31 January 2009

William Choong, senior writer for The Straits Times, wrote about the need to "re-embrace the atom" (28 Jan'09, ST). I sent him a short email which you can find in part below. Let's bear in mind that nuclear power is no substitute for oil when it comes to the production of petrochemicals, plastics and pesticides, etc. (I'm not saying that the writer is implying that going nuclear is the solution to all our problems). You can read his piece here: Straits Times or WildSingaporeNews.

Hi William,

With reference to your article on nuclear energy in today's ST, the problems you neglected to mention and which I feel are important are Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROI or EROEI) and Peak Oil.

I assume you are familiar with these two concepts. If not please read

http://www.energybulletin.net/primer and http://www.eroei.com/articles/the-chain/what-is-eroei/

It takes energy to acquire energy. The entire nuclear cycle from the planning stages, to the building and construction phase, to the mining and enrichment of uranium and disposing of waste is highly dependent on fossil fuels, namely crude oil. So you can't say nuclear energy is in anyway "non-carbon" or free of "greenhouse gases". If ASPO is correct, we should see world oil production begin to decline within the next five years. It's currently on a plateau. When that happens, the energy returned (EROI) from nuclear power is expected to decline and it may no longer be feasible to run nuclear plants. [ Studies on the EROI for nuclear energy vary widely, see http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3877 ]

Why is EROI so important you ask?
Because the production of goods and services is a work process, economies with access to higher EROI fuel sources have greater potential for economic expansion and/or diversification. The history of the expansion of human civilization and its material standard of living is directly linked to, but not caused by, successive access to and development of fuel sources with increasingly greater EROI. The transitions from animate energy sources such as plant biomass, and draft animals, to wind and water power, to fossil fuels and electricity enabled increases in per capita output due to increases in the quantity of fuel available to produce non-energy goods. The transition to higher EROI fuels also enabled social and economic diversification as increasingly less available energy was used in the energy securing process, meaning more fuel was available to support non-extractive activities. Much of inter- and intra-society conflicts can in fact be traced to struggles for control over the disposition of energy surplus. LINK
Hubbert's Peak Oil theory can also be appled to uranium deposits. Some say that uranium supplies peaked in 1980, others say it will peak in 2035, and still others say it won't peak for many hundreds of years. If uranium does peak within 25 years, then we would certainly face difficulties sourcing for uranium to power nuclear plants.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_uranium

Instead of thinking of ways to source for low-carbon energy to fuel our economic and population growth paradigms, we ought to ask ourselves if this is sustainable or possible in a finite world. Ecological/Biophysical economists are calling for a paradigm shift in the world of mainstream neoclassical economics. They have proposed a Steady State framework and I believe it provides answers to our future.


I wrote about this some time ago to the ST Forum http://www.straitstimes.com/print/ST%2BForum/Story/STIStory_172145.html