Sustainable uranium?

I am convinced that we need to focus on nuclear energy to get our CO2 emissions under control. In fact, if we are ever to get the level of CO2 in the atmosphere down again, we need to not only switch to nuclear energy but also develop a lot of new technologies – just think about how much CO2 is emitted from the production of concrete.

Variable renewable energy (VRE) has too low energy density – we’d basically have to cover the planet and there are some serious doubts as to the whole sustainability aspect of the production of VRE. Solar panels are neither cheap, long lasting nor non-toxic. Same can be said about wind turbines.

But that doesn’t matter, because of the low energy density. The COVID-19 pandemic has showed us that a massive downturn in activity doesn’t actually translate into an equivalent downturn in CO2 emissions and no-one in their right mind – I’m therefore excluding the radical green here – would approve of a forced cut of emissions, as it would lead to massive economic problems and eventually to famine and social unrest.

VRE is only possible as long as we rely on fossil fuels, which is probably why so many companies in the fossil fuel extraction business support VRE.

I still drive a petrol car, but it is unsustainable, as all fossil fuel sources are. Switching from coal – or oil – to natural gas reduces the CO2 emissions significantly (gas emits about half as much as coal per energy unit extracted) but it’s still not enough.

Enter nuclear energy which is cheap (also, higher cost of energy costs lives), safe, pollution-free (again, more pollution costs lives) and … sustainable?

I am not talking about fusion energy, though I’d love for it to be possible. It’s still 15 to 30 years in the future, which it by the way has been for the past 30 years. I hope it will work someday but we need something that works now.

I am talking about nuclear fission, and not the theoretical thorium reactors but existing uranium technology. I knew we had known uranium sources to last us about 50 to 100 years, and history shows us that new technology in extraction and in usage will probably be able to extend that considerably.

But I did not know that uranium could be sourced in a way that is technically sustainable.

OK, first I need to stress that this is a technicality, as eventually all uranium will be gone and only a supernova and the formation of a new solar system will generate more uranium. We are neither getting that, nor would we survive the process. But practically it doesn’t matter, as this sourcing would work for many millennia.

Uranium is washed out from rocks into the oceans, and there is work going on extracting that from the seawater. That would mean more uranium would be washed out from rocks (that’s the technically sustainable part) and the extraction could continue.

I am naturally suspicious of any large scale production done in oceans, as large bodies of water tend to behave uncontrollably, but I could be wrong. The extraction is currently modeled to cost up to 20 times as much as traditional mining, but as uranium fission is very energy dense and it’s not actually the uranium that is the expensive part of nuclear power, that shouldn’t be a problem.

It also solves the national security problem for most nations that don’t have access to uranium on land, provided they have access to an ocean.

Of course, the real problem with nuclear energy is that renewables and fossil fuels will no longer be necessary.











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1 Response to Sustainable uranium?

  1. Pingback: Uncomfortable thought about Nuclear Energy | Henning's blog

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