In a recent post, I suggested that the Administration’s attention to nuclear power might be misplaced, because nuclear power could actually cost more energy than it produces, given the costs of mining it, delivering it, and storing the waste.
A reader writes:
This is one of the many misconceptions about nuclear power that I’ve been trying to correct for many years now. The truth is that a modern nuclear power plant produces about 90 times more energy than it consumes, taking into account the energy required to build the plant, operate it, and eventually decommision it; as well as the energy to mine and enrich the required quantities of uranium, and eventually dispose of the radioactive waste.
No activity on this planet is as energy-positive as uranium mining. The energy consumed in a uranium-mining operation is typically much less than 1% of the energy available in the uranium that is produced. No other form of mining (including oil production) even comes close to such a return. For that matter, the growing of corn or cane sugar for ethanol production is also far less efficient than uranium mining. I wonder if you actually had ethanol in mind when you wrote the sentence above, since ethanol production is so close to being a drain that it is only within the past couple years that scientists had enough data to conclude that ethanol is, in fact, slightly energetically positive. There was never any doubt about uranium.
I am pro-nuclear energy, but not rabidly so. I acknowledge that the issues of safety (particularly from terrorist attack) and disposal of nuclear waste are serious. But the claim that nuclear energy is
*energetically* inefficient is egregious. Uranium is the most potent energy source in the world, as scientists have understood for over 60 years.
The reader raises the proper threshold question, viz. what is the cost-benefit analysis of nuclear energy, given the problems of fossil fuels, and technological feasibility (or lack thereof) of non-nuclear renewables? He distinguishes between the energy cost-benefit analysis and the extra negative one would have to add for the dangers of disposal (and physical safety), but the question is valid nonetheless.
Last year, Mark raised the same issue, which prompted an interesting debate in the comments section (of blessed memory). If readers have further opinions, I would be happy to post thoughtful ones. Figuring out the appropriate role of nuclear energy in a post-fossil fuel era is a critical policy question, and one that has, well, generated more heat than light.
And by the way, Mike has forgotten more about this than I am ever going to know. Mike?