Saturday, November 17, 2018

Nuclear Power? Yes, but what about…?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its special report on climate change with a clarion call for immediate action to reduce greenhouse emissions.[i] That has been clear for a long time, and the dire consequences of climate change are now expected to be felt as soon as 2030. The urgency is mainly because as a society we have been late in taking action.

The world also needs lots of energy, particularly electricity, for the well-being of its citizens. Unfortunately, the one source of clean electricity, nuclear power, has been off the table for many in the “environmental” movement. Readers of this blog know that I am a strong proponent of nuclear power. In my last post, I pointed out three reasons for supporting nuclear power: near-zero carbon emissions, fewest fatalities per unit of electricity, and the smallest environmental footprint. This post deals with several of the what-about questions I am asked online or after my talks.

What about the waste?
One question that I get asked most often has to do with the issue of “waste.” So, let’s talk about it. First, spent nuclear fuel is not “waste,” it is a resource for future nuclear plants. Importantly, the spent fuel is a solid; totally contained inside a steel rod. It is not something that is released to the environment. Contrast that with coal-fired power plants that emit billions of tons of gases and particulates into the air and equally large quantities of solid wastes, which can end up in streams and waterways.
Figure 1. Detail showing uranium pellets inside fuel rods and assembly of fuel rods.

To begin with the nuclear fuel consists of ceramic pellets of uranium oxide enriched in U-235, the fissile isotope. The isotopic composition of the fuel pellets is about 4% U-235 and the remaining 96% is U-238. After two years in service, the fuel pellets still contain about a quarter of the U-235. Also present are the fission products and 2% Pu isotopes. Between the remaining U-235 and Pu isotopes, about 50% of the original fuel value is still in the rods when they are removed from service. Two main reasons for retrieving the rods are that after about 2 years in the reactor core some of the cladding materials develop cracks and defects, and accumulation of fission products like cesium, iodine, strontium and barium, interfere with the maintenance of neutron balance.

The fuel assemblies are then withdrawn and stored under water. About 20 feet of water is needed to cool the rods and provide adequate shielding from the radiation. After 10 years under water, the highly radioactive fission products in have decayed to a point that the rods may be stored on site in dry concrete casks with passive air cooling. The spent fuel may alternatively reprocessed to recover the fissile elements (uranium and plutonium), and fashioned into pellets as is the practice in several countries like France, Japan, Russia. Because reprocessing could lead to opportunities for siphoning off plutonium and thus to proliferation of nuclear weapons, this practice was stopped in the US in 1980s. I will discuss the issue of proliferation later in this post, but let’s continue with the discussion of “waste.”

Figure 2: Storage of spent fuel in dry casks poses no radiation hazard.

Second, the total amount of spent fuel is tiny. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the total amount of spent fuel produced by all the nuclear power plants over the last 70 years is 370,000 tons.[ii] About 120,000 tons of it has been reprocessed. The total volume of all the spent fuel is 22,000 cubic meters, which would fill one football field (100 yards by 55 yds) to a depth of 13 feet! It is a small amount of “waste,” considering all the carbon-free electricity these plants have generated.

Storing the spent fuel in deep geological wellbores is technically feasible. As demonstrated in Finland there are no technological barriers to deep well storage, although there remain political barriers. In the United States, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was proposed as a repository, but after years of back and forth, the plans were abandoned. No politically acceptable site has yet been identified. To get around the political deadlock, Deep Isolation—a California company, started by daughter and father Elizabeth and Richard Muller, is proposing a modular and inexpensive option. Their solution exploits recent advances in fracking technologies to drill mile-deep wells with tilted horizontal holes to store the spent near the nuclear plants.[iii] Until such time as this or some other innovation is developed, on-site storage of the spent fuel in dry casks remains a perfectly viable option.[iv] Besides, on-site storage would make it easy to retrieve fuel for future fast reactors.

What about fuel supply?
Another question I often face is that there isn’t enough uranium to power the expanded nuclear fleet. At the current rate of consumption (56,000 tU/yr), global supply of reasonably assured resources (RAR) of uranium at $80/tU could last about 40 years, but if the nuclear fleet were to be expanded substantially, these resources would not last very long. The thing to note is that apart from uranium RAR there is a much larger uranium resource base, which is accessible at higher price. Doubling the price of uranium ore from $80/ton to $160/ton would greatly increase the supply of uranium while raising the cost of electricity by only a fraction of a cent per kWh, because each ton of U produces 1.2 TWh of electricity. With more than adequate supplies in hand, current market conditions do not favor efforts to explore other sources of uranium, but with appropriate price signals these secondary sources could become part of the RAR.

Nuclear weapons are another significant source of uranium. Under the megatons-to-megawatts program, many nuclear warheads are being dismantled. The highly enriched uranium and plutonium of the warhead is diluted with depleted uranium to make mixed oxide (MOX) fuel suitable for nuclear power plants. Further, if we replace the current practice of using the fuel in a once-through mode by reprocessing waste fuel, the current supply of uranium could last several-fold longer. Finally, if we develop breeder technologies to use thorium the supply of fissile fuels would be virtually inexhaustible.

What about nuclear proliferation?
Nuclear proliferation is another reason people object to developing nuclear power plants. The underlying assumption is that countries with nuclear power plants will use their technology and facilities for developing nuclear weapons. This assumption is not justified. There are many countries which have nuclear power, but no plans to develop weapons. Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Japan, Germany, South Korea, and Sweden are prime examples of nations in this category. Nor is nuclear power a prerequisite of weapons development. USA and Soviet Union developed weapons long before nuclear power plants were built.

The reason why countries acquire nuclear power technology is largely geopolitical, and proliferation is best addressed through political solutions. Countries acquire them primarily as a deterrent against a more powerful neighbor. Other factors include national pride and exercise of hegemony. France was concerned about Soviet weapons in its neighborhood. It developed nuclear weapons despite protestations from the Kennedy administration. Even assurance of a nuclear umbrella from the US did not dissuade France from its path.

Uranium-based nuclear weapon has a relatively straightforward gun design that shoots one subcritical mass of uranium into another subcritical mass. Together the pieces exceed the critical threshold and a nuclear explosion ensues. However, getting the uranium fuel and enriching it to weapons grade (i.e., greater than 80% U-235) is a substantial challenge. Recall that natural uranium has only 0.7% U-235. Fuel grade uranium requires increasing the ore about 6 fold to between 3% and 5% U-235. Enriching it to weapons grade requires an additional 20-fold enrichment, something that requires access to a vast arrays of high speed centrifuges. Non-nuclear nations could not follow this path surreptitiously as these facilities would be readily detected and are also subject to sabotage through cyber-attacks—the U.S. successfully set Iran back in its drive to acquire weapons grade uranium by deploying the Stuxnet worm.

Plutonium-based devices require Pu-239, which is present in the spent nuclear fuel. Chemical extraction of plutonium is a relatively simpler process than enriching isotopes, and hence the fear that countries could divert some of the spent fuel for making a weapon. However, the construction of the plutonium device is much more challenging and presents a major hurdle.[v] Besides, the plutonium in spent fuel also contains other isotopes of plutonium, notably Pu-240, which must be removed or the device would simply fizzle. Weapons-grade plutonium are best obtained from research reactors in which the uranium is “burnt” for very short periods before reprocessing—a practice not conducive to electrical power production.

What about dirty bombs?
Another concern is the possibility of nuclear waste being used by terrorists to create a “dirty bomb” which causes radioactive damage. The damage that a dirty bomb can really create is one of fear of contaminating a vital area so as to cause mass disruption. A dirty bomb will also cause a small increase of cancer risk for the population as a whole, but it does not lead to immediate loss of life. Terrorists are more likely to try something more spectacular, including conventional bombs. 

The hurdles for making a dirty bomb are also significant for a terrorist organization. For starters, amassing the radioactive material without killing themselves before they can make the device is an insurmountable challenge for the terrorists. While the radiation from the dirty bomb after it has been exploded—and the radioactive materials dispersed—poses only a small risk to the large population, in a concentrated form, as would be necessary for the bomb, the radiation levels will be high enough to cause illness and death. The terrorists could decide to make dirty bomb from -emitters, because they can protect themselves against this non-penetrating radiation. For this type of dirty bombs the radioactive materials can be obtained from a variety of medical and other devices that have nothing to do with nuclear energy, and so this threat is not reduced by turning off nuclear power plants.

There will always be violent groups with grievances, and therefore the risk of having such a group acquire a small fissionable bomb can be minimized with adequate protection of important secrets and technology. The real risk would be from a rogue nation providing a terrorist group with a small nuclear device and a means for delivering it. A one-kiloton “suitcase” device does not wreak as much damage as many conventional explosive charges do. 

I do not mean to take the threat of terrorist attacks using a nuclear device lightly, for it can cause mass economic disruption. Ours is not a situation with easy choices, and the growth of nuclear power is important for the energy security of the world. This is a problem that needs a political solution. Greater involvement of the IAEA and internationalization of the enrichment and fuel reprocessing is a path proposed by ElBaradei, former Director General of the IAEA and winner of 2005 Nobel Prize for peace. Internationalization of fuel processing could provide assurance to countries pursuing nuclear power that they will get the fuel for their plants. Stable energy supplies is a deterrent of war. This scenario also provides the safeguard that nuclear material is not being diverted to military uses, because the material would be watched over by personnel from many different countries.

[i] Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments; Press release. Oct. 8, 2018;
[ii] Status and Trends in Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste Management, IAEA Nuclear Energy Series No. NW-T-1.14 (2018)
[iv] U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
[v] In order to successfully explode a plutonium bomb it is important to keep the Pu-239 from poisoning itself by its own neutrons. To achieve this, plutonium is fashioned into a thin-walled sphere so that the neutrons mostly escape and are not absorbed by the neighboring Pu atoms. In order to explode the device, the Pu sphere has to be compressed together into one lump. This feat is achieved by a process of implosion. A number of chemical explosives are set off around the Pu sphere, and their shock wave compresses the sphere. The timing of the explosions has to be very precisely controlled, or the nuclear device simply fizzles.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Why I Favor Nuclear Power

The world needs energy
There is little doubt that the world needs lots of energy—cubic miles of oil worth of energy—just to afford the current population a decent standard of living. More than 80% of the primary energy we currently use is derived from fossil fuels, and the immediate consequence is a higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, ocean acidification, and an increased risk of climate change. The need for producing much more clean energy, in particular electricity, becomes evident when one considers the 3 billion people living at or near-poverty conditions.

Use of electricity produces no environmental pollutants, and thus its use should be encouraged wherever possible, such as for heating and transportation instead of using natural gas and oil. These transitions only increase the demand for clean electricity. As a rough estimate global production of electricity has to increase at least four-fold its current level of about 25,000 TWh per year. Of course, electricity is only as clean as the method for generating it in the first place.

As some deeply concerned about the state of our environment, I realize that we have to stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible, and start relying on zero-CO2 sources like nuclear, wind and solar. On a life cycle basis, all these sources produce only a few grams of CO2 per kWh of electricity compared to nearly a kilogram of CO2 per kWh for coal power plants.

Nuclear power produces CO2-free electricity
Unlike generation electricity by burning fossil fuels, generation by nuclear, hydro, solar, and wind are not associated with direct emissions of CO2. That is not to say that these sources are carbon-free. Varying amounts of CO2 are released in the processes used for producing the requisite materials, construction, and ultimate dismantling. Comparison of various electricity generation technologies must account for both direct and indirect emissions. The figure below was taken from a paper by Markandya and Wilkinson, which compares the direct and indirect emissions of CO2 for various power generation technologies.[1] On a life-cycle basis, CO2emissions from nuclear are the lowest, about 30 g/kWh compared to 1.3 kg/kWh for coal, and even lower than solar and wind because they require substantially greater amounts of materials such as steel, concrete, and glass for producing equivalent amount of electricity.

Figure 1. Nuclear power emits the least amount of carbon dioxide.

Nuclear power has a low environmental footprint
Since nuclear fission releases a million times the energy than chemical reactions (combustion), it takes that much less fuel. We burn billions of tons of coal, oil and gas, but to generate an equivalent amount of energy we need only a few thousand tons of uranium, which greatly reduces the environmental burden of mining for the fuel.

The high energy density means that nuclear plants are compact. They do not require much land and can be located close to centers of power consumers. The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant with its twin 1100 MW units take up only 940 acres (less than 1.5 square miles). Area required for comparable nameplate generation capacity for solar and wind farms is 10 to 100 times greater, and another three times larger to compensate for their low capacity factor. Because of the large area requirement, large renewable power generation systems have to located further away from city centers, and hence have a greater need for easements for  more transmission lines.

The tonnage of commodity materials such as concrete, steel, cement, and glass required for the construction of power generating facilities are also much smaller for a given capacity of nuclear power than other power generation systems, further reducing the environmental burden. Nuclear plants produce power 24 X 7 with occasional scheduled shutdowns for maintenance and refueling. They thus have capacity factors in excess of 90%. Renewable sources such as wind and solar have capacity factors between 25 and 30%. Whereas nuclear plants are built to last 60 or more years, wind and solar facilities last only 30 years. The higher capacity factor and longer life means that nuclear plants produce six times as much electricity as comparably sized wind and solar facilities. Figure 1, taken from the Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Technology Review, shows the tons of materials required for producing 1 TWh of electricity from different power generation systems. As is evident from the figure, the environmental burden of nuclear plants is the least of all other sources.

Figure 2. Nuclear power has the lowest materials intensity.

Nuclear power is safe
If we look at the fatalities associated with mining, installation, and operation from power generation of various energy sources, nuclear is the safest. The following chart, compiled by the Canadian Nuclear Agency includes deaths from the pollutants emitted by fossil fuels that cause asthma and other respiratory ailments.1 The figure of 161 deaths per TWh for coal is a global average, and it is worth noting that in the US it is 15, while in China it is 278. There is no doubt that measures to control the emissions of particulate matter and other pollutants from coal plants in the US have been very beneficial.

The figure of 0.04 deaths per TWh for nuclear plants includes the estimated 4000 deaths from radiation exposure following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This estimate is an upper limit for the number of fatalities as it is based on the linear no-threshold model (LNT). This model assumes all ionizing radiation is harmful, and its effects are cumulative; in other words the model assumes that our bodies have no repair mechanisms. We live with constant exposure to ionizing radiation and have evolved DNA-repair mechanisms to deal with certain levels of radiation exposure. A more realistic estimate would further reduce the number of fatalities from nuclear power to about 0.013 per TWh.

Figure 3. Nuclear power has the fewest fatalities per unit of electricity.

The prospect of climate change and ocean acidification are real, and the long time it takes to implement corrective measures means that we must rapidly decarbonize our energy systems. Our fears of radiation are largely unfounded and have had the deleterious effect of continued use of fossil fuels. Even as we deploy wind and solar—the nominally low-carbon sources—the absence of large scale storage systems have forced us into using natural gas power for back up. The design of natural gas power plants used as spinning reserves are selected on the rapidity with which they can be brought online. These designs are among the least efficient of gas-fired plants, with thermal efficiencies around 33%, and thus high carbon emissions. Gas-fired power plants that operate with a combined steam cycle have thermal efficiencies in excess of 50%. Analysis by Larsen and Rez shows that we would do better in terms of carbon emissions if instead of installing low capacity factor wind or solar systems and backing them with natural gas, we simply used a combined cycle natural gas plant.[2]

[1] Markandya and Wilkinson, Lancet 2007, 370, 979-90.
[2] T.C. Larsen, P Rez, Journal of Sustainable Energy Engineering, 2017, 194-206, (

Monday, July 31, 2017

Governor Brown, Think Nuclear Power!

California’s governor, Jerry Brown, has been a strong advocate for measures to limit greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions and combat climate change. He demonstrated leadership in face of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement by President Trump by speaking out and letting the world know that many cities and states in the US will still abide by those pledges. He led a delegation with major industry leaders to China to explore co-operative ventures. Just this week, on July 25, he signed a major climate bill, AB 398, which will extend California’s cap-and-trade system for ghg to 2030. Gov. Brown never misses an opportunity to remind us that implementing measures to combat climate change has not hurt California’s economy, instead it has made it stronger and resilient.

Thus far, switching from coal to natural gas has been the main contributor towards reduced emissions in CA. However, this model is not a recipe for curbing emissions in energy-impoverished societies where most of the growth in energy consumption is expected. Because they are not profligate consumers of energy, there is very little room for gain by increasing efficiency. As they strive to improve their standard of living they will need to sharply increase the total supply of energy. And remember, emissions do not know state or national boundaries, and California is responsible for barely 1% of global ghg emissions. What California needs to do is develop innovative technologies that avoid carbon emissions at a cost that makes a compelling case for their widespread adoption.

There is a growing global and national need for carbon-free electricity. Even in CA, electricity demand is expected to increase. Additional electricity required to power the projected 1.5 million EVs is 12.6 TWh per year. California’s IT industry also requires large amounts of electricity. Cloud services by Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and others require 10s of TWh of reliable electricity each year. To put these numbers in perspective, CA consumed 220 TWh of electricity in 2014. Bulk of this electricity (120 TWh) used in CA was generated from natural gas. Coal contributed only about 20 TWh; it was mostly imported from other states as the in-state production of coal power has all but disappeared. Wind, solar, geo thermal, and hydroelectric power generate relatively smaller amounts: 13, 10, 12 and 17 TWh respectively.

Nuclear power is one technology that can produce copious quantities of carbon-free electricity. California used to have three nuclear power plant facilities generating about 44 TWh carbon-free electricity; however, two of them have already been closed and there are talks of decommissioning the third one at Diablo Canyon, which last year generated 17 TWh of electricity. In view of the increasing demand for carbon-free electricity, I find plans to turn off nuclear plants misguided. Germany’s attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions have essentially stalled after it turned off its nuclear power plants.

Existing plants should be re-certified and the development of new inherently safe nuclear power technologies needs to be supported. I am heartened to see construction of the such plants in China and India. It would be nice if such development also took place in the U.S., but that is not likely given the strong anti-nuclear sentiment. This attitude feeds into the “business risk” and renders financing nuclear projects impossible. We must remember that nuclear power has the smallest environmental footprint and is the safest source of energy with the least number of casualties per unit of electricity produced.

A first step CA could undertake is to qualify nuclear power to receive the carbon credits that afforded wind and solar power. This action would make nuclear power more competitive. It would also send a signal to the companies developing advanced nuclear technologies that they are welcome in CA to develop their innovative technologies for both domestic use and for export.

Friday, June 2, 2017

US Withdrawal from Paris Accord

Last few weeks I have often been asked about the effect of the US withdrawing from the Paris accord—and yesterday it happened! It is a good question, but because there are countervailing factors the answer is not straightforward—the net effect ranges from minimal to quite profound.
The Paris Agreement is not a binding treaty; it requires voluntary cuts to emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly CO2. The desired target set by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) is to cut energy-related global CO2 emissions from the current 36 Gt-CO2 each year to about 17 Gt- CO2 by 2035 and then be net zero by 2050. If all the signatory nations cut their emissions by the amounts they have pledged, the global emissions are slated to rise to 55 Gt- CO2. Clearly, all nations will have to do a whole lot more if the IPCC targets are to be realized. Indeed, it was the expectation that the signatory nations will periodically review their progress and make additional pledges.
Trump questioned the "fairness" of the agreement by saying that it imposes undue economic burden on US while allowing developing nations to continue emitting CO2. Like I said, no nation is imposing any burden on any other nation. It is all based on independently determined voluntary contributions. Also, I wonder what is Trump's definition of fairness. China may have higher emissions than the US, but per capita emissions in the US is twice as high as in China and much higher than in much of the developing world. Moreover, the US, and other developed nations have been adding copious quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. They have reaped all the benefits of industrialization. The developing nations, with a much larger population, have only recently begun the process of improving the lot of their citizens by expanding energy use. Asking them to share equally in cutting emissions? Now that’s unfair!
As far as global emissions are concerned, the rest of the world will continue to make progress. In the US too, progress will continue along that front thanks to economic factors (i.e. cheap natural gas) and actions at state and city levels. The repeal of rules implemented under Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) does remove incentives for auto manufacturers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles, including electric cars. That action will likely result in the US ceding leadership in electric cars and batteries to manufacturers in Europe and Asia. The repeal of CPP is not likely to increase coal use for power generation—liberalization of Oil and Gas industry will increase the production of natural gas, which will continue to be fuel of choice for power production. Switching out coal for natural gas will reduce U.S. emissions, but the lack of regulations and requirements for monitoring fugitive natural gas—a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 —could wipe out any benefits there may have been from fuel switching.
A real opportunity for reducing emissions lies in the advanced nuclear technologies. I spoke on the topic two weeks ago. I devoted much of my talk to addressing the widely-held fears and risks of nuclear power, and on the newer thorium-based nuclear technologies that are walk-away safe and generate a very small amount of radioactive waste that would require safeguarding—essentially, burial under six feet of ground—for only about 300 years.
My talk can be viewed here. Unfortunately, since the slides cannot be seen very clearly in the video, I have posted them my Google Drive and you can download them here. It is a long video (about 1.5 h including Q&A), but I hope you can make time to view it. I would be most interested in hearing about any comments or questions you might have, and particularly so if after you viewing you still think that the world would be better off not developing nuclear power.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

America First Energy Plan: Is it even a plan?

The official website of the White House features a tab on Issues, and the top item on the list is President Trump's “America First Energy Plan (AFEP).” It’s hard to consider this one-page document as a plan.  It does not spell out the energy needs of the country for the foreseeable future, nor does it describe what combination of energy sources will be used to meet those needs. What a contrast from the Energy Policy Act of 2005 of President Bush or the Climate Action Plan of President Obama!

I visited this website hoping to learn what incentives or disincentives the new administration will use to favor the development of various energy sources—specifically, I was curious about its stance toward nuclear power. No luck! There was no mention of nuclear power or for that matter any other energy source except coal, oil, and gas. There’s a multi trillion-dollar global market need for CO2-free electricity, that is best addressed by nuclear energy and it would behoove the U.S. to gear up for it.

AFEP recognizes the essential role of energy in our lives and global economy, and the need for “responsible stewardship of the environment.” Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority.” So far so good; it is hard for anyone to disagree with these platitudes, although one of the first executive actions by Trump reversed a rule forbidding dumping of coal ash in waterways—how is that demonstrating environmental stewardship? 

AFEP blames burdensome regulations like the Climate Action Plan of the Obama administration for the plight of the US energy industry, specifically the coal industry.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), coal production in the U.S. has dropped by a third since 2008, from 1.1 billion tons to 740 million tons in 2016. President Trump has repeatedly asserted that removing restrictions imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will bring back the coal industry. I have previously written that the coal industry is hurting mainly because coal has lost its competitive edge to natural gas. The fleet of coal-fired plants in the U.S. is aging, and the demand for electricity in this country has been mostly flat—around 4,000 TWh/yr since 2006. As old coal plants are slowly phased out they are being replaced by those fired with natural gas. Advances in fracking have increased the availability of gas, and depressed its price such that producing power from gas is cheaper than from coal. 

To be sure, complying with the EPA emissions standards for oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, particulates, and other pollutants adds to the cost of coal-generated power, but we certainly do not want to revert to the days of widespread acid rain or smog choking our cities. That would not be “responsible stewardship of the environment.” Obama’s Climate Action Plan limits the emission rate of a new power plant to 400 grams of CO2 per kWh of electricity generated.  The relatively high carbon intensity of coal-fired power plants (greater than 850 grams CO2/kWh) would essentially preclude building any coal-fired power plant except those that would capture and use or sequester the produced CO2. However, repealing the Climate Action Plan is not going to spur the building of coal-fired power plants. Fuel choice for a new power plant is largely an economic decision, and on this basis gas-fired plants will clearly be favored.

AFEP lays out a vision of plentiful energy and jobs that will be unleashed by tapping into an “estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves.”  I know that the U.S. has large reserves of oil and gas, but $50 trillion worth of reserves stretches credibility. The BP Statistical Review of World Energy lists U.S. oil reserves at 55 billion barrels and natural gas reserves at 369 trillion cubic feet.  At $50 per barrel of oil and $2.6 per thousand cubic feet of natural gas, the listed reserves add up to just $3.7 trillion—a far cry from the $50 trillion! 

The term “reserves” has a special meaning; it refers to only those geologic accumulations that can be recovered using current technology at current prices. The U.S. has a significantly larger deposit of oil and gas resources, but they are not classified as reserves. At a high price of oil, say $120/barrel, many of these deposits could be considered reserves. But with the emphasis on domestic drilling for oil and gas and plentiful availability of these, the prospects of oil price rising to those levels is low. To be sure, there is a positive side to having abundant low cost energy. It makes the energy-intensive U.S. industries more competitive and spurs manufacturing of goods for export.

The U.S. Geological Survey periodically estimates the oil and gas resources and these get reported through the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The latest estimates for the resource base of oil and gas are 24 billion barrels of shale oil and 750 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. Monetizing them would yield an additional $3.1 trillion for a total of $6.9 trillion—still nowhere near the $50 trillion number touted in the AFEP.

Perhaps the administration is also including the oil shale resource, which is estimated to be 1,500 billion barrels, and could conceivably generate $50 trillion. But oil shale—not to be confused with shale oil or tight oil—is a rock that bears the precursors to oil called kerogen. The kerogen must be heated to produce the oil because the geology has not done the conversion. Fracking will not produce oil from this resource; it will require mining the rock and retorting it, or somehow heating it underground and collecting the oil. The process is very expensive and certainly not something that could be commercialized when oil sells for $50/barrel.

I can forgive conflating reserves and resources, or oil shale and shale oil, in newspaper articles but not in a national energy plan. But then again, I am not surprised by the blatant exaggeration of the reserves and the emphasis on increasing fossil fuel production with total disregard to the rising CO2 levels in the air and concomitant ocean acidification. After all, the administration appointed as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) Scott Pruitt who doubts that global warming is being caused by anthropogenic CO2 emissions and has on many occasions challenged the EPA in courts. The administration has indicated that it will cut funding for NOAA, the agency that monitors the state of the planet’s climate. It will no longer require natural gas companies to measure the amount of gas that leaks from their wells and pipelines. These decisions are cause for concern.

In the AFEP there is no mention of sources of electric power like, hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear that have essentially no CO2 emissions. The new administration will likely reverse the requirement that car manufacturers increase the fuel efficiency of their fleets to 54 mpg by 2025. To meet this stretch target, car manufacturers will have to start building many more electric vehicles. Without the pressure to increase fuel efficiency, U.S. car manufacturers will abandon their electric vehicle programs and cede leadership of this emerging market to their European and Asian competitors. That’s not putting America First.

As I mentioned above, global demand for electricity is on the rise and not by just in the developing nations. Even in the OECD countries the demand for electricity will rise as the transportation sector gets electrified and more of the service sector moves to cloud-based services. Server farms deployed by Google, Facebook, Microsoft or Amazon require around a gigawatt of steady uninterrupted power, the size of a nuclear reactor. Renewable sources like wind and solar cannot deliver this power as they require gas-fired power plants to back them up, and hence in practice they turn out to be not entirely carbon-free sources. Advanced nuclear technologies that are inherently safe and proliferation-proof can deliver this energy but market forces currently do not favor investments in them in the U.S. With government support, some of these designs are being developed in Korea, China, and India. There is an opportunity here for the Trump administration to support the necessary R&D on these new nuclear technologies in the U.S. and get them ready for commercial deployment both here and abroad. That would help the U.S. regain leadership in this vital area.

An earlier version had an error in the estimate of US oil reserves.  I have corrected that, but my bottom line conclusion remains the same. March 13, 2017.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Presidential Debates: Lost Opportunity to Discuss Energy Policy

The number times the subject of energy was brought up by a moderator in this year’s three Presidential debates is precisely zero. The only time the issue came up was during the town-hall style debate in St. Louis citizen when Ken Bone asked the candidates, “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job layoffs?” In his brief response, Trump berated the Obama administration and the EPA for “killing” our energy industry and letting foreign companies come in. He was forgetting that more than the EPA it is the abundance of cheap gas that is killing coal production. If oil and gas is production is increased, so will the economic pressure to close coal mines. And, yes we do need regulations; thanks to the Clean Air Act emission of toxic particulates from coal power plants have been markedly reduced, and as a result we are all breathing easier.
In her statement, which was cut short by the moderator, Clinton only emphasized the need to revitalize the coal country as coal prices are down globally and the government can’t walk away from miners and other workers of the region. We missed a great opportunity to hear our candidates lay out their policies on this very important topic.
Hillary Clinton wants to invest heavily in transforming the US energy supply and touts the large number of green jobs that will create.  While consideration of jobs is understandable, I think the emphasis on the number of jobs in energy industries is misplaced. The role of the energy industry is not to employ many workers within itself, but to produce a commodity at an affordable price to enable other industries and businesses to flourish and in so doing provide employment for many. We don’t necessarily want many people employed in the production of energy—a commodity; rather we want more people employed in the consumption of energy. Wages for every employee engaged in production add to the cost of producing the commodity, making it more expensive for other businesses and industries to use it and employ more workers.
It is true that green energy employs many more people, but to get more quantitative—which is my wont—I browsed through the databases published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to cull some relevant data. For the amount of energy produced by each sector, I used the data from the 2016 BP Review of Global Energy. Whereas the BLS continues to track the numbers for the Oil and Gas, Coal, Nuclear, Hydro, and many other industries, it stopped tracking Green Energy jobs in 2013—a casualty of the sequestration that went into effect when the Congress could not agree on a balanced budget. Besides, its definition of “green jobs” was very broad. Fortunately, the International Renewable Energy Agency does track the global employment in wind, solar, and other renewable technologies.
The following table lists the number of workers employed in the different energy sector and the amount of energy produced by them. For the first four entries the numbers refer to the US only, but for Wind and Solar they refer to global employment and global energy production. The relevant point for comparison is the per capita productivity. Whereas each worker in the Nuclear power produces over 100 GWh/year, the productivity of workers in the wind power sector generate less than 1 GWh/yr, and in the solar less than a tenth of that. At this rate, the solar power sector would need to employ about 43 million workers, or roughly a third of the US workforce, to generate the 4,000 TWh of electricity that the US currently produces and consumes!
Table 1. Per capita energy productivity is the highest for nuclear power.
No. of Workers
Energy Produced (TWh)
Nuclear (US)
Coal (US)
Oil & Gas (US)
Hydro (US)
Wind (Global)
Solar (Global)