Tuesday, January 28, 2014

COLUMN-Nuclear power is set to disappoint, again: Kemp

Tue Jan 21, 2014 6:02pm IST

(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own)

A member of the military band directs his comrades before the start of the rehearsal for the "Beating the Retreat" ceremony in New Delhi January 27, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood
By John Kemp
Jan 21 (Reuters) - Nuclear power is the energy dream that refuses to die, despite serious accidents at Windscale (1957), Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011).
Many of the arguments that were employed in favour of nuclear in the 1950s and 1960s as a solution to oil supplies running out are now being resurrected in favour of nuclear as a solution to climate change.
But the promise of safe, clean and reasonably priced nuclear power seems as far away now as it was 60 years ago. We are still waiting for the safe, cheap and reliable reactor designs that were promised in 1956.
Back in the 1950s, plentiful and cheap energy from fissioning uranium and thorium was seen as the only alternative to fast-depleting fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal.
Shell geologist M. King Hubbert is best known as the grandfather of "peak oil" for his theories about the imminent exhaustion of oil resources in the United States and around the world.
But he was also a strong advocate for nuclear power. The 1956 paper that made him famous explicitly linked it to peaking oil production ("Nuclear energy and the fossil fuels").
"It appears that there exist within minable depths in the United States rocks with uranium contents equivalent to 1,000 barrels of oil or more per metric tonne, whose total energy content is probably several hundred times that of all the fossil fuels combined," Hubbert wrote.
"The world appears to be on the threshold of an era which in terms of energy consumption will be at least an order of magnitude greater than that made possible by fossil fuels."
On a time-scale spanning millennia, "the discovery, exploitation and exhaustion of the fossil fuels will be seen to be but an ephemeral event".
By contrast, nuclear offered an energy supply adequate to meet the planet's needs for thousands of years.
Writing in the 1950s, when the United States and the Soviet Union were racing to build ever-bigger nuclear weapons, Hubbert could not be unaware of the perils associated with splitting the atom.

Nuclear scientists were still learning to master the peaceful uses of atomic energy to build utility-scale civilian power reactors.