Physics and Society Letter

The following letter was published in the April issue of Physics and Society - original letter here with responses. 

A Limit to Growth of Nuclear Fission Power

The fascinating exchange between Garwin and Hannum, Marsh, and Stanford in your January issue, on the subject of the necessity and advisability of nuclear fuel reprocessing, and the following article by Albrecht and Bodansky (AB), on the potential for nuclear energy, all omit to mention the key point that any reader of Vaclav Smil's "Energy at the Crossroads" (nicely reviewed by Cornelius Noack in the same issue) would realize at once: the US has only 5% of the world's population, and the rest of the world has an appetite for energy growing far faster than nuclear fission will ever likely safely accommodate.

Garwin touches on the point in mentioning that "the supply of uranium is no problem" for the world's 300 GWe capacity (though 300 GWe multipled by 12,000 tons/GWe lifetime requirement does exceed the 3 million ton current-price reserve he mentions) and suggesting that "those interested in expanding nuclear energy ought to [...] support R&D into acquiring uranium from seawater". AB echo this in a brief discussion of 1700-3000 reactors worldwide.

In discussing the potential for nuclear power to displace half of US oil consumption and all US coal, AB see a need for scaling up US reactor numbers by a factor of 6, to 600 GWe capacity. Those numbers may actually be low if the oil-replacement is supposed to be hydrogen, given energy losses in electrolysis or thermochemical production. But extended to the rest of the world 600 GWe becomes 2400 GWe if the US retains its 25% share of global energy use at roughly 2000 levels, or more likely 5000-10000 GWe or more by mid-century, as globalization extends its equalizing influence. Have any of the authors seriously considered the likely side-effects of a world with on the order of 10,000 1GWe fission reactors?

For one thing such a world would consume 2 million tons of uranium annually in the once-through cycle; the 20-200 million tons available without ocean processing suddenly seems much more limiting. The emphasis on reprocessing and breeder reactors by some of the authors is justifiable in this context - but the question really is, as suggested by Garwin's emphasis on terrorism and malfeasance, would such a world long remain inhabitable?

AB claim that "no restraints on nuclear power in 'peaceful' countries can prevent weapons development elsewhere". This misses the fundamental point that a lack of affordable energy alternatives in other nations justifies their construction of fission reactors for civilian use, and the step from a peaceful nuclear program to weapons is not large. If the US does not lead in R&D on affordable alternatives, and we have been derelict in this now for over 20years, much of the rest of the world will see nuclear as the only option, as for example China is now doing in planning for dozens of new fission reactors.

Perhaps there is a danger, as AB suggest, that "the opportunities offered by nuclear energy will be inadequately exploited" - but nuclear power has long had advocates at the highest levels of US government, and the 2006 budget proposal(1) includes $1.1 billion over seven years for the "Nuclear Power 2010" initiative, with a total of $100 million for that program and "Generation IV" nuclear plant design in the 2006 budget year. This is probably a good thing; in an ideal world, each of the likely components of large-scale energy supply (nuclear fission, fusion, solar PV, bio-fuels, and storage/transmission improvements) would receive $1 - $2 billion/year in advanced research and development funding, in the US. But fission is far from being the only answer, and it should not be pursued at the expense of alternatives that promise a cleaner, safer, and more scalable solution to world energy needs.

Physicists' affection for nuclear energy runs deep, but there are plenty of exciting things (applications of superconductivity and nanotechnology for instance) for physicists to work on in photovoltaics, energy storage and transmission, and even bio-energy alternatives. Solar photovoltaics have seen sales expanding at over 30% per year recently, despite continued high prices for the materials; in another decade that would provide the capacity of several new fission plants every year; wind power is already close to that level. Nuclear energy will continue to be needed as a component of world energy supply, maybe even expanded somewhat, but let's focus our efforts on the truly revolutionary options coming along.

(1) FY 2006 Budget documents are available online:

For the Department of Energy summary, including nuclear programs:

Created: 2005-05-24 06:46:53 by Arthur Smith
Modified: 2005-05-24 06:47:12 by Arthur Smith