Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fissile Material--Toward a Price Prediction

I'm just beginning to study this.

This is a map of nuclear power use in the world. You can see that Europe is highly invested in nuclear power plants, especially for its small land area. The U.S. has as many plants, but a great deal more land mass. Europe's reliance on nuclear power, a lot of plants around a lot of people, also shows that nuclear power can be secure and useful to us.

The two big economies in South America have started building nuclear plants, although Brazil is a world leader in biofuels. The depressed economies of Africa, the Arab states, Central Asia and the Pacific have not invested. This may be good for security and non-proliferation, but mostly it represents disinvestment.

It's especially ironic that Central Asia has none. Several of those states are very rich in uranium. In some cases, the mines are abandoned and off-limits, which by no means tells us they are secure. I might add that Afghanistan is just south of those states, and Iran only a short sail across the Caspian Sea from Kazakhstan. In some ways, greater demand for the fuel could increase security. Those mines will be attended, and starving Tajiks will work for legitimate wages.

And here's a closer look at nuclear power plants in the United States.

Reactors are powered by nuclear fission. Eventually the fissile material degrades and must be removed. That's one issue with world-wide political ramifications world-wide and within nations. Here is a map of U.S. spent fissile material storage. So far, we are storing it where we use it, with the exception of New Mexico and Utah.     Both of those states have a great deal of defense-related waste.

The second issue is that nuclear material, once removed, must be replaced.

The rate of growth in nuclear power plants is high. Eventually the price of fissile material will create a cycle, just as oil prices do. That cycle will affect the boom and bust of uranium and plutonium-producing countries. e don't know the shape of that cycle yet--how gradual or constant the demand will be over time, but most plants need to refuel every twenty-five years. Chances are the price cycle for nuclear fuel will sometimes offset and sometimes heighten future tensions over oil and gas pricing.

Consumer countries that use this fuel will have a. a price cycle that coincides with b. a disposal cycle.  These two together will create their own price spike--as the fuel price goes up, so does the price for storing the spent fuel. Thus, there will be periods when end-use consumers feel as though it costs too much to operate nuclear plants. Between those times, we will still buy toasters and wide-screen televisions.

It's also good to note that the fuel is going to go up in price from high point to high point. But what is really going to cost, in the long run, is the price for storage of spent fuels. It can't just go anywhere. It can't go in just any way. That's something to think about over the long haul.  A plan now is best. I hope we have a comprehensive one. Otherwise, the world will be sending it to dubiously-attended storage facilities in, say, Central Africa.

Maps: Renewable Energy Articles blog; WikiInvest (oh yeah, definitely money to earn here); NEI (nuclear energy institute)


Bob G. said...

This is a very interesting post in many ways.
Nuclear plants have a "lifespan" of about 40 years, then theys are decommisioned (closed) with some of the spent fuel housed on site.
Now, this spent fuel will remain "hot" both thermally, as well as retining a toxic level of radioactivity.
Be nice if we could "re-use" the spent fuel top power smaller generators.
The heat alone would provide sufficient power for many things.
But then there is always the security issues.
ANd what happens when we determine it's no longer safe to store more fuel and all but run out of sites to place this?
It's a real mixed bag when you think about it.
Good points AND bad points to consider all the way around.

Personally, it's our "waste", so better to work with it HERE and not send it anywhere else.

Christopher said...

I'm surpise Israel wasn't listed on the map. I know for sure they have nuclear warheads, so it surprises me they wouldn't utilize less complex forms of enriched uranium for energry needs.

Thanks for the info. Interesting post.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob G.,
I think we are in agreement pretty much down the line. Our policy for storage may stay domestic. The problem will be Europe, with much smaller countries and less space to store it. It could be that Europe deals with Russia or say Belarus over this, or Africa. That's my guess. I have no references. Of course a technology breakthrough would be better.

This is one reason why, for better or worse, we need the UN and its nuclear regulatory agency. Hopefully the plans and covenants will be open and abided by. I mentioned Central Africa because it is rapidly depopulating. But this also needs supervision, as we know, and a staff with good morale to supervise it.

Thanks for the very informed comments. i had heard 25 years, but the 40 sounds more current.

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Christopher,
You are quite right. I can't find much on nuclear energy for Israel.

They have an undeclared nuclear arsenal, which (supposedly) the U.S. does not know about, much less the rest of the world. Israel stands on its sovereignty for this, and there's not much we've been willing or able to do. Wikipedia says it's been in place since 1957, when the French made a deal.

They may also have nuclear power, but I believe they will deny that so as to deny the rest. I saw a 2007 article that said they don't have it yet, and a (404 not found) business article stub that says they plan to have it by 2030.


Thanks for this. Israel and France always seem to leave me at a loss to explain. It's a good example of how the comments of others always round my posts out.

Ann T.

Slamdunk said...

Good post Ann T. As a nation, we will be faced with many difficult decisions in the near future--nuclear power being one of them.

I hope that the options are considered including the waste management aspect.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
I suspect that the cost of waste management is factored into the initial price and utility rates and collected gradually. No accountant worth his salt would ignore it. But forecasting is in its infancy with cost estimates. With so many plants going up, the cycle is not yet predictable over years--so there may be money shortfall for next purchase and waste management.

The political climate (NIMBY) can wax or wane, also upping prices or changing waste disposal plans,

And mismanagement or corruption can mean that sequestered funds get dispersed for other issues.

So certainly some effort is made, but the future--you know--we hope for the best.

Hopefully Bob G. is right and we find use for some of the spent material. That would be a nice offset, if the security was good.

Thanks for this,
Ann T.