Several years ago I gave a lecture on oil in Paris, and everything went well until I put in a good word for nuclear energy. That was when the scowls appeared, even though France is the most nuclear intensive country in the world.
When lecturing on oil, and the business of the peak comes up, I immediately turn to the production history of that commodity in the United States, because if the production history of oil in the United States is thoroughly understood, then further elucidation on the scarcity of the most important commodity in the world is a waste of time.
The Problems with Nuclear energy
The pedagogical problems encountered with nuclear are more complicated, but not as complicated as some observers think. In dealing with that subject, it is useful to turn to Sweden. The first oil price shock evidently resulted in something approximating a panic among politicians, industrialists and various decision makers, which in turn led to instructions being given at the highest governmental level to completely reconfigure electric generation in the Land of the Midnight Sun, and to do so as rapidly as possible.
Once manufacturing facilities became available, twelve reactors were produced in just thirteen years, and eventually those reactors provided just under 50 percent of Swedish electric generating capacity – in megawatts (e) – but more than 50 percent of energy (i.e. megawatt-hours).
This is what I call the most important observation about nuclear: the optimality of a mass production of reactors. The construction of the Swedish nuclear sector was a remarkable achievement that was hardly noticed when it took place, and might be out of the question now.
It would be out of the question because the enterprise that produced those reactors (ASEA) has essentially been outsourced, but even if ASEA were operating today at full capacity in the charming city of Västerås, it is unlikely that the Swedish government or energy bureaucracy or anti-nuclear booster club, or maybe even the electorate would welcome an activity of that nature on Swedish soil.
However the conclusion must be that in any part of the world in which a nuclear renaissance has been authorized to take place, then reactors should be constructed in factories rather than being ‘custom made’, as is the case with the new reactor in Finland. By my calculations this might have increased the cost of that new Finnish facility by three billion (US) dollars.
In examining complaints about nuclear, two grievances often surface. These are the reputed subsidies accorded nuclear power, and the disposal of nuclear ‘waste’. I believe and constantly argue that taxpayers as a group have not paid a penny in subsidies in Sweden.
What happened instead is that the expansion of the energy intensive industrial and small business sectors, which were facilitated by the presence of large amounts of reliable and comparatively inexpensive nuclear power, resulted in the taxpayer expenditures required to finance these reactors being more than fully repaid. Employment also expanded more than otherwise would have been the case, and the same is true of welfare (in the form of health care and education). Until the liquidation of two Swedish reactors, and a subsequent foolish ‘liberalization’, the cost of electricity in this country was among the lowest in the world, and often the lowest – as low as that of Norway, where ‘hydro’ supplies about ninety-five percent of the electric power. As compared to the situation at the present time, the price was also very low.
In considering the second annoyance, it needs to be understood that what is today regarded as nuclear waste will someday be regarded as fuel, and valued accordingly.
This happens to be a certainty, although it can hardly be emphasized by politicians who prefer to endear themselves to their constituents. I do not spend enough time in France to be ‘au courant’ with the present nuclear plans of the French government, but I do know that some of their nuclear ‘waste’ is being stored in a manner where it can immediately be retrieved and turned into conventional – or almost conventional – reactor fuel if that becomes necessary. In addition, in quantity and quality, security arrangements associated with these materials are probably far superior to those employed in most of the other ‘nuclear powers’. This is especially true of e.g. Sweden, which is a country where highly efficient nuclear security might be regarded as an affront to the dignity of persons who desire to transfer those materials from official or corporate stockpiles to their personal storage facilities.
As I understand the situation, instruction in nuclear subjects has recommenced at the University of Technology in Stockholm. This is a notable step forward, because at one time it was against the law to carry out any sort of nuclear research in Sweden.
Recently I was told that the European Economic Union is gearing up to sponsor a large scale research project whose goal is the construction of a Generation 4 reactor. (The reactor in Finland, and a similar one in France, is classified Generation 3, whose principal advantage is that a melt-down is impossible.) Expectations are that it will take several decades before full scale ‘Gen 4’ reactors are in operation, however I prefer to believe that this could be done about or before the end of the present decade, particularly if the political will that characterized the construction of the present Swedish nuclear inventory was displayed.
Even with the nuclear ‘thaw’, we hardly ever hear any talk anywhere about Gen 4 equipment, but if we stick to energy production and the efficiencies that might be realized, it could mean crossing a technological frontier that bestowed immense economic advantages on the countries that initially deployed these reactors.
By Ferdinand E. Banks for OilPrice.com