(Photo credit: RaeA)
I was reading an analysis at the Oil Drum about nuclear power use and scaling in France. As usual on TOD, the comments are brimming with insight and impassioned discourse. As a rebuttal to the modest conclusion of the article, one commenter linked to UIC Nuclear Issues Briefing Paper # 75, entitled Supply of Uranium. It looked like the start of a fine analysis, but then alarm bells sounded.
(Before I dive into details I just want to say that, based on my current understanding, I think fission should be much more widely employed as a power source than we have seen to date. But I firmly claim that I am neither a nutty nuclear zealot nor an anti-nuke hippie :P)
Now, as an appetizer to the main rant, let me start with this passage:
Changes in costs or prices […] may alter measured resource figures markedly. At ten times the current price, seawater might become a potential source of vast amounts of uranium.
There’s nothing terribly wrong there, but when the viability of producing an energy resource is measured in “cost”, that’s a danger sign. Instead, (or in addition), I prefer to see some consideration given to Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI). Stated simply, EROEI is the net energy returned from an operation, rather than the net profit/loss. The reason this is important is that the P/L can be misleading in the short term– fortunes can be made while performing operations that make no sense in terms of energy production.
Looking at the EROEI instead gives an indication of the long term viability of an energy operation. At “ten times the cost” to extract, how much energy is being put into the endeavor? Are we still going to turn an energy-profit in the end and come out ahead? If not, then we’ve just converted some amount of energy (x) into some amount less than (x), which on its face seems a bit wasteful.
There are a lot of important details I’m omitting. Sometimes it makes sense to do a net-negative energy conversion, if for example your output energy is in a more useful form. There are also a lot more inputs to consider than the cost of pulling uranium out of the ground (e.g. cost of scaling out plants, keeping radioactive waste from creating a generation of atomic supermen, etc.) Here’s one essay at TOD addressing “peak uranium”, but on all fronts there’s plenty of contention. Even though I have done a very loose treatment of this issue, I hope it is sufficient to show that EROEI is a calculation that merits consideration.
What piqued my interest was not in the above passage, however, but the following (my emphasis):
From time to time concerns are raised that the known resources might be insufficient when judged as a multiple of present rate of use. But this is the Limits to Growth fallacy, a major intellectual blunder recycled from the 1970s, which takes no account of the very limited nature of the knowledge we have at any time of what is actually in the Earth’s crust. Our knowledge of geology is such that we can be confident that identified resources of metal minerals are a small fraction of what is there.
“A logical fallacy regarding growth?”, I thought. “Hot dog, I’m hooked!” I immediately tabbed out to google to learn all I could, only to find that there’s no such fallacy. This was certainly a bit deflating, but also reassuring in a significant sense: if logic supports boundless growth then it would come into conflict with Physics; a situation that can only end paradoxically.
After reading the rest of the relevant passages and the Appendix that expands on them, I came to understand that the author didn’t precisely mean there was a logical fallacy at play, but rather to malign the work Limits to Growth (and to be fashionable, the even-more-oft-maligned work of Malthus).
Neither work’s specific predictions about imminent doom came to pass; a fact that this author then leverages to refute all limited-growth hypotheses. But this is a fallacy of faulty generalization. It’s true that we didn’t run out of energy in the past, but not necessarily because a limit doesn’t exist. COR and Malthus’ predicted limits were incorrect– practically usable energy reserves often get revised upward due to new data, new technology, and new resource types becoming practical. So far, we have always found ways to bump up the limit faster than we have burned through it. Logically speaking, though, those past events make no prediction about whether this will continue to be the case. (Thermodynamically speaking, it cannot forever remain the case)
The paper’s author claims there is enough uranium in the crust and the ocean that we will always have bunches available, which is very likely true. However the paper refers to availability as the amount existing on earth, but then equivocates it to mean the amount practically recoverable by us, two very different things.
Scarcity of cheap uranium will indeed lead to higher prices, but not in an unbounded fashion. Once the real value that can be derived from the stuff is less than the market price, you’ve hit your limit to growth. Where is that limit? This is what I chiefly want to learn. It depends on a staggering number of factors, but it’s frankly idiotic to claim that something can’t occur simply because it has not yet done so.
Aside: I wonder if I can get DepletedCranium‘s input on this. He has a demonstrated facility for debunking the alleged feasibility of many kinds of green energy, and he’s also all about the nuclear. Perfect combo IMO for this issue.