large scale. Perhaps the ultimate concern is the supply of water needed to top up losses in the deep desert. Even though water is recirculated through the system some water losses occur. Over the course of a year, a one GigaWatt system with 5% water loss requires an additional estimated 40 Gigalitres per year. To put this in perspective, this is approximately 14% of Melbourne's annual water consumption of 300 Gigalitres.

At this point in time it is difficult to estimate the cost of large scale Enhanced Geothermal power. The capital cost of Birdsville-like installations has been estimated to be $7000/KW which implies an electricity cost of 7 cents/KWHr. However this neglects the cost of supplying the top-up water and the much deeper dill holes required to tap the larger and hotter reservoirs. On the other hand economies of scale should be expected as should cost reductions through learning-by-doing as the industry matures and grows.

Hydrogen

Hydrogen is a completely clean fuel but it must be made from some other energy source. As a fuel, Hydrogen has many benefits. It can be consumed in a Fuel Cell to make electricity very efficiently and produces only water as emissions. Three kg of Hydrogen is expected to provide a car a driving range of 400 km. The main difficulty with using hydrogen as a transportation fuel is the ability to cheaply distribute and store it. However great progress is being made in this field. For example in January 2005, General Motors unveiled a concept car with 5 kg of Hydrogen storage capacity and which provided a driving range of 500 km.

At present, the cheapest way to make Hydrogen is via chemical reactions on Natural Gas. Natural Gas delivered via LNG costs about $6.00 per MCU which gives Hydrogen production costs of approximately $2.00 per kg. There is already a substantial world-wide market for hydrogen gas. The main users of Hydrogen are the Petroleum and Chemical Industries. The Petroleum industry uses Hydrogen in refineries and to upgrade Heavy Oil to Petroleum suitable for refining. This latter need is expected to substantially increase the demand for Hydrogen as the production of Heavy Oil ramps up.

Hydrogen can also be made from water via either electricity driven electrolysis or via high temperature catalytic chemical reactions. There are extensive research programs to efficiently produce Hydrogen using Solar, Wind and Nuclear Power.

Conclusions

The supporters of all the energy sources described here have answers to problems ascribed to them. The fossil Fuel advocates are pursuing carbon sequestration projects. The Biomass, Solar and Wind Power advocates claim that costs will continue to diminish with the aid of government subsidies to ramp up production and to support continued research and development. The Nuclear Power industry advertise that their 3rd generation reactors will provide electricity at less than half the cost of the average second generation reactor and be at least 10 times safer. In addition they believe that there are now safe and reliable means to dispose of waste over the long term. Further-more the industry claim that the Fourth Generation reactors will completely burn all the 238U in natural Uranium and/or fully utilize Thorium while generating one tenth to one hundred the waste of present reactors. If perfected, there is sufficient accessible Uranium and Thorium to enable these reactors to provide enough energy to power an advanced civilization for everyone living on Earth for well over 1 million years.

Of all the energy sources discussed here, Nuclear Fission Power is the lowest-cost form of non-greenhouse energy production. The second-generation reactors currently operating at World's best-practice level consistently produce low-cost electricity with no greenhouse gas emissions at high reliability. The French decision to go all-Nuclear has paid-off handsomely and Sweden has the almost the lowest priced electricty in Europe. Furthermore, Denmarks' Greenhouse Gas emissions per capita are substantially greater than both France and Sweden since the Danes use coal power for the majority of their electricity needs even with their commitment to Wind Power.

In the the longer term advanced reactors, fusion-fission hybrids and accelerator driven systems that efficiently use the World's abundant Thorium and Uranium reserves have the capability to power a planet-wide advanced civilization essentially indefinitely. They also have the capability to generate energy from and dispose of the long-lived transuranic waste. However this technology will always require strict safe-guards and independent oversight.

Reducing our need for Energy

According to the Australian Bureau Of Statistics the total energy consumption in Australia has increased by 9% from 1998-99 to 2003-04. Electricity use has increased by 19% in the same period. In this same interval (1998-99 to 2003-04) the population in Australia has increased by about 6% and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) almost by 18%. Therefore the electricity use has increased in line with GDP. It is also interesting to note that in the same interval as above, electricity use per person increased by 11%, however total energy use per person has only increased by approximately 3%.

The table below was constructed using the information in table 17.19 of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book Australia 2006, Energy Use (see the link above).

Period Energy Use Per Person (GJ/person) Electricity Use per Person (GJ/person)
1999-99 258.1 35.7
2003-04 265.8 39.8

The Federal Government's White Paper on Energy Reform outlines that energy efficiency improvements in Australia have occurred more slowly than in other countries (see specifically the summary on energy efficiency and the chapter on energy efficiency). In fact, Australia's energy efficiency has improved at less than half the rate of other countries. Some of the factors that have affected improvement in energy efficiency include low energy prices in Australia, the initial investment required to change to more efficient use of energy, and a lack of information about energy efficiency. For more information download the NFEE Discussion Paper.

Energy Efficiency Opportunities in Australia

Again, the Federal Government's energy reform paper indicates that there is a substantial opportunity for Australia to become more energy efficient. It is estimated that energy usage in the residential sector could be decreased by 13%, in the commercial sector by 10.4% and in the industrial sector by 6.2%. These improvements in energy efficiency could reduce total greenhouse emissions by 10 million tonnes per year.

Cost of Improving Energy Efficiency

The National Framework for Energy Efficiency (NFEE) has released a study on the cost of employing energy efficiency and the energy and economic savings that can be achieved between 2001 and 2012. The study was conducted for the residential sector, the commerical sector and the industrial sector.

The results are graphed below:

The above graphs assume that current technology is used to increase energy efficiency. The information for these graphs can be found in the background report (v4.1 ) by the National Framework for Energy Efficiency, 2003, "Preliminary Assessment of Demand-Side Energy Efficiency Improvement Potential and Costs" in tables A1 and A3 in the Appendix. The study can be downloaded here: NFEE study. It is worth noting that the objective of the study was to provide, in a short time frame, a preliminary estimate of the potential for, and costs of, energy efficiency improvement (EEI), in the residential, commercial and industrial (stationary) energy end-use sectors in Australia. Because of the short time frame, the study was not based on original research, meaning that the EEI potential and cost estimates were based on a range of existing data sources in each energy end-use sector.

The graphs above outlines that a continual investment will need to be made in order to increase energy efficiency. In the residential sector the investment is expected to be paid off due to the saving of energy within ten years and in the commercial and industry sector, it is expected to be paid off within 8 years.

The study also showed how much energy (in joules rather than dollars) can be saved given a certain investment. They used two types of investment. The first investment called, "Low", assumes that only currently available technology is used. The second investment, called "High", assumes that emerging technology is used. Again, the study was conducted for a 12 year period. The results are as follows:

Sector Low Scenario High Scenario
Capital Cost ($M) Energy Saved (PJ) Capital Cost ($M) Energy Saved (PJ)
Residential $13470 855 $58350 1,866
Commercial $6361 425 $23191 850
Industrial $12101 2,163 $44134 4,068
Total $31,932 3,443 $125,675 6,784

Note that in the above table accumulated data has been used. For example, in the commercial sector for the low scenario the investment is the total capital cost over 12 years and the energy saved is the total energy saved over 12 years. The energy saved is in petajoules (PJ): 1 petajoule = 10^15 joules.

The main result from the table is that there is potential to save 3,443 PJ of energy over 12 years using currently available technology. This is equivalent to 9 large, (1 Gigawatt) power plants operating over the full 12 years. The Capital cost of saving this energy is $AUD 3,400 dollars per KiloWatt. By comparison, the capital cost of Nuclear Power plants is projected to be $AUD 2,000 per KiloWatt.

It is worth noting that to really make an impact on the total energy efficiency of the economy will require substantial investments in new equipment and products that replace current working devices. This will require substantial capital investments on the part of a large fraction of the population - the industry, commercial and residential sectors. Australians have been urged to increase energy efficiency for over 20 years. The result of these efforts have been to decrease our rate of energy use growth from 2.6% per year in the 1970's to 2% per year in the 21st century. It appears that strong Government intervention in the form differential taxes to promote energy efficiency would be required to make Australians collectively invest in energy saving equipment and technologies.

Some things to think about

Energy efficiency has a limit. As population rises and the economy grows energy consumption has to increase (as each new person will need food, shelter, light etc). While policies to dramatically increase energy efficiency could work to decrease our energy consumption in the short term, they will also defer new investment in energy generation technology. However, eventually such investments need to be made in order to cope with the growing demand for energy due to population increase.

Of course it is also possible to combine energy efficiency with renewable technology. In this case it may be possible to keep C02 levels low enough and be able to supply society with enough energy until renewable energy technology or completely new energy sources become advanced enough such that they can be the main energy source. In fact this is what is proposed in the Federal Goverment's white paper on Energy Reform. The paper outlines a plan to set up "Solar Cities" for the purpose of studying small communities which will rely heavily on solar power for their energy use. This energy efficiency/renewable energy plan is to encourage research into storage methods for renewables such as solar and wind by providing grants, offer incentives for energy efficiency such as a star system for appliances and subsidise energy efficient devices, force new buildings and large energy users to comply with energy efficiency standards. This situation should be studied thoroughly. The study should include an analysis of the cost to the consumer and ensure that C02 levels can be kept at the required minimum.

In the longer term we will need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels used for transport, to both limit global warming and because of resource exhaustion. Presently Hydrogen appears to be the logical choice for this role. Developing the technology and infrastructure to generate and distribute Hydrogen will require billions of dollars, nevertheless these costs are comparable to those of typical fossil fuel projects.

Issues for Australia

Australia should look squarely at Nuclear Power. Right now we have no Nuclear Power generation facilities at all. There are genuine risks involved in ignoring Nuclear Power.

Our electricity consumption is forecast to rise by 50% over the next 15 years. Meeting this demand will, on average, require bringing 1 GW of generating capacity online every year until 2020. If we do not build this capacity and our demand grows as it has historically we will be faced with blackouts. Meeting this demand with only renewable resources will be very expensive and because of the diffuse distribution of solar and wind energy, will require large amounts of land.

Meeting this demand through Fossil Fuel production will increase our Greenhouse gas emissions at a time when the World community is focused on reducing these. We already produce more Greenhouse Gas per Capita than every other OECD country. Long term CO2 sequestration will increase the cost of Fossil Fuel based power and appears significantly more difficult than geologic disposal of Nuclear Waste. We have traditionally used our low-cost electricity as a competitive advantage for our nation. We may lose this in the future.

If the next generation of nuclear power plants live up to the promises of the Industry, Nuclear Power will be the cheapest form of new electricity production. These will be even cheaper than our current non-sequestered, Coal-Fired base-load generators.

However, if we decide to employ Nuclear Power, we must do it right. There have been many mistakes in the development of nuclear power. These include: unsafe reactor designs, lackadaisical safety awareness, unthoughtful operator training, over-selling of benefits, poor cost control through unstandardised designs, changing regulatory frameworks, poor environmental procedures and ignoring community concerns. Yet where these mistakes have not been made or where they've been corrected, Nuclear Power has provided environmentally clean and cheap electricity. Nuclear Power works if World Best practices are followed.

If Australia pursues Nuclear Power we recommend that:

  • We should take advantage of economies of scale and deploy a significant number of reactors (more than say, six 1 GW reactors) so that the costs of waste disposal and fuel enrichment can be shared.
  • An Australian Nuclear Industry must be pro-active in engaging with the World Community and employ World Best Practice levels of Safety and operations.
  • We would need an independent and pro-active regulatory framework to oversee the operations of a Nuclear Industry.
  • The activities of the Regulators and the Industry must be open to the public and all decisions should be fully transparent.
  • We must invest in research to find and build a suitable site for geologic disposal of waste.
  • We must decide on appropriate means of transporting the waste to the site.

In short, going the Nuclear route would require a significant consensus that this is the best way forward on the part of Australian Society.

Uranium Distributions in the Earths Crust

The following table is from Deffeyes & MacGregor, "World Uranium resources" Scientific American, Vol 242, No 1, January 1980, pp. 66-76.

type of deposit estimated tonnes estimated ppm
Vein deposits 2 x 105 10,000+
Pegmatites, unconformity deposits 2 x 106 2,000-10,000
fossil placers, sand stones 8 x 107 1,000-2,000
lower grade fossil placers,sandstones 1 x 108 200-1,000
volcanic deposits 2 x 109 100-200
black shales 2 x 1010 20-100
shales, phosphates 8 x 1011 10-20
granites 2 x 1012 3-10
average crust 3 x 1013 1-3
evaporites, siliceous ooze, chert 6 x 1012 .2-1
oceanic igneous crust 8 x 1011 .1-.2
ocean water 2 x 1010 .0002-.001
fresh water 2 x 106 .0001-.001

The total abundance of Uranium in the Earth's crust is estimated to be approximately 40 trillian tonnes. The Rossing mine in Nambia mines Uranium at an Ore concentration of 300 ppm at an energy cost 500 times less than the energy it delivers with current thermal-spectrum reactors. If the energy cost increases in inverse proportion to the Ore concentration, shales and phosphates, with a Uranium abundance of 10 - 20 ppm, could be mined with an energy gain of 16 - 32. The total amount of Uranium in these rocks is estimated to be 8000 times greater than the deposits currently being exploited.

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