Skip to comments.New nuclear fuel source would power human race until 5000AD
Posted on 08/22/2012 9:24:35 AM PDT by Ernest_at_the_Beach
That's because US government scientists have just announced research in which they've massively increased the efficiency of techniques for extracting uranium from the ocean - and that means that supplies of uranium are secure for the future even if the entire human race moves to fission power for all its energy needs.
"We have shown that our adsorbents can extract five to seven times more uranium at uptake rates seven times faster than the world's best adsorbents," says Chris Janke of the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of America's top nuke labs.
At the moment people don't use nuclear power much (the UK's small and aged nuclear fleet can barely generate four times as much power as its wind farms, showing just how little energy we're talking about here: just 8 per cent of our national energy needs are derived from nuclear right now). As a result there's no scarcity of uranium, and indeed nobody has bothered exploring for more of it for decades.
But one day people really will have to stop using fossil fuel for nearly everything - either to prevent a global warming apocalypse, or (perhaps more realistically) because supplies will eventually run out. There's no chance of renewables generating the sort of energy the future human race will require to live above the poverty line, so something else will be required.
Anti-nuclear people have always argued that the something had better not be nuclear because more nuclear powerplants equals more weapons-grade material (not by any means necessarily true, though it seemed as though it might be the case back in the early days of nuclear technology). And even if you think nuclear bombs are OK, the fearmongers have always added that there just isn't enough uranium about to keep the lights on for long.
That may very well be correct, provided all the uranium must be dug out of the ground and run through a powerplant just once before being classified as waste and dumped. But in fact almost all of the spent fuel can be recycled and used again (nobody bothers much right now, as new uranium is cheaper - and in the States recycling the waste has actually been banned at the behest of the anti-nuclear tendency).
And best of all, there's an awful lot more uranium in the sea than there is in the ground. But until now, the costs of getting it out have been so steep as to make it unfeasible even given nuclear-power economics. (Normally, fuel price isn't a big deal for nuclear power as it is a tiny proportion of the cost of having a station - so double-price uranium only sends up the cost of the electricity by a few per cent at most. But seawater uranium to date has cost many times double.)
But now Janke and his colleagues at Oak Ridge and the Pacific Northwest federal atom labs have massively increased the efficiency of seawater extraction.
"Our HiCap adsorbents are made by subjecting high-surface area polyethylene fibers to ionizing radiation, then reacting these pre-irradiated fibers with chemical compounds that have a high affinity for selected metals," says Janke. The allied US government experts behind the tech presented details at a major boffinry conference in Philadelphia yesterday.
Nobody's saying that the new HiCap tech can compete with ordinary mining on cost yet - but that's almost irrelevant. What HiCap offers is, first, assurances to nuclear powerplant operators that they will still be able to obtain uranium for the foreseeable future with no more than a massive price increase - say no worse than three or four times over - no matter whether landbased reserves play out or become oversubscribed. That means their plants' total operating costs won't climb by any more than a marginal amount. Thus, a major source of risk for investors is removed.
Secondly, the prospect of being able to extract billions of tons of uranium from the sea means that humanity has access to enough fuel to meet all its energy needs - all of them, not just present day electricity demand but also the other 90 per cent currently supplied in thermal form - for thousands of years.
One US government statement issued this week says that oceanic uranium could last 6,500 years: but a more conservative estimate assuming use of recycling (as offered by Professor J C Mackay of Cambridge) is say three millennia with all humans using as much energy as a present-day European does. So we've gone with that for our headline.
There's more from the US government labs here and here. ®
Nuclear power is safe....Tell that to the Russians...and the folks in Hiroshima.
Oooonly Threeee Thousand Yeeeears! Thaaaat’s not sustainabllllle!
Interesting. Very interesting. Thorium is another good source for fuel.
Not to put too fine a line on it, but my impression is that “fusion based” nuclear power, when things go wrong, results in a melt down, but “Fission based” nuclear power, when things go wrong, results in a rather large, uh, “things go boom”.
But I am no expert and could be wrong about this. I was wrong about something once in the third grade, so it’s possible.
A buddy took delivery of a Rossi-Focardi Nickel-Hydrogen fusion reactor a few weeks ago. He paid $4K for it and so far is satisfied. Why isn’t fusion being considered as a cheap energy source by this article?
I don’t know. There’s been a huge increase in thyroid abnormalities in children in Fukushima (the area around the plant). Things may not be as sunny as the Japanese gov chooses to portray it. http://thyroid.about.com/b/2012/08/06/fukushimas-children-facing-high-rate-of-thyroid-irregularities.htm
[Tell that to the Russians...and the folks in Hiroshima.]
Given that the technology used in both places was ancient (better than 50 years old) that is a moronic statement. Compared to current technologies, it is like faulting stone age technology for being inefficient. In fact, anti-nuke protestors have delayed the adoption of new technologies, and have guaranteed future deaths.
Thanks for nothing.
I was expecting a thorium update here......
Brings new meaning to the sign some scientists put on their door “Gone fission.”
nuke power ping
by the same reasoning (or lack there of) bath tubs aren’t safe, just look at how many people have died in them.
It’s only safe for grown ups.
I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve read that both plants were very old tech. In addition both plants were poorly managed, and with safety protocols ignored, and especially at Chernobyl. There are apparently ridiculously safe methods now available. Question is maybe whether you can get them built.
It's my understanding that in commercial nuclear power plants, intended for the generation of electricity, the enrichment level of the uranium is too low for "boom".
Not absolutely certain, but that's the claim I've heard.
“cold fusion” is more of a electrochemical reaction than a nuclear one.
It is not totally understood yet and it is interesting but the lack of neutron emissions indicates it is not fusion.
Fusion is the direction of the future. Just not an easy one to sustain for more than miliseconds.
I am a Hazmat fire officer. We drill frequently with local military teams and state and local authorities using radiation detection equipment to prepare for different scenarios. It always amazes me the amount of misinformation that people believe regarding the dangers of ionizing radiation. People fear most what they know the least about regardless of the actual risks.
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