Home > Environment > Uranium exports: bonanza or bust?

Uranium exports: bonanza or bust?

February 23rd, 2013

Note: The usual sitewide ban on discussions of nuclear power is lifted, for this post only

Queensland’s ban on uranium mining was lifted last year, and a committee is due to report soon on the conditions under which mining might be restarted. As recently as a year ago, the prospects for uranium exports looked bright, despite the Fukushima disaster. In March last year, the Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics predicted “prices close to $100 a pound between now and 2015, rising to $124 in 2016 and $141.6 in 2017, in constant 2011-12 Australian dollars.”

In reality, however, the price has fallen to $US43/pound in early 2013 and looks set to decline further. Looking ahead, the future of nuclear power looks bleaker than at any time since the industry began. That’s bad news for the global climate – cheap and safe nuclear power would be the ideal replacement for coal if it could be delivered – but there is no benefit in denying reality

It’s now clear that the “nuclear renaissance” is dead in the US. There are four plants currently under construction, behind time and over budget as usual. No more are planned, and with two plants already closing, it seems clear that nuclear power capacity is going to decline. It’s fashionable to blame cheap gas for this, but that hasn’t stopped huge growth in wind and solar, neither of which is as heavily subsidized as nuclear. It’s even more silly to blame the opponents of nuclear power, who have been both quiet and politically marginal in the US, as is evidence by the bipartisan support for nuclear loan guarantees.[1]

The situation in Europe, and of course in Japan, is even worse. Again, and despite the absence of cheap gas, the economics simply don’t stack up. George Monbiot, who famously became an advocate of nuclear power *after* Fukushima, has reluctantly concluded that “for now, the facts are against me”.

The great hope for the future of nuclear power is, of course, China[2]. Given its rapid growth, China is in a position to place a bet on every horse in the energy race, including nuclear. But, while its plans for renewables have been steadily upgraded, China’s nuclear plans were scaled back substantially after Fukushima.

It seems likely that, with higher safety standards, the Chinese nuclear program (until now characterized by on-time and on-budget delivery, but probably with compromised safety) will start to experience construction costs and delays comparable to those that have been the uniform experience of the developed world. If not, there is still a chance for nuclear power in the future. But the establishment of a track record of safe construction and operation in China will take at least a decade, which means that any global renaissance won’t start delivering benefits until after 2030.

Most of these negative outcomes could have been, and were, predicted on the basis of 20th century experience with nuclear power. In this context, it’s striking that rightwingers who want to excuse anti-science attitudes on their side so often point to the anti-nuclear stance of many (not all) on the left as an example of leftwing anti-science.

The opponents of nuclear power have been proved right on the big question of whether cheap, safe and clean nuclear power can be delivered in developed countries. Perhaps some were right for the wrong reasons. But on this issue, as on so many others, the clearest examples of magical (and therefore anti-scientific) thinking are found among those rightwingers who continue to insist, against all the evidence, that nuclear power represents an obvious solution to our problems, and that the only obstacle to its success is the unreasonable opposition of environmentalist.

Coming back to the original quesiont, the price of uranium boomed in the early 2000s, after supplies derived from nuclear stockpiles were exhausted. But the current decline looks set to continue for a long time. Unless new mines are profitable at prices of $40/tonne or less, they will probably be uneconomic.

fn1. Of course, news like this doesn’t help (H/T David Adamson).

fn2. BREE also mentions India and Russia. But given the long history of lax construction standards in both countries (a problem China is at least addressing), it seems unlikely that either of these countries will serve as a model, or that they can manage a rapid expansion without another disaster, perhaps not on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima, but enough to derail the whole process.

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  1. Chris Warren
    February 23rd, 2013 at 19:13 | #1

    …cheap and safe nuclear power would be the ideal replacement for coal if it could be delivered

    What nuclear power, uranium, plutonium, thorium, fusion, fission ????

    The word “nuclear” is just a code word “monopoly”.

  2. Hermit
    February 23rd, 2013 at 20:28 | #2

    Quite a few arguable contentions here. First of all wind and solar will do OK when they are mandated to help make up 20% of the generation mix, aided by feed-in tariffs and renewable energy certificates (STC, LGC) and backed by a penalty, the shortfall charge. True nuclear has had a lot of public money in the US but much of that was for military applications. Despite all this generous help in Australia hydro built in the mid 20th century still makes up about two thirds of our renewable megawatt hours. Hope they don’t get a black mark for public funding back then because they get no LGCs now.

    If wind and solar are the future how come world emissions are still increasing? Energy from burning fossil fuels makes up about 75% of world supply. We want to make that say just 20% by 2050. Simple extrapolation says wind and solar won’t do it given we’ve already done the easy yards and it gets harder from now on. High energy bills sees thousands of people being disconnected for non payment not just here but Germany with its high feed-in tariffs and renewables targets. If the Germans can’t afford high renewables targets I doubt others can. Note the Germans plan to retire 8 GW of old coal power and replace it with 6 GW of new coal power, hardly green more like obsessively anti-nuclear.

    There must be something about fossil fuels that makes them irresistably attractive, like compactness and reliability. You have the energy when you want it regardless of weather or time of day. That’s what we need to replace, say with hamsters on treadmills.

  3. Jim Rose
    February 23rd, 2013 at 21:01 | #3

    U.S. and UK law limit the civil liability of nuclear power stations in case of accidents to a couple hundred million. Other countries except perhaps Germany have similar laws.

    Without this subsidy, the industry may not be viable.

    The other way around liability is for regulators to permit construction as long as a certain amount of insurance is in place. After this, bankruptcy is an implicit liability cap.

    There is an international treaty that seems to approve of such liability caps.

  4. February 23rd, 2013 at 21:07 | #4

    The two alternatives being held as the key for a nuclear future offer no comfort for the uranium mining industry. Thorium based nuclear doesn’t use uranium and gen 4 makes much more efficient use of uranium.
    Restarting uranium mining in Qld makes about as much sense as starting new coal mines.

  5. Ikonoclast
    February 23rd, 2013 at 21:18 | #5

    The article was headlined, “Global uranium demand expected to skyrocket.”

    Surely, they missed a big journalese headline opportunity there! How about? …

    “Global uranium demand expected to mushroom!”

    Boom, boom!

    Actually, renewable power can supply energy 24/7 but no matter how many times it is explained the naysayers just won’t hear the evidence.

    1. Thermal convection towers can produce power 24/7.
    2. Concentrating solar power with molten salt energy storage can produce power 24/7.
    3. Networked wind power can produce power 24/7 (it’s always windy somehwhere).
    4. Renewable power with hydro pump back storage and regeneration can produce power 24/7.
    5. Solar hot water heaters can supply hot water 24/7 using heat storage.*

    The list goes on and on.

    * Note: An objection will be raised that solar hot water systems need electrical or gas backup boost for cloudy days. Actually, there are solutions to this but currently it is still more economic to have electrical or backup boost. The main reason solar hot water systems need backup in winter in a place like Qld is that they are deliberately made underpowered in the solar sense so they don’t boil off like crazy in summer. This leaves them underpowered in winter. Other solutions are possible. For example extra evacuated tubes could be available in situ to be auto switched-in in winter and switched out in summer. Or the extra heat produced in summer could be bled off by a heat engine arrangement and that energy applied to other energy needs. A Stirling heat engine comes to mind generating some of the power needed (wanted) to run the air-con.

    End of note.

    We really haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of how clever a self-powered house could be. It is pretty clear that soon entire house roofs and windows will be able to generate solar power. The main problem then would be that the suburbs would be making far more power than they needed by day. My house makes about double the power it needs for a family of four by utilising about half of its north facing roof area.

    Storage issues will not be a big deal. There are plenty of ways to share energy loads across large grids and even store energy and reconvert it to electrical energy or other required energy forms later.

    Energy storage is accomplished by devices or physical media that store energy to perform useful operation at a later time. A device that stores energy is sometimes called an accumulator.

    “All forms of energy are either potential energy (e.g. Chemical, gravitational, electrical energy, etc.) or kinetic energy (e.g. thermal energy).” – Wikipedia.

    Storage methods (again from Wikipedia)

    “Chemical

    Hydrogen
    Biofuels
    Liquid nitrogen
    Hydrogen peroxide
    Vanadium pentoxide

    Biological

    Starch
    Glycogen

    Electrochemical

    Batteries
    Flow batteries

    Electrical

    Capacitor
    Supercapacitor
    Superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES)

    Mechanical

    Compressed air energy storage (CAES)
    Flywheel energy storage
    Hydraulic accumulator
    Hydroelectric energy storage
    Spring
    Gravitational potential energy (device)

    Thermal

    Ice Storage
    Molten salt
    Cryogenic liquid air or nitrogen
    Seasonal thermal store
    Solar pond
    Hot bricks
    Steam accumulator.”

    It is clear IMO that that we can use any or all of these methods to integrate and supply renewable power 24/7. The engineering challenges will still be about a magnitude (10 times) easier than nuclear fission engineering and about 100 to 1000 times easier than fusion engineering (if it ever comes to pass).

  6. TerjeP
    February 23rd, 2013 at 22:30 | #6

    It makes sense to lift the ban on uranium mining irrespective of whether the economics currently stacks up. The later is an investment question best answered by investors.

  7. rog
    February 24th, 2013 at 04:32 | #7

    The problem with burying nuclear waste is that as science progresses new data makes previous assumptions invalid.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yucca_Mountain_nuclear_waste_repository#Earthquakes

  8. rog
    February 24th, 2013 at 04:33 | #8

    @TerjeP The problem with that theory is that investors do not always make the best decisions.

  9. Hermit
    February 24th, 2013 at 06:09 | #9

    The decline in the U3O8 price must have been greatly influenced by the mothballing of most Japanese reactors after Fukushima. In the US the shale gas boom from fracking has led to gas prices as low as $2 per GJ compared to around $5 here. New US dispatchable power is therefore gas fired. The Japanese are paying $15 per GJ for LNG giving them a huge trade deficit. The fear is that once LNG is exported from Gladstone then the east Australian gas price will have to match that.

    Fears of gas price escalation must be a key reason why the planned buyout failed of Yallourn and Hazelwood brown coal fired power stations. Carbon tax is not enough to overcome the price disadvantage of gas compared to coal. If the big coal baseload plants were replaced by nukes the effect on emissions would be dramatic. In the case of the 1600 MW Hazelwood some 14 Mt a year of CO2 would go to virtually nil. Electricity demand is flatlining in Australia no doubt due to bill shock and loss of manufacturing eg Kurri Kurri smelter. Even if that gets us 10% CO2 reduction we eventually want 80%.

  10. jrkrideau
    February 24th, 2013 at 06:16 | #10

    @rog

    Heresy. I’m telling Chicago on you.

  11. John Quiggin
    February 24th, 2013 at 06:39 | #11

    @TerjeP I’ve never supported bans on uranium mining, at least not since it became evident, after Three Mile Island, that nuclear power wasn’t going to grow rapidly regardless of what we did with uranium, and that concerns about nuclear weapon proliferation needed to be addressed more directly

    http://johnquiggin.com/2007/04/28/end-of-the-three-mines-policy/

    But, I’m happy to give free advice on the subject, both to potential investors and to governments that may be tempted to promote the industry in various ways.

    @Hermit As regards the US, I wasn’t referring to past subsidies but to current ones – loan guarantees, cost-plus regulation and the liability cap. The current and contingent cost of these subsidies greatly outweighs those for renewables.

    And, while world emissions are increasing, emissions are falling in most developed countries. To turn your argument around, if nuclear is the answer, why is most of the world’s emissions growth in China, the one country that is expanding nuclear power on a significant scale?

  12. John Quiggin
    February 24th, 2013 at 06:40 | #12

    @Hermit
    The BREE report I’m criticising was published a year *after* Fukushima.

  13. Chris Warren
    February 24th, 2013 at 07:13 | #13

    TerjeP :
    It makes sense to lift the ban on uranium mining irrespective of whether the economics currently stacks up. The later is an investment question best answered by investors.

    Completely ignoring social, moral, environmental and safety issues.

    Are you a capitalist?

  14. Ikonoclast
    February 24th, 2013 at 08:30 | #14

    @John Quiggin

    World emissions are indeed increasing rapidly and at an accelerating pace. What the West doesn’t use in the way of fossil fuels China, India and others are burning in spades. Essentially the West’s decline in use of fossil fuels is not due (unfortunately) to good energy policy but simply due to the fact that China and India are starting to out-compete us for fossil fuels.

    I am really not sure how this global problem can be addressed. We seem on target for 4 degrees to 6 degrees C of global warming. The collapse of the global economy is probably the only thing that can save us from severe global warming. Of course, the collapse of the global economy brings in its train other problems and widespread deaths of people in any case.

    I think we are “on target”, tragically enough, for certain regions to collapse quite soon historically speaking. I would expect many of the top twenty states on the failed states watch list to fail within the next ten years. Central and Northern Africa and the M.E. and Pakistan will fail regionally within 10 to 20 years IMO. Interminable civil wars, starvation, population decline and collapse of state apparatus into warlordism and anarchy will be the trajectory of these regions. In the next 50 years this will spread to most of the world.

    Top twenty on current watch list:

    Somalia
    Democratic Republic of the Congo
    Sudan
    Chad
    Zimbabwe
    Afghanistan
    Haiti
    Yemen
    Iraq
    Central African Republic
    Ivory Coast
    Guinea
    Pakistan
    Nigeria
    Guinea-Bissau
    Kenya
    Ethiopia
    Burundi
    Niger
    Uganda

  15. Jim Rose
    February 24th, 2013 at 08:37 | #15

    it would be interesting to know what the price of uranium would be net of the liability subsidy.

    The union of concerned scientists have written on the matter.

    That report freezes my computer when I open it. Can’t download it after the most recent update of acrobat reader because it gets an HTML link and the file on Google. The previous update of acrobat reader (v. 11) in 2012 irretrievably corrupted my flash player and stops me playing downloads from youtube.

  16. Ken Fabian
    February 24th, 2013 at 09:27 | #16

    Nuclear is severely inhibited by global reluctance to face the climate problem head on. Likewise renewables of course. But for nuclear the ongoing political alignment with parties and politics that are opposed to environmental regulation in general and action on climate in particular means it lacks the strength of support within mainstream politics as the choice to reduce emissions. That might change if those political ‘allies’ and ‘backers’ of nuclear saw the climate problem as more important than the long term viability of fossil fuel extraction. They haven’t so far and by the look of it they are so confident of the political popularity of that stance that they are likely to wind back the little bit of climate policy that’s made it through a hostile political system. Even if nuclear is not something directly opposed, it’s not something that is pushed forward like the future depends on it. Whereas defending the fossil fuel juggernaut – that IS treated as something the future depends on.

    I think that global reluctance to address – or even concede the seriousness of – the climate problem feeds on itself. America won’t face up to it and that unwillingness of the ‘world leader’ to lead is followed around the world. Commerce and industry everywhere finds it has little option except to work to prevent the perceived burden of costs and regulation that action on emissions entails, because the most advanced industrial economy would use the unilateral actions of other nations to create an unfair advantage.

    Nuclear isn’t the only potential solution that suffers – all solutions do – but 30 years of opposition to action by the same mainstream political groupings that claim to be nuclear’s friends and advocates meant 30 years of genuine promotion was stolen from nuclear.

  17. frankis
    February 24th, 2013 at 10:21 | #17

    As regards Monbiot I think he’s represented his own position poorly in those words “for now, the facts are against me”. These are not the facts of the case for nuclear, rather the “facts” of the current prospects for its economic model in the UK. He writes “There’s no point in assembling clunky third-generation power stations if fourth-generation technologies are cheaper and easier to build.”

    I think his feelings are indicated in his claim that what is popularly known today as Britain’s nuclear waste problem is actually a low-carbon energy source that could fuel the country for 500 years.

  18. Ikonoclast
    February 24th, 2013 at 10:49 | #18

    Hmm, I am in moderation, for what I know not.

    World emissions are indeed increasing rapidly and at an ever accelerating pace. What the West doesn’t use in the way of fossil fuels China, India and others are burning up even quicker. Essentially the West’s decline in use of fossil fuels is not due (unfortunately) to good energy policy but simply due to the fact that China and India are starting to out-compete us for fossil fuels. I am really not sure how this global warming problem can be addressed and beaten from where we are now. It’s probably a thermodynamic impossibility. We seem on target for 4 degrees to 6 degrees C of global warming.

    Nuclear might be a stepping stone to a solution but that is all. Nuclear fission fuels are also limited, more limited than people think. Five hundred years fuel supply is a phurphy (an untruth or myth). It’s more like 50 years supply if it became our energy mainstay.

    Renwables would have worked if we started on them properly say 30 years ago. It’s too late now to stop substantial, even civilization wrecking, AGW.

  19. Fran Barlow
    February 24th, 2013 at 11:15 | #19

    Speaking as someone who has long felt the kind of interest in nuclear power as PrQ espouses above: cheap and safe nuclear power would be the ideal replacement for coal if it could be delivered I find little to dispute in his discussion.

    Politically, nuclear power is not going to be popular anywahere for at least a decade and the long lead times we are now seeing for plant development don’t suggest that it will play the kind of role many of us hoped it could play in the medium term — replacing coal and gas. If any jurisdiction can make cheap, safe nuclear power a reality it will be China, and if it fails there I suppose we can consign the whole notion to the basket containing all those things that seemed as if they ought to have worked but never did.

    For the record, I don’t agree with swingeing bans on uranium mining. It might well be that there are places where it would be ill-advised on ecological footprint grounds, and so I’d like a good evidence-based system for evaluating these questions, management of tailings and so forth, but that aside, in principle, it ought to be possible to mine. For the reasons the professor has noted, I don’t agree it will be a significant positive factor in any company’s balance sheet. I wouldn’t like to see sweetheart deals with state or federal governments of course.

    I’d say the same for new coal.

  20. Katz
    February 24th, 2013 at 11:20 | #20

    TerjeP :
    It makes sense to lift the ban on uranium mining irrespective of whether the economics currently stacks up. The later is an investment question best answered by investors.

    But investors in both nuclear power generation companies and in insurance companies have already decided that it is uneconomic to insure the risks associated with nuclear power generation.

    From a commercial viewpoint, therefore, it is Game Over for nuclear power generation.

  21. Ikonoclast
    February 24th, 2013 at 12:24 | #21

    @Fran Barlow

    We are suicidally insane if we export uranium to China and India. They will make nuclear weapons with them. Or they will use the domestic uranium it frees up to make nuclear weapons. Either way uranium exports to China and India = more nuclear weapons for China and India = more nuclear weapons proliferation in general.

    In fact, given the realpolitik fact that we are in the US orbit and are US allies, our stance ought to be no energy exports and no mineral exports of any kind to all rivals for the remaining limited resources of the planet. Currently, we are simply giving China a leg up to conquer us. It’s madness. Anyone who thinks that that isn’t China’s plan is naive about geopolitics and geostrategy. All great powers seek hegemony. China is no different.

    The US economic “strategy” to allow all of its manufactures to move to China is also suicidal. I wonder when they will wise up? Geostrategy and grand strategy require manufacturing supremacy and technological supremacy for its base.

  22. Hermit
    February 24th, 2013 at 12:35 | #22

    @John Quiggin
    This issue of subsidies is a vexing one. Are we subsidising China sending them coal that will never face $23 carbon tax? To my knowledge the only US energy industry default causing a loan guarantee to be invoked was solar firm Solyndra who were covered for $535m then went bankrupt. See the Wiki article. If the guarantee gets a bigger bank loan say 2% cheaper over 20 years that is quite a help.

    I gather the first SMR (mini nuke) the mPower likely to go on sale circa 2020 may cost $0.9bn for 180 MW or $5/w*. Until recently they could find even more billions for new fossil plants without loan guarantees.

    *Ah ha PV is down to $2/w some will say. I suggest capacity levelling by dividing by capacity factors 0.16 for PV and 0.9 for nuclear. That gives $13 rounded for PV and $6 for nuclear.

  23. Fran Barlow
    February 24th, 2013 at 12:44 | #23

    @Ikonoclast

    They will make nuclear weapons with {uranium oxide exported to China and India}.

    Let me be clear. I’d strongly prefer that nobody built nuclear weapons. That goes for all the nuclear weapons countries — Pakistan, North Korea, the UK, Russia, France, India, the US, Israel …

    That said, it doesn’t take much uranium to build a nuclear weapon. There’s plenty enough warheads from existing weapons lying about to refashion them even if there were no further stocks of nuclear waste or mined uranium oxide. One can extract uranium from seawater, if one is really keen. That it costs a bit more to do so is neither here nor there because nuclear weapons are not commercial products. Whether Australia exports uranium to China and India or exports to the US who then exports to China and India is also moot. It won’t and can’t affect the weapons programs of either country, which, like the Japanese and whaling, are carried on for largely existential reasons.

    I also don’t share your implicit view that China wants to conquer “us”. It seems to me that the governing elite there has pretty much everything it could possibly want right now. Adding colonial possessions would be expensive and administratively complex and disruptive. The Chinese government have paid attention to what happens to empires. They have control of about 20% of the world’s population, are living pretty well, are immune from military, diplomatic or trade isolation and have a growing economy. Why would they want to change the game? India would have even less reason to want to disrupt the game.

    And if they did, they wouldn’t need to use nuclear weapons to do it either. They probably wouldn’t even need to use regular weapons. Trade weapons would suffice.

  24. John Quiggin
    February 24th, 2013 at 12:53 | #24

    @Hermit

    As regards SMRs, the current target date for first commercial deployment is 2022.

    http://www.elp.com/news/2013/02/22/b-w-tva-sign-contract-for-clinch-river-mpower-construction-permit.html

    If all goes well with that, we might see significant US deployments in the 2030s. But projections of cost made before the first concrete has been poured are just guesses, and the history of such guesses has not been pretty.

  25. Greg vP
    February 24th, 2013 at 14:06 | #25

    It looks to me as though the price collapse was in part due to a massive production ramp-up by Kazakhstan just as the bottom dropped out of the market:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_uranium_production
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium_mining_by_country#Kazakhstan

    Will Kazakhstan continue producing at its current pace at the current price? Dunno. But there are plenty of would-be producers waiting for the price to rise a bit.

    If one could argue that mining a tonne of U replaced the mining of 10,000 tonnes of coal, then Queensland would have a moral duty to encourage and subsidize uranium mining, because of the public health benefits alone. 1/100th as much mining (allowing the U ore to be 0.7% concentrated) equals 1/100th as many mining deaths, and it completely eliminates emissions of mercury and other toxins at the point of use, saving the estimated 50 to 150 early deaths per terawatt-hour of coal-fired electricity production.

    http://www.geekosystem.com/coal-oil-nuclear-deaths-chart/

    Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to believe in the replacement idea. Although China is making great efforts in the technology transfer area, I doubt that it will bring down the capital cost of fission reactors enough to make a dent in coal-fired electricity.

  26. Ikonoclast
    February 24th, 2013 at 14:24 | #26

    @Fran Barlow

    I may be going off topic but it relates tangentially to uranium policy. China’s geostrategy is continued incremental expansion. It’s true that they don’t traditionally go in for expeditionary force conquest. That’s been the Western (and Japanese) model and often a failure as you point out. Although the creation of the New World (Nth and Sth America) and Australa / New Zealand is a kind of “grand success” for expeditionary European conquest. (But a disaster for indigenous populations.)

    China will employ a combination of;

    (a) incremental expansion (Tibet is the current example);
    (b) absorption of all the world’s manufacturing capacity into mainland China;
    (c) cyber war;
    (d) theft of knowledge and intellectual property;
    (e) currency and economic war;
    (f) preparation (including coercion) of the Chinese diaspora for use as a fifth column.
    (g) economic sabotage (I am sure they are encouraging Western “austerity” as that will destroy our economies).

    The US attempts all these measures too but the US is far less adept at multi-strand asymmetric strategy and conflict. The US excels at conventional set-piece war using its technology lead. This lead is evaporating rapidly. Of course, nukes and MAD still stalemate big changes.

  27. John Quiggin
    February 24th, 2013 at 15:13 | #27

    @Ikonoclast
    Not a very convincing list
    (a) Tibet was reincorporated into China in 1951, after about 40 years of independence. Not exactly a rapid rate of expansion
    (b) China is already moving out, or being pushed out, of light manufacturing such as textiles, exactly as happened to the “tiger economies” when China grew
    http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/where-madeinchina-textiles-are-emigrating-01122012.html
    (c) The US pioneered cyber war with Stuxnet, far more successful than anything the Chinese have done, and far more destructive of world peace
    (d) Intellectual property is a terrible idea, and we should be glad it’s being undermined
    (e) So far, China has consistently stabilized global markets
    (f) Nonsense, and would be dangerous nonsense if taken seriously
    (g) Sad to say, austerity is a self-inflicted wound

  28. John Quiggin
    February 24th, 2013 at 15:16 | #28

    PS Further discussion of China should go to sandpits

  29. February 24th, 2013 at 15:53 | #29

    I don’t see how uranium exports can be a bonanza. There is simply not going to be enough demand to sustain prices. At best we can convince the US to make bullets out of undepleted uranium. This is because new nuclear is just not competitive. Even in cloudy old England solar power is cheaper than new nuclear.

    [Please note that saying solar power is cheaper than new nuclear in the UK is not the same as saying the UK should be completely powered by solar energy all the time, it should be one big solar powered party, and the UK needs no other source of electricity, ever.]

    Personally I don’t see how the people involved in the Hinkley Point C reactor project in the UK haven’t died of embarrassment. They’re asking for a minimum price for nuclear electricity of about 15 cents or so and with free insurance on top of that that might be worth 20 cents a kilowatt-hour or more. Potentially much more. Hinkley Point C is supposed to still operate in 50+ years time when the UK will hopefully be at least 4 times as rich as it is now and so will have much higher insurance costs. I’d be very interested to see what Lloyd’s of London would charage to cover say 1% of the total liability.

  30. Ikonoclast
    February 24th, 2013 at 15:58 | #30

    @John Quiggin

    Guess I can’t reply to the attempted refutations then.

  31. Hermit
    February 24th, 2013 at 16:32 | #31

    SA Mines Minister Tom Koutsantonis once advocated a domestic uranium enrichment industry to get the ‘hot’ isotope U235 in yellowcake up to 5% by weight. Since then SA became enamoured and disillusioned with geothermal and then gas. Gas major Santos has killed the love by saying they will send gas to Gladstone make LNG instead of Adelaide to generate electricity unless SA pay export price. Gas is also backup for SA’s 1.2 GW of wind capacity.

    The SA relevance is that that province may have a third of the world’s easily mined uranium, headed by Olympic Dam mine. OD is now producing less than 5 kt a year of yellowcake but an expanded mine could produce 19 kt. They need more power and water to expand with hopes of a small gas fired power station helping out. That gas is going elsewhere such as export. SA has lost out twice with its major project and its gas price. If anybody can justify nukular power it is SA. A worrying trend is that some contained uranium is being sent in copper concentrate from OD mine via the Darwin railway. The destination country shall remain nameless but I suspect they will end up calling the shots.

  32. Hermit
    February 24th, 2013 at 16:41 | #32

    Actually the enrichment is done on uranium fluoride not yellowcake.

  33. Sam
    February 24th, 2013 at 16:46 | #33

    @John Quiggin
    Slightly off-topic, but.. I think Stuxnet was a beautiful thing, and positive for world peace. By delaying Iran’s nuclear program by up to a year without firing a shot, it gave the world a chance to avoid messianic mullahs acquiring apocalyptic weapons. It gives Iranian dissidents one more year to topple this detestable regime, before a regional war becomes inevitable. Israel is just not going to allow an Iran with nukes, and nor should they.

    Also, I love the semi-plausible deniability cyberwar gives a nation state. I remember the almost-openly tongue in cheek response given by the State department in reaction to Iranian accusations of involvement. It went something along the lines of “Oh, so sorry to hear you’re having problems with your computer systems. The internet is a dangerous place, isn’t it? Remember to make sure your anti-virus software is current.”

    I agree with you though JQ, that it is a bit rich for the US to now cry foul when China does it.

  34. Sam
    February 24th, 2013 at 16:59 | #34

    On nuclear’s prospects, I agree completely with JQ. I see non-renewables getting more expensive, with an ever-increasing cost of grid power around the world. Solar and wind on the other hand, are only getting cheaper. Rooftop PV is already cost competitive with retail grid in many places, and this will lead to ever more people buying grid-tie domestic systems, driving the cost down further. This will happen without any further action by the government.

    It won’t be long before PV supplies essentially all daytime electricity, pushing the daytime wholesale cost of electricity to near zero. In such a situation, centralized plants without the ability to reduce their output to zero in off-peak times will be at quite a disadvantage. As it stands, this hurts nuclear more than any other technology.

  35. Fran Barlow
    February 24th, 2013 at 17:56 | #35

    @Sam

    Nuclear armed and land-grabbing Israel is just not going to allow an Iran with nukes, and nor should they.

    I just thought I’d insert the omitted descriptors.

    before a regional war becomes inevitable.

    “Before Israel manages to start one” would be more accurate.

  36. Sam
    February 24th, 2013 at 18:12 | #36

    Hi Fran, long time no argument! I won’t get into a long discussion about the rights and wrongs of Israel’s history here, partly because I don’t want to derail JQ’s thread further, and partly because I largely agree with you.

    But on nukes, the difference between Iran and Israel is stark. Any talk of equivalence between them is silly. Regional conventional war started by Israel would be far preferable to Iran getting the bomb, in my opinion.

  37. Fran Barlow
    February 24th, 2013 at 18:49 | #37

    @Sam

    I’m respecting the no-derail rule so I won’t comment further, except to note my sharp disagreement with your conclusion and reasoning.

  38. Salient Green
    February 24th, 2013 at 19:43 | #38

    If the world had the collective wisdom to change the way it does business, in line with Iconoclast’s and Chris Warren’s vision, then I would say that investment in Uranium exports is a bust.
    If the world insists on the pursuing the BAU nonsense at all costs, then in the short term there may be some money in Uranium.
    I think humanity is coming into a do or die period where we either come of age as a species or descend into barbarianism.
    We either, in the next decade, learn to live with a finite world and share the limited resources fairly with all nations and future generations or we will be proven to be nothing more than educated savages.
    We either rise above our selfish selves and learn to live co-operatively within the limits of our environment, as numerous Aboriginals have, or we descend into misery.
    Nuclear power will not help us grow as a sentient species. Without a philosophy of ‘Respect for Life” nuclear power will only enable the Human plague to extend it’s environmental footprint even further into overshoot, and therefore make the collapse even worse.

  39. Mark Duffett
    February 24th, 2013 at 21:40 | #39

    The prospects for nuclear power in the western world are about as optimistic as those for successful climate action. This is not a coincidence.

  40. Ikonoclast
    February 24th, 2013 at 22:48 | #40

    @Salient Green

    I sometimes think that remnant indigenous peoples with remnant natural survival skills (in various parts of the globe) will be the only ones who will be able to survive the coming collapse. Thus we might indeed see the meek inherit the earth. Oh, except that we won’t see it because we will all be dead.

  41. TerjeP
    February 25th, 2013 at 03:37 | #41

    @TerjeP I’ve never supported bans on uranium mining, at least not since it became evident, after Three Mile Island, that nuclear power wasn’t going to grow rapidly regardless of what we did with uranium, and that concerns about nuclear weapon proliferation needed to be addressed more directly

    JQ – you seem to be leaving yourself the option of supporting a ban on uranium mining if nuclear power began to grow rapidly again. Seems a bit like supporting it so long as it doesn’t succeed. I’m not sure this is your position but your remarks do leave that impression.

  42. TerjeP
    February 25th, 2013 at 03:48 | #42

    The biggest obstacle facing nuclear power is it’s cost. The driver of cost in nuclear power is primarily the capital cost of the plant. A major driver of plant cost is the sheer size of the containment building. The size of the containment building is driven by the physics of water (it expands 1000 fold when it turns to steam). So I think the answer for nuclear sucess is to do away with using water as a coolant. The primary contenders to replace water are liquid sodium or molten salts. Intellectually I’d like to see molten salts reactors win the race. I have trouble imagining a reactor neater than a molten salt reactor with the nuclear fuel dissolved in the coolant. eg LFTR.

  43. Katz
    February 25th, 2013 at 04:45 | #43

    The market cost of nuclear power has never been measured because nuclear generators have never succeeded in purchasing commercial insurance coverage.

  44. TerjeP
    February 25th, 2013 at 07:57 | #44

    Katz – that is utter bunkum. Nuclear reactors are routinely insured and get competitive premiums due to a solid safety record. What they have never been able to get is unlimited insurance but neither has any other form of energy plant.

  45. TerjeP
    February 25th, 2013 at 08:04 | #45
  46. February 25th, 2013 at 08:33 | #46

    I read “Uranium exports: bonanza or bust?” with interest.
    I am in no way an expert. I rely on others – I read stuff and try to evaluate. (I am even open to the idea that somehow, some day, nuclear power could be for the public benefit. But so far I have not come across evidence for this)

    My question is – In the light of the current promotion for small nuclear reactors, is the thorium reactor deal likely to become a reality? And if so, what will that do to the uranium industry?

    I find it quite amazing that an amateur like myself can ask this question, when apparently nobody in Australia’s nuclear lobby is talking abou

  47. Katz
    February 25th, 2013 at 09:04 | #47

    OK, I left a loophole and TerjeP exploited it. By “commercial” I meant coverage against the costs of foreseeable consequences of failure. It is notorious that the foreseeable costs of consequences of the failure of a nuclear facility are so huge that these costs are not covered by commercial insurance companies and are in the US indemnified by the provisions of the Price Anderson Act (1957).

    The Price Anderson Act was supposed to be a transitional arrangement when it was passed in 1957. It has now been extended to 2025. Do you want at bet against the act being quietly extended beyond 2025?

    What on earth does TerjeP mean by “unlimited insurance”? I know of no insurance policy that provides “unlimited insurance”. The Price Anderson Act defines exclusions specific to failures of nuclear generators.

  48. February 25th, 2013 at 09:55 | #48

    Christina, commercial thorium reactors are unlikely to become a reality. There are several reasons for this. The cost benefits of thorium reactors, if they actually result, are at best small. While thorium is cheaper than uranium, fuel is only a tiny portion of the current cost of nuclear power and is likely to reduce further due to lack of demand. The cost of electricity from thorium reactors is going to be about the same as from uranium reactors, but this will only be after the very large development costs for thorium reactors are paid. It would take decades to develop, build, and demonstrate that commercial thorium reactors are practical and to gain data on their total cost. Uranium reactors can’t compete with other low emission energy sources at this point in time and the overall cost of low emission energy is falling rapidly. If a commercial thorium reactor existed right now it wouldn’t be competitive and that’s really not likely to change over the course of a couple of decades.

  49. quokka
    February 25th, 2013 at 10:53 | #49

    @John Quiggin,

    rightwingers who continue to insist, against all the evidence, that nuclear power represents an obvious solution to our problems

    Is there some political imperative in characterizing support for nuclear power as rightwing? Are Monbiot and Lynas rightwingers? How about the Breakthrough Institute? (more like liberal centrist, I’d say) How About Hansen? (I’ve heard he’s a Republican, but right wing seems a bit much! Sincere apologies to Hansen if he is not a Republican).

    Why is there need to descend to this level of name calling?

    PS Nobody with a few brain cells thinks nuclear is “the solution to all our problems”. Ditto for windmills.

  50. quokka
    February 25th, 2013 at 11:29 | #50

    Here are the UK DECC October LCOE estimates for various generating technologies with construction starting 2012 at 10% discount rate:

    Gas CCGT: 80 p/kWh
    FOAK Nuclear: 81 p/kWh
    On-shore wind (All UK): 93 p/kWh
    On-shore wind (England and Wales): 103 p/kWh

    All other renewables are more expensive. Nuclear estimate includes decommissioning and spent fuel management costs and is for first of a kind EPR.

    The 2018 estimates and through to 2030 show a bigger advantage for nuclear.

    No link because of moderation problems but the source is easy to find.

    I am still waiting for a reference to sources with some claim to independence and authority that show conclusively the purported cost advantages of renewables over nuclear in any generalized sense.

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