Wednesday, July 4, 2012

18. Energy Independence Day, via Nuclear Power

Today is July 4th, 2012, a day better known as Independence Day for those of us in the U.S.A. (Happy 236th, America!), not to be confused with the classic Will Smith film.

Aside: I missed a great opportunity to complete dork out and tie last year's 235th birthday of America in somehow with the only naturally-occurring fissile isotope being Uranium-235. So sad. /End Aside

               This                                                            This            

America's Independence Day celebrates America declaring independence from England with the July 4, 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence and becoming a sovereign nation. Being recognized as a nation did not happen overnight, of course, as the American Revolutionary War was waged up until 1782 and the Treaties of Paris and Versailles were signed on September 3, 1783 (I need to research whether that date relates to the celebration of Labor Day in America.).  Dan Yurman actually took a break from blogging about nuclear things and instead posted relating to this holiday at his blog Idaho Samizdat.

In keeping with (or really still only starting) a tradition, I thought I would publish a post today that is at least somewhat holiday-themed, like I did prior to beginning my own blog as a guest author on MLK, Jr. day over at Atomic Insights and like on Memorial Day here at Entreprenuclear. I'll try to continue beginning the tradition with this post.

Energy Independence has been lauded as a goal since probably long before my birth. Independence from the volatility of the global crude oil market was the main factor that sparked France to convert their electricity supply to mostly nuclear (80-ish%) in the mid-1970's.  For a really quick look at how that has turned out price-wise for French electricity consumers, look at the chart in this link from World Nuclear News.  As mentioned in Sunday's posting, electricity (as well as other forms of dispatchable, non-human-powered energy) is a vital need once people become used to using it.  Depending too much on outside nations to supply the primary sources of that vital energy can get otherwise sovereign nation's into sticky situations.  Energy really is the Master Resource/the Ultimate Resource.  

With sufficient energy, other resources are attainable, whether via trade or recycling of other materials or some other means.  Julian Simon's theory of basically unconstrained resources that I linked in the above paragraph could actually become nearly practical if Peaceful Nuclear Energy is allowed and encouraged to reach its full potential in the future.

A Few Recent Energy Independence/Nuclear Case Studies

Germany is currently on the verge of increasing their reliance on Russia to provide their energy (via the Nordstream pipeline through the Baltic Sea).  Time will tell how wise this combination of moves to shut down their nuclear fleet (by 2022) and rely more on Russian natural gas will turn out, but my guess is not well.  Already, an aluminum producer (see: energy-intensive industry) has been unable to survive with Germany's recent availability of economic energy.  Also, within the past few days, it has been announced that an Airbus assembly facility is being placed in Alabama, a state which just happens to have rather low electricity rates, and guess what, FIVE nuclear power plants that are major contributing factors to those low rates (3 Units at Browns Ferry and 2 Units at Farley).  
Aside: I happened to ride in an Airbus plane twice within the past week, and it was a nice experience.  /End Aside

How does nuclear power relate so directly to energy independence?  That is a good question, glad you asked.  Nuclear fuel is extremely energy dense in comparison to any other useful fuels, with about ten million times as much energy released per fissioned atom as per combusted hydrocarbon molecule (link here).  From this superior energy density, it is possible to only need new fuel shipments once every 18-24 months for present plants and for those shipments to fit on just a handful of trucks. Those capabilities provide a significant level of independence.

Additionally, many countries within the world have more than adequate supplies of either fissile or fertile materials that will someday be suitable as reactor fuel at least in Gen IV reactors, if not suitable for the commercially operating reactors of today.  I dare say that any nation in the world that acts with civility in international matters and makes the necessary capital investment in building Peaceful Nuclear Power Plants will have zero issues with obtaining adequate supplies of nuclear reactor fuels at an economic price so long as they maintain their manner of sufficient civility, regardless of the level of thorium and/or uranium that those nations were blessed with.  Once Generation IV reactors are ready for widespread deployment, nuclear fuels will not be a constrained resource for quite some time.

For several specific examples of countries that are developing their nuclear industries the right way, let's consider the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabian plans to build fleets of nuclear reactors.  These countries have made this decision to give themselves the independence to not rely solely on their bequeathments of fossil fuels to provide electrical power for their nations.  This will give those countries the opportunity to sell some (or all) of the hydrocarbons that they would have otherwise burned to generate electricity on the potentially very lucrative international markets.  As the article I linked relating to Saudi Arabia mentioned, "why burn domestic crude that can be bought for $4.50/barrel when you could sell it on the open market for $125/barrel" (which was about what the price was when the article was written).  The decision by these countries has been a wise one, and will pay off for them throughout the 60-80 year lifetimes for the plants that they will soon commence building.

While I am sure Iranians would argue that these nations have foregone a degree of independence by not developing indigenous enrichment capabilities, the security of availability of reasonably-priced nuclear fuels for Saudi Arabia and the UAE will never be in doubt so long as those countries continue to act as grown ups in the international political arena.

From where I am sitting, Peaceful Nuclear Energy is by far the only feasible path to long-term Energy Independence for any nation.  Getting to that point of true, sustainable Energy Independence does, and will continue to, require that a nation acts with civility on the world's stage.

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