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OECD and The Slowdown that Wasn’t

Nuclear energy, you may have heard, is not universally beloved and some countries would like to banish it from their shores. (Switzerland is an outlier, of course, having no shore.) It has always been disfavored in a few countries (Australia, for example, though not as strongly these days), some of which used it anyway and some of which never did. So be it – try as you might, that’s how it goes.

After the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, there were plenty of stories anticipating a wide-scale abandonment of nuclear energy or at least a dramatic slow down. From April of last year:
The future of nuclear power was bleak, even before the Fukushima disaster, said energy expert Mycle Schneider Wednesday at a press conference in Berlin, where he previewed an upcoming Worldwatch report on the outlook of nuclear power.
"The industry was arguably on life support before Fukushima. When the history of this industry is written, Fukushima is likely to introduce its final chapter," said Schneider, the lead author of the new report, which was previewed in Berlin today at an event hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
That “arguably” in “arguably on life support” provides an out, but Schneider certainly doesn’t seem very alert to the world he’s watching. I suspect that report gathers dust even at Worldwatch HQ.
Closing plants pell-mell and cancelling all plans seemed unlikely, more so after several countries announced they would take the lessons from Fukushima Daiichi and apply them to their facilities. And that’s what happened, still is happening in fact. So the dire stories receded.

Now, even while Germany struggles to find a way to turn off its plants, the rest of the world has settled in. Case in point: the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the much quoted OECD, which includes among its membership most first world countries) has issued an annual report on uranium that includes a forecast on nuclear energy:
Strong expansion of nuclear power as a carbon-free energy source in Asia is expected to press ahead despite the Fukushima accident in Japan that soured sentiment in some countries, a benchmark report said on Thursday.
Expansion, good. But it must be considerably lower than OECD has previously projected, right?
World nuclear capacity is, however, expected to grow by 44 percent to 99 percent by 2035, according to a biennial report from the United Nations nuclear body [the IAEA] and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
This was little changed from the range of growth of 37 percent to 110 percent in the edition two years ago of the report on uranium resources, production and demand, known as the "Red Book."
I think that’s what they call a statistical blip. This is actually very heartening news, because some of these countries are industrializing quickly and they could easily have favored carbon-emission-rich fuel sources (and admittedly, some still do, even with the nuclear facilities in the mix.)
Nuclear capacity is due to expand in East Asia by 125 percent to 185 percent by 2035, the report said. The strongest growth is expected in China, India, South Korea and Russia.
South Korea was (essentially) economically made by nuclear energy and Russia is Russia, but China and India, the two neighbors, have the potential choke off any hope at carbon reduction as they industrialize. Again, nuclear isn’t the only energy source used in those countries, but it will provide a boost to their environmental profiles.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the coverage given to the report, it is much less about nuclear energy than about uranium and its projected availability. You can look at the story to see what the spot price of uranium is (spoiler: about $50 per pound).

The OECD does say that there is enough uranium to power the expansion it describes for about 100 years and it’s fair, as long as we’re talking about the future, to wonder what happens to that figure if thorium, MOX fuel and/or a recycling regime enters the picture. “To infinity and beyond?” to quote Buzz Lightyear.

Let’s acknowledge that OECD is working with a large set of unknowns – not to mention that the future is inherently unknown. People who use such reports understand that, but also know that the projections are set on a solid baseline and carry it further in time logically.That makes the report useful in policymaking and that makes it more important than it might seem as first glance.

You can read the precis for the report here. The publication itself is rather expensive. It is a collaborative effort between the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is popularly called the Red Book, but the current iteration is titled Uranium 2011: Resources, Production and Demand.


Steve Skutnik said…
"The OECD does say that there is enough uranium to power the expansion it describes for about 100 years and it’s fair, as long as we’re talking about the future, to wonder what happens to that figure if tritium, MOX fuel and/or a recycling regime enters the picture."

Do you mean thorium, Mark?
Mark Flanagan said…
I sure did. Yikes!

Thanks, Steve.
Engineer-Poet said…
Speaking of thorium, I have to note that if the experience of the final run of the Shippingport reactor (5 years continuous operation, shut down to obtain test results rather than any technical need) can be duplicated with uranium-thorium rod formulations, the increased uptime would amount to an effective 5% uprate of the plants which used them.

Shippingport's final run achieved a breeding ratio of about 1.01.  Had it run as a once-through cycle with no regard to reclaiming fuel, it could probably have run for several more years.  Corrosion and fuel swelling would probably be the limiting factor in refueling intervals.

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