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Over a barrel? Go nuclear!

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Or, is life on earth damned by the curse of innumeracy?

A large fraction of an almost entirely innumerate population in the western world has been indoctrinated into the modern-day dogma that humans can convert all fossil fuel usage to renewable energy-sources such as solar-Photovoltaic (PV) and wind-turbines. Another cohort, is against the idea on a different (but similarly dogmatic) set of beliefs. Much like older religions, the high-priests of each respective fiefdom are drunk on power derived from their followers.

The first group has a vague understanding of the dangers of continued use of fossil fuels; a notion with a strong core of evidence. In that regard, their cult may at first appear the lesser of the two evils. In reality, the difference is insignificant as both caravans are headed for roughly the same end-results: economic collapse and mass-famine.

First there is the actual consequences of abandoning fossil fuels without a viable replacement. Then there is the actual costs of implementing sufficient renewable generation, which is by all measures are out of reach, worldwide. Third, the first two details notwithstanding, it is easy to see that conversion to solar and wind will take an impossibly long time.

The graph below indicates the contribution of each major source of energy generated in 2023 in the US alone:

The stacked gold squares make a ruler showing how many solar-PV contributions are needed to replace natural-gas or coal in 2023.

The bit of good news is that over the last ten years, the US has cut its use of polluting coal considerably and replaced it with (mainly) natural-gas, and to some extent solar and wind1.

Roughly speaking, to replace the contribution of natural-gas and coal with solar-PV alone (as installed over the last ten-years) will take ~150 years at the current pace. If we install solar-PV and wind at the same (highly- subsidized) rates as we have been recently, the figure is reduced to 35-40 years.

This very simplistic and crude estimate does not account for (at least) all of the following:

  • The process will actually never finish at this rate, since the useful life of these systems is under 25 years.
  • The estimate does not account for the growth in demand.
  • The above data pertains only to the US. The remainder of the world combined, would need to multiply its renewable systems by a far larger factor.
  • No accounting has been made for the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during the production, transport and installation of these systems. Solar-PV panels are well known for their exorbitant carbon emissions during manufacturing, long-distance shipping, and eventual disposition2. It is possible to create a map that shows the areas of the globe where they realistically payback their GHG debt before the end of their useful-life. Viable regions for wind are even smaller. Those regions span only small patches of earth. Much (but fortunately, not all) of those patches are far from population centers, thus requiring even more transmission infrastructure. Many of installations outside of these sufficiently sunny patches, will have net positive GHG emissions!
  • The data above refers only to electricity generated. Whereas, ~25% of GHGs are from transportation emissions.
  • Even if all energy generation from natural-gas and crude-oil is replaced, we will have only eliminated roughly only 3/4-4/5 their current demand3. The remaining fraction of the current demand is used to make products we all use everyday. It’s hard to think of a product that does not use any petroleum-derived product as a component, besides the energy used to make it. It’s ironic, and entertaining when climate activists are transported in diesel powered busses to demonstrations, wearing and carrying items and banners made of synthetic fibers and plastics. Meanwhile the aforementioned high-priests arriving at prestigious climate conferences in their private jets4.
  • The base-load problem: Solar-PV and wind are intermittent in their generation, and can never replace another source that is both able to produce at any time of the day of the year, and has a controllable magnitude. Battery systems (electrical or thermal and other energy-storage forms like flywheels, and pumping water to an elevated lake) go a small distance (at a high cost) to dampen the intermittency but are far from a solution.

The answer has been staring us in the face

The manifestly simplistic calculation presented above becomes actually reasonable if applied to nuclear-power instead. For one, we can easily see that the factor by which we must multiply nuclear-power is not an absurd figure and the time estimate to arrive to “net-zero” is in the neighborhood of three decades. It is nothing short of a criminal-act by the said high-priests of government that we have not been on this path for the last 50 years5!

Before proceeding, let’s set to rest, the myth of nuclear-power’s mortal dangers. The data below shows both estimated deaths as well as GHG emissions as a function of energy source6:

The chart shows that the top four sources generate ~63% of the total world’s electricity. If we scale up nuclear power by 6.3 (as if it replaced all those sources), the corresponding death rate (7.3x .03=0.22) will be lower by more than a factor of ((24.6+18.4+2.8+4.6)/0.22=) 230! Note that the above data only refers to electricity and does not even include deaths, nor the GHG emissions from usage of fuels for transportation, such as gasoline, jet-fuel, or diesel.

What about GHG emissions? Adding the GHG figures for the top four sources above and adding another 25% to account for transportation7, we can estimate that if nuclear-power replaced fossil fuels, the GHG’s would be reduced by 98%; that’s about the worldwide GHG-emission levels of 18708. The “pledges” in the 2015 Paris conference ranged from a mere 10% to a heroic 40% in GHG-reductions relative to 1990, by 20309. Scarcely any country is on track10, and six year later, 122 of 19711 had yet even to submit a plan!

All roads lead to nuclear power

Imagine if we had abandoned the whole idea of sailing on the oceans after the sinking of the Titanic, or ditch the loony idea of a “heavier-than-air” flying contraption (called an airplane) after two or three plane-crashes. Such major accidents are still happening once every 5-6 years. Despite far less deaths or damage caused by a few (three) major accidents over five decades, nuclear power has been deemed irredeemable by the powers that be. The very same self-fulfilling attitude has prevented the evolution of designs that would have by now far surpassed many of the problems relating to those major accidents12.

After decades of waffling by innumerate (and negligently short-sighted) politicians, together with faith-based ideologues herding an under-informed populace, straying every-which-way, we have again come to the same single junction where the path to energy transition is a narrow, unmaintained road to nuclear power. Treading the road back to fossil fuels is not an option, the nirvana of renewables (though promising) is too hard and expensive to reach in time. Finally, turning off the supply of fossil fuels without a viable replacement (effectively, the current “plan”), leads to an oblivion made of energy shortage and mass starvation.

Although that may sound as hyperbole to some, we predict that at the very best, we will only see major energy shortages starting in under a decade. This will be especially acute in places where the populace has consented to abandonment of fossil and nuclear fuels without having a viable alternative13.

More than a decade of under-investment in fossil-fuel exploration together with lack of direction towards a viable alternative will surely lead to severe energy shortages.

Despite a recent reversal in those investment policies starting only in late 2023, a turn-around will (1) take a while, and (2) be difficult to do in time to avoid (at least some) severe shortages in a 5-ish-year time-frame hence. Childish games played by Mr Biden’s and cronies, to cut-off all lines of communication to bad-ol’ oil companies in the hope of looking cool to his base, have only accelerated the de-investments. In response, the oil companies are rerouting the profits that would be Capex investments towards dividends and share buy-backs. As a shareholder of many energy companies up, mid and downstream I’d like to thank Mr Biden for his misguided boon to my retirement portfolio!

Barring another unlikely Shale-like revolution, even flat capital-expenditure implies a subsequent drop in supply due to depletion against trends in population increase. This, especially as third-world starts (in large numbers) to want the same creature-comforts and appliances we take for granted. Another very large scale trend in increasing demand are the nascent server-farms on a scale unheard-of, only five years ago.

The subsequent economic effects in such a shortfall can easily qualify as disastrous, if not also famines due to inordinate rise in energy, fertilizer and transportation costs. Those regions with least local food-production will lead the way to varying levels of economic collapse and hunger. The fantasy-based “Net-zero Road-maps” by ideologues such as the IEA ignore most of these effects. Not least, the “Road-map” also does not address the inability of solar-PV and wind to provide base-load14, nor the effect of disruptions in shipping/trade-routes, nor geopolitical upheavals that threaten the availability of materials needed for renewable generation 15.

Rising from the dead: nuclear reactors restart

The world was (for the second, if not the third time) on a path to energy-transition via nuclear power in the early twenty-first century. Before that, the collapse of the Soviet empire had created a large overhang of Uranium supply which lasted until about 2003. Not unlike the under-investment in exploration and refining capacity that has occurred in crude-oil recently, Uranium miners shut down operation due to lower prices. Starting in 2003 , in a sort of panic over sudden realization (by more informed power-producers) that nuclear power will be needed, the price of the metal increased by 1300% from 2003 to 2007. In typical fashion in commodity markets, the price subsided after the speculator hordes took profits. The price then converged to an elevated base and then started to rise again from 2007-2011 due to real demand. However, in 2011 the unfortunate accident following a major tidal wave at Fukushima, Japan allowed ideologues to seize the moment and write Uranium’s obituary.

Source: https://markets.businessinsider.com/commodities/uranium-price?op=1

They’d have succeeded too if it weren’t for the inevitability of Uranium as our only life-raft until modern reactor designs, different fuels (e.g. Thorium)16, nuclear-fusion, H2 photolysis, and even large-scale geothermal heat-extraction become available. Among these, energy-efficiency, and renewables can and will play an important role but only where they can perform without adding to the problem. We must also emphatically pursue promising avenues for large-scale CO2 capture. Not least, energy efficiency is the quiet, unsexy item which should always remain at the top of the list.

All hands-on-deck is what this crisis requires.

Relying on solar and wind to combat climate change is like taking a knife to, no, not a gun-fight, but a full blown war.

the investment case

Investing in any industry has the promise of two types of benefit: an investment can help enable and open new vistas that benefit society, while (in exchange for the risk taken) monetary rewards may result as well. In the end it becomes a question of the risk/reward ratio being acceptable to a given investor. Traditionally, governments have stepped in and made the investment when the risk/reward ratio is “too large” for a threshold-level of investment. In the case of nuclear-power, however, the rewards of low-cost, low-volatility energy together with calamities avoided overwhelm all risks, except that of inaction.

In this cursory and woefully incomplete missive, we have made a case using only ancient nuclear technology. We have not even scratched the surface of the potential rewards of advanced nuclear fission reactors and the possibility of (literally) dirt-cheap Thorium fuel. Technical issues remain because of lack of investment and political expediency, but none are out of reach compared to considerably more difficult problems solved daily in engineering.

In the short term (as the GHG clock is ticking), the ancient technology will have to do. Consider, numerous functioning reactors still exist and a fresh slate of new orders have recently come in to companies such as Hitachi (HTHIY), GE, KEPCO and Rolls Royce (RYCEY)17. In addition, applications are pouring in to the NRC for extensions in operations permits of reactors previously written-off as retiring18. Thus the simplest form of investment is in the fuel supply-chain for the existing power generators, i.e. mining/processing company stocks19 or ETFs20, and physical Uranium using futures-contracts and/or ETFs (such as SRUUF).

The top consideration in any limited resource is: the history, the current state, and the future expectations for the supply and demand.

The price of Uranium (U3O8) has risen from around $30/lb in 2021 to the current $89/lb. The price has tripled in under three years; it’s picking up where 2009-2011 launch left off. Note, the near 300% increase in price since April-2020 in the chart below has been the result of the a shortfall that is barely visible in the above figure. A recent drop in the price is giving us a new chance to add to long-term positions.

source: https://tradingeconomics.com/commodity/uranium


Footnotes

  1. Alas, not all unused coal stayed in the ground. A small fraction has been exported to places like India and Netherlands(!?). The US coal-exports now stand at an all time high. Source: Coal imports and exports – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) ↩︎
  2. The disposal of PV-panels is surprisingly GHG and cost intensive. No recycling of the PV-medium nor the concomitant plastics is possible. The US states typically require full incineration of the components other than the metal frames and support structure. ↩︎
  3. Final consumption – Key World Energy Statistics 2021 – Analysis – IEA There seem to be no estimates of the increase in coal demand for large scale manufacture of solar-PV-panels! ↩︎
  4. https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL8N33W4B5/ ↩︎
  5. See minutes 10:00-14:10 in: https://youtu.be/BTmUEUoyXLg?si=SU9MPLDZ2bRTi4v2. The producer of this video (Mr Eric Townsend) has a series of additional videos suitable for general public which we recommend. Visit: https://energytransitioncrisis.org/ ↩︎
  6. What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy? – Our World in Data ↩︎
  7. https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions-from-transport ↩︎
  8. https://www.wri.org/insights/history-carbon-dioxide-emissions ↩︎
  9. https://www.carbonbrief.org/paris-2015-tracking-country-climate-pledges/ ↩︎
  10. Climate change: Have countries kept their promises? (bbc.com) ↩︎
  11. CO2 emissions: nations’ pledges ‘far away’ from Paris target, says UN | Environment | The Guardian ↩︎
  12. The the current operational nuclear power reactors are all based on designs whose fundamentals were prevented from evolving starting in the late 1970s, when fax machines were at the cutting edge of communication. The interesting topic of advanced designs nuclear power belongs to a whole different discussion. Suffice it to say that the various modern designs hold tremendous promise. See footnote-5 for a rudimentary introduction. ↩︎
  13. Currently the state of California seems to lead that pack with reckless zeal. See: https://californiaglobe.com/articles/california-backlash-over-telling-californians-not-to-charge-electric-vehicles-during-heatwave/. Then there is a case like Texas who is looking at major black-outs due its great success is attracting manufacturers (escaping a collapsing China) together with the state’s isolationist power grid policies. ↩︎
  14. The IEA’s 2022 update to its “Net-Zero roadmap” can be found here: https://iea.blob.core.windows.net/assets/830fe099-5530-48f2-a7c1-11f35d510983/WorldEnergyOutlook2022.pdf. A text search for the phrase “baseload” in its 524 pages returns only three matches! None refer (much less, address) to the inability of solar-PV and wind to provide base-load power. All three instances refer to making natural-gas into a “flexible contracting arrangement” option to fire up, if needed. ↩︎
  15. The IEA “Net-Zero Roadmap” refers seven times to the word “geopolitical”. Every instance is in the context of how such disruptions are yet another undesirable attribute of fossil-fuels. Not one instance considers the effect on the growth and (especially) adoption (an economic and psychological choice) of solar-PV, nor wind. To wit, very recent but considerable drop in EV demand because of their high costs, then there are things like range anxiety and the inability to operate in very cold weather. Overnight, there could be far more of the same, by a stoppage of indispensable basic materials such as Lithium, Aluminum, and not least PV-panels themselves from China where it is, respectively, the third, first and first ranked producer of those items worldwide. ↩︎
  16. https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/thorium.aspx ↩︎
  17. Many new high-risk ventures have started that aim to bring new and more advanced, versatile and safer designs to the market. As this note is a woefully incomplete overview, just a few examples include Nuscale (SMR) and Copenhagen Atomics (not yet public). ↩︎
  18. As of this writing, six extension applications are pending in the US. Japan is already on its way to the restart of its idling fleet starting in this very month (April-2024) https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-04-15/tepco-flagship-nuclear-plant-to-load-first-fuel-since-fukushima. Plenty more quiet announcements have and are coming this year. ↩︎
  19. Examples include CCJ, DNN, LEU, UEC, UROY, URG, NXE, and FCUUF. ↩︎
  20. Examples include: URNM, URA, URNJ, and NLR. ↩︎

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