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Unlike other fuels, the Opportunity Cost of using Uranium for Electricity Generation is Negligible
[Michael Natelson Ph.D. is a Nuclear Engineer and a member of Ideal Tax Association's Board of Directors]
As a result of the tragic events in Japan much has been written and broadcast concerning the future of nuclear power. Scenarios have ranged from modest delays in deployment of new plants to forgoing in time the nuclear option entirely. Many of the benefits and costs/risks have been discussed, but a key grand scale motivation for pursuing nuclear energy from fission reactors is omitted. Uranium, and ultimately Thorium, fueling reactors could supply the bulk of humanity’s electrical energy needs for several thousand years. This is possible because these elements are abundant in the earth’s crust, and the reactor technology to exploit them has progressed to an industrial scale and continues to improve.
The “motivation” I refer to above, however, is based on the fact that Uranium and Thorium have negligible substitution-value. They have no other significant economic application.
This is not true for other sources of electrical energy. Obviously, coal, oil and natural gas are excellent chemical feed stocks. It is already clear that it makes no sense to burn oil to generate electricity. It is much more valuable as an energy source for transportation. Burning gas in combined cycle turbine generators with thermal efficiencies of~60% is attractive at today’s gas prices, but with modern home heating furnaces at better than 90% efficient this use might be a better choice if we are to burn this finite resource.
One can also think about “substitution-value” as applied to the resources needed for electrical energy generation from “renewable” sources. The land needed per Watt for solar, biomass and wind farms could have other uses. It should be remembered, that the specific energy release from fission is many orders of magnitude larger than from chemical, mechanical or photoelectric processes (for example: O2 + C = CO2 yields 4.1 electron volts (ev) of energy, fission of a Uranium nucleus yields ~200 million electron volts), and thus it is not surprising that the resources besides Uranium, and some day Thorium, that a nuclear power plant requires (land, water, machinery etc), which do have substitution-value, are modest compared to other electrical energy sources.
Our immediate thoughts are with those peoples, the Japanese and Haitians, dealing with massive natural catastrophes. As the four damaged Daiichi reactors are prepared for remediation, the worlds nuclear community will, I am sure, determine significant “lessons learned”, as with Three Mile Island. In the present case the comparison with the similar plants at Daini (4 units) and Onagawa(3 units), which also experienced the direct impact of the quake and tsunami and successfully shut down, will be particularly instructive. The safety record and operational efficiency of nuclear power is outstanding, but opportunities for improvement will continue to be sought, certainly from this event.
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