Friday, January 29, 2010

Some thoughts on the uranium cycle

Nuclear power is in the news again after the State of the Union speech, so here’s a few thoughts:

1. The current limiting factor of U production is the price of U. Finding sub-economic deposits is easy. Getting the tonnage and grade necessary to cover infrastructure costs is not.

2. Phosphate, which is currently mined for fertilizer production, contains a reasonable amount of U. It is currently uneconomical to remove it, so it dissolves into the H3Po4 during the phosphoric acid production, and stay there through ammonization until it eventually gets dumped on the fields that grow the food we eat (take a scintillometer to your favorite agricultural warehouse sometime). Somewhere around $100/pound it becomes economical to extract it to burn in a reactor instead. So correctly calculating the risk of increasing U production needs to take into account the benefits of not dumping the stuff on crops.

3. Radiation is very dangerous, and can easily kill you if you are stupid. Unlike the days of the Manhattan project and the cold war, we now know a lot more about how to mitigate the risks and how it behaves in the environment.

4. Knowledge isn’t going to help anyone unless it is used to craft effective regulation and enforcement. Corporate boards aren’t going to approve expenditure on non-profitable activities unless they are forced to do so.

5. Well-run, well-regulated projects can be safe. On our drill projects, the only radiation badge to register anything was the one that someone took home in their carry-on and sent through the ASP airport x-ray machine. The only radiation injury to occur was sunburn from solar UV. While skin cancer is a real risk for outdoor work in Australia, it presumably also applies to workers in the solar industry- and the person involved was not following procedure.

6. Making energy is dangerous! Coal mine accidents alone kill thousands of people every year (mostly in China), and even in well-regulated countries like Australia, there are still fatalities. So radiation hazards need to be looked at in the context of all the alternatives, especially other indirect risk factors like respiratory ailments from combustion, toxicity in silica manufacturing, etc.

7. Regulation works best in a culture of openness, trust, and transparency. Anything that inhibits these things, whether it be military secrecy, corporate paranoia, or activist stunts, will ultimately increase risk.

8. As in many other fields, we need to properly weigh the risks of numerous, isolated, unobtrusive injuries (e.g. asthma) vs. rare spectacular photogenic catastrophes (e.g. Chernobyl).


Chris Phoenix said...

The doomers like to talk about how we're running out of phosphate. I haven't checked their figures. Do you happen to know how much phosphate we actually have, and how much uranium is in it compared to other reserves?

C W Magee said...

A couple hundred years, and 10-20% of current supply, assuming constant phosphate use.

I'm just waiting for the day when the bones of the deceased become the largest phosphate deposit.