Future Nuclear

Sustaining the Wind Part 3 – Is Uranium Exhaustible?

A pilot plant for the extraction of uranium from seawater under construction in India. (From Rao , 2010)
A pilot plant for the extraction of uranium from seawater under construction in India. (From Rao [1] , 2010)
This is Part III of the “Sustaining the Wind” series of essays by NNadir. For Part I, click here. Part II is here.

In part 2 of this series[2], we discussed the claim of Udo Bardi, an academic “peak oiler” out of the University of Florence, that uranium supplies are subject to exhaustion, this because, according to Bardi, and a correspondent evoking, if not actually citing, him in this space, extracting meaningful amounts of uranium from seawater, where its mass vastly outstrips the quantities obtained from domestic ores, is too expensive in terms of energy and cost.   According to Bardi, we face “peak uranium” just as we face “peak oil,” the latter being Bardi’s main focus, although my cursory impression is that, many, if not most “peak oilers” are also “peak uranium” types.    As a practical matter, I am really neither of these.   I acknowledge that the world might run out of oil, but unlike most “peak oilers” as I understand them, I’m unconcerned about its consequences.  As far as I’m concerned, the sooner we run out of oil, the better.   In my opinion, the replacement of oil is straight forward, which is neither to say “easy” nor to say “cheap” but nonetheless, in the golden age of chemistry, clearly technically feasible, and clearly desirable.   My problem with petroleum has to do with the status of the main dump for its waste, this being the planetary atmosphere.    A secondary concern has to do with the diversion of oil to make weapons of mass destruction, a routine practice on this planet, as well as the hysteria about oil as a cause of wars of mass destruction, followed by a concern about oil terrorism, which among other things, lead to the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Part 2 of this series was all about “peak indium,” inasmuch as it is involved in so called “renewable energy,” which in some cases, indium in “CIGS” (copper indium gallium selenide) thin film solar being one, is running out of key materials before it has become a significant form of energy.   And let’s be clear:   After half a century of jawboning about the subject, and after the expenditure of trillions of dollars to try to make it work, so called “renewable energy,” excepting hydropower, is not a significant form of energy.

Although overall this series is entitled “Sustaining the Wind,” we will not be focusing very much in this part on wind energy itself, but rather on this fuel for nuclear energy, uranium, considering very dilute sources, one of which will be seawater.   Part 3 of this series is all about the concept of “peak uranium” as raised by Bardi and many others, including a vast segment of the population that knows nothing at all about nuclear energy, but hates it anyway.

There is good reason for doing this in a series on wind energy.   First, if one spends any amount of time looking into the claims of those who advocate for so called “renewable energy” one will quickly see that for many of the advocates for this expensive, and thus far essentially useless form of energy, are often less interested in replacing dangerous fossil fuels than they are in displacing nuclear energy.   (In Part 5 we will look at some prominent academics associated with this tragic anti-nuclear, pro-“renewable energy” rhetoric, focusing mainly on Mark Z. Jacobsen, Professor of Civil Engineering at Stanford University.)  Since nuclear energy remains, despite much caviling, the world’s largest, by far, source of climate change gas free primary energy, easily outstripping all others, we should suspect that these advocates are spectacularly uninterested in climate change and other forms of air pollution, which I assure you, are far more dire catastrophes than the reactor failures at Chernobyl and Fukushima that so obsess this sort.   Secondly, if nuclear energy is safe, clean, and infinitely or nearly infinitely sustainable, the rationale for constructing truly massive numbers of wind turbines collapses.   As we have seen in parts 1 and 2, wind turbine construction involves digging up huge amounts of increasingly rare elements, as well as vast quantities of elements that are not yet rare but nonetheless involve significant environmental impacts to refine.   Historically, as we shall see, uranium mining has been as problematic as the mining of other ores, probably not as odious as coal mining or petroleum mining, but, given that it occurred in an era – the last half of the 20th century – featuring a “once through,” waste mentality, nevertheless, leaving a scar on a future generation, specifically our generation.   Herein we will suggest approaches to healing this scar and preventing new such scars.

Opponents of nuclear energy often lump it with dangerous coal, and the other two dangerous fossil fuels, dangerous petroleum and dangerous natural gas.   While overall this is absurd, in one way it has a modicum of truth:   Like dangerous petroleum, dangerous natural gas, and dangerous coal, uranium and thorium are irreversibly consumed when used for the generation of primary nuclear energy, and on the surface however, it would seem, therefore, theoretically that there are limits to the sustainability of access to these fuels.

When we looked at indium in part 2 we saw that because the ocean remains slightly basic despite the policy failures that are leading to its slow but steady acidification – one such policy failure is to regard fossil fuels as “transitional” while we wait, like D’Estragon waiting for Godot, for so called “renewable energy” to become a significant source of energy – and because indium hydroxide is one of the most insoluble hydroxides known, ocean water cannot be considered to be a dilute ore for that element.   We saw that where indium is concerned, the only likely source is likely ever to be likely available are terrestrial zinc – and possibly lead – ores, as well as industrially insignificant quantities as a fission product of plutonium.

Bardi’s paper[3] on the feasibility of mining seawater to obtain elements – I think is arguments and his conclusion that lithium is the only element that may so be obtained are very, very, very weak to say the least – is cited in a more recent, and frankly much better, if hardly comprehensive, paper[4] on the subject of mining the sea for minerals.   Despite the citation, almost all of Bardi’s conclusions are promptly more or less ignored except that the referring paper utilized Bardi’s figure for the mass of uranium in the ocean, which is 4.29 billion tons.   Bardi’s internal source, from his paper meanwhile, for this figure seems to be from a website[5] run by an organization called “seafriends”.   I mean to cast no aspersions on the hardworking author of that website, who may or may not be highly accurate.  (The site is still accessible as of this writing, August 28, 2015)  Nevertheless were Bardi to appeal to the large number of primary sources from the scientific literature (as opposed to more ephemeral sources from the internet) or comprehensive secondary sources from the same literature for concentrations of the elements in seawater, sources referring to the utilization of modern techniques like ICP-MS or radiometric methods[6] his paper would be infinitely stronger.   After all, the point of all the speculation about the future of mining the sea for elements in the periodic table is designed to influence the decisions about research being conducted now.   Happily, I think, there seems to be very little impetus for taking Dr. Bardi’s analysis seriously.   As we will see, nothing he said in 2010 has caused abandonment of research into isolating uranium (and other elements) from seawater.     The world had, in fact, moved past Bardi’s conclusion well before he came to it, his problem being that he didn’t look with anything even remotely approaching rigor at uranium extraction technologies (or the extraction of other metals) when he wrote about the subject.

Bardi concludes that copper, for instance, can never be isolated economically from seawater. By contrast, the authors citing him seem to have an almost breathless enthusiasm for mining the ocean.     They drew or had drawn a nice cartoon showing the structure of a putative plant for obtaining all sorts of resources and energy from seawater.   Here it is:

Their plant has all sorts of fun things, like forward osmosis systems for generating electricity using the inherent energy in salt gradients, an interesting way, by the way, of recovering some (but not all) of the energy associated with waste heat.

The authors also produce a very beautiful picture of a dendrimer for, um, isolating copper from seawater. Personally, as one of my many eccentricities, I happen to love pictures of dendrimers.  therefore I also reproduce from their paper the structure of their dendrimer for copper, showing putative copper binding sites isolation below.

I should note, if one is enamored of biological sources of materials, that similar dendrimers may be constructed from the amino acid lysine which is currently isolated in vast quantities from grain in order to make animal feed.   Commonly these types of lysine based dendrimers have been designed for drug delivery purposes, for instance to deliver cytotoxic agents of the anthracycline class, doxorubicin for example, to cancer cells,[7] but there is no intrinsic reason that lysine polymers (or co-polymers of compounds like ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA) of controlled structure could not be utilized for the complexation of metals.

The use of copper carboxyl amino complexes in the organic chemistry of lysine is, in fact, very common, since it is strategy to differentiate the α-amino nitrogen from the ε-amino nitrogen.   (I’ve actually carried out various reactions utilizing this complex myself.)   Note that the complex pictured above contains a complex designated, “B2” which includes coordination with amide oxygen atoms as well as tertiary amines, more or less suggesting amino acids.   Lysine, by the way, along with histidine, is the amino acid most involved in the biological fixation of carbon dioxide.   Thus, the structure above, which contains no lysine but rather structures derived from ethylene diamine and β-alanine might be expected to have interesting properties relating to the capture of carbon dioxide, but that is another matter.

All this said, it is not immediately clear that this type of approach, the isolation of copper from, means that the use of copper is as infinitely sustainable as doing the same uranium.    The case with uranium is very different, since the requirements for uranium are relatively small when uranium is used for producing energy, owing, again, to the extreme energy density of uranium when it is converted to plutonium.    Copper, by contrast, is required in far larger quantities for use as a structural material, an electrical conductor, etc., etc.   I want to be clear that my argument, irrespective of the views of the authors I cite, should be viewed as anything but cornucopian.    Least I seem totally dismissive of Bardi, he may have a point about copper and seawater.

As for uranium in seawater, we can attempt to provide a better estimate than Bardi’s (with the understanding that this is also a blog post) of the situation with respect to the total amount of uranium in seawater:   The literature connected with the isolation of uranium from seawater is motivated by the recognition by scientists around the world that the ocean naturally contains vast quantities of uranium.   The issue has been studied for more than half a century.[8]   The total quantity of uranium in seawater is, of course, a function of the total amount of seawater, a somewhat slippery target.   In recent times, many efforts have been undertaken to measure the mass and volume of the earth’s oceans, this connected with the desire to measure and record the rate at which seawater might inundate coastal land masses and low lying islands.    These levels, again, of course fluctuate to a certain degree as a function of temperature, composition gradients, season and weather – the GRACE scientific satellite mission[9] was designed to measure these fluctuations.  Nevertheless a fairly sophisticated calculation based on measurement of the earth’s gravitational fields[10] estimates that the mass of the oceans is 1.36 X 1021 kg.   One can encounter in a myriad of papers the figure for the concentration of uranium in seawater, a concentration which is not necessarily homogenous, with respect to this element if not to its radioactive decay daughters; the generally accepted value is around 3.3 ppb[11].   It follows, if these figures are accurate, that the oceans contain 4.5 billion tons of uranium, a little bit more than Bardi’s website generated estimate, although, um, 200 million tons of uranium is probably not trivial.   This is not to imply that Bardi’s estimate is truly less accurate than that we have attempted here.   As is noted in a far more serious analytical chemistry paper[12] citing papers measuring range between 3.1 ppb and 3.3 ppb, the former figure making the estimate made web page used by Bardi correct.

Even if Bardi’s analysis proves ultimately correct with respect to the concentration of uranium in the oceans, this is insignificant compared to a larger issue:

Dr. Bardi’s calculation of the energy content of uranium, 40 MWh/kg, assumes, arbitrarily, that people in a putative nuclear powered world would be dullards who choose to isolate uranium from dilute sources and then choose to throw most of it, the 238U isotope which dominates the mass of terrestrial uranium, away.  (This requirement – a culture of dullards in a nuclear powered world – is counterintuitive, given that the only way for a nuclear powered world to exist would be to have a generally scientifically literate population, a situation, regrettably, not generally observed at present.)  For the record, the per kg energy content of a kg of plutonium (the 239 isotope into which 238U can be transmuted under breeder conditions) is 22,300 MWh/kg, suggesting that Dr. Bardi’s calculations are, um, a little off, by a factor of more than 550.   If uranium should cost $460/kg, this would represent a raw material fuel cost, and if the uranium is consumed after transmutation into plutonium, of $0.00002 per kWh.

For comparative purposes, Germany and Denmark, two officially anti-nuke “pro-wind” countries which happen to feature the most expensive electricity in Europe[13], have electricity prices approaching $0.40 (US) per kwh, as opposed to US prices – which are rising with the inane or insane popularity of so called “renewable energy” – of roughly $0.12 (US)/kWh, and France, roughly $0.20 (US)/kWh.  The overwhelming majority of the cost of nuclear energy has nothing to do with the cost of raw material uranium (or for that matter thorium) but is rather entirely a function of the cost of nuclear infrastructure, infrastructure that is required, arbitrarily and for no sanely justifiable reason, to be infinitely safer than any other source of energy, this despite the fact that all other forms of significant energy are experimentally unsafe by comparison to the current industrial practice of nuclear energy, including the results of Chernobyl and Fukushima[14].  As it is, the one quoted current cost (as of May 2015) for uranium oxide in the form of U3O8 of $35.59/lb[15], which translates into a cost (as pure uranium) of $93.41/kg.

With gross errors greater than two orders of magnitude with respect to the energy content of uranium (transmuted into plutonium), distracted, sloppy frankly and absurdly narrow review of the literature, (as is described in Part 2 of this series) it is easy to see why no one, absolutely no one, least of all me, is inspired to stop a consideration of, or research into, isolating uranium from seawater because, to quote the blog poster (see Part 2 of this series) who inspired this series,  “Ugo Bardi has in his study ‘Extracting Minerals from Seawater’ analyzed the economic viability of extracting various metals from sea water and found limited grounds for optimism due to huge energy cost…”

One of the more annoying things about “peak oilers” in general, in my view, is that they are conservatives:   They believe that everything must be done exactly as it always has been done and that no new or different should be attempted, ever.   This is why these people can’t imagine a world not run on oil, and why oil obsesses them, despite the fact that it is a pernicious and wholly unnecessary fuel.

In any case, the point is immediately meaningless.   As I pointed out previously in an earlier post in this space[16], the energy content of the “depleted” uranium already mined and fully refined, if converted into plutonium and fissioned, along with thorium content present in lanthanide mine tailings from “renewable energy” waste dumps, if converted to 233U is easily sufficient to provide for all of humanity’s energy needs, probably for one to two centuries, depending on the living standards we provide for the planet’s citizens and the number of said citizens.

Even so, the point is that there probably is no such thing as “peak uranium,” no matter how far into the future as we would like to project, as disappointing as this might be to “peakers.”    This is not because nuclear energy is “renewable” any more than wind turbines are “renewable.”   Uranium is, again, irreversibly destroyed when used to make energy, fissioned into other useful elements.    What makes uranium unique is that it is inexhaustible owing to the fact that for as long as the atmosphere contains both oxygen and carbon dioxide, it is sufficiently soluble in seawater as to be available for isolation.     Again, this is only true because of the extreme energy density of uranium.    For fuel purposes, one would only need to fission somewhat less than 15,000 metric tons per year to provide 800 -1000 exajoules of energy for a putative planetary population.  (Current energy consumption is on the order of 560 exajoules per year.)  Bardi, owing to his poor understanding of nuclear technology, indicates that we currently use 65,000 tons per year, as thus will always need 65,000 tons a year, but again, as a conservative who believes that no technology can be changed, he is relying on the “once through” fuel cycle with the requirement most of the uranium recovered from the sea be dumped somewhere.

But couldn’t we deplete the ocean’s uranium?   Probably not.   A geological cycle operates on earth[17], with uranium constantly washing off continental surfaces – where it is continuously deposited by volcanic action and concentrated by weathering, as well as leaching out of “MORBs” (Mid-Ocean Ridge Basalts) and in a process of continuous sedimentation, and crustal drift, subducting into the crust and mantle.   The four to five billion tons of uranium found in the ocean represents only a tiny fraction of the uranium contained in this cycle, limited by the solubility of uranium’s carbonate complex, which, while higher than many other elements, is still rather low.    The uranium in this cycle is actually has apparently isotopically fractionated, beginning about 600 million years ago when oxygen concentrations rose to a level to support the dissolution of uranium in seawater and is depleted with respect to the 235U isotope, and moreover is more dilute in total uranium than is the “bulk earth.”   “OIB’s” (Ocean Island Basalts) are thought to originate from magma deeper in the earth’s mantle, perhaps from hotspots.   Uranium concentrations in these rocks can be two orders of magnitude higher in concentration than MORB’s.[18]

The potential for continuous continental recharge of uranium to the sea can be seen from the relatively high uranium content of relatively recent (at least on a geological time scale) lava flows.   At Mono Lake in California, the dying lake mentioned in Part 1 of this series, examination of lava flows from the Long Valley caldera vents, dated by 238U/230Th disequilibrium to about 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, contain the mineral allanite with a composition of between 30 and 65 ppm of uranium, and interestingly, some samples containing up to 1% of the alternate nuclear fuel thorium[19] have been analyzed.   (Allanite also contains, like many thorium formations, significant lanthanides.)   It is worth noting that the main reason that Mono Lake is dying – and it is dying – is the diversion of its water flows to Los Angeles.   Some of LA’s drinking water percolates through (gasp) uranium formations.  Similarly, some garnets in the ejecta of the well-known and more recent eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy which destroyed the city of Pompeii a little under 2000 years ago are uranium rich, with concentrations of approximately 20 ppm U and thorium concentrations which are slightly higher.[20]

Riverine and to some extent wind driven dust and volcanic ash continually deliver this uranium on exposed and weathered surfaces to the ocean.[21]  For example,  the rivers draining into Canada’s Hudson Bay, despite the fact that the flows – particularly from the Nelson River – have been reduced because of hydroelectric plants by up to 30%, and despite the fact that many rivers flow actively only seasonally, deliver 3.4 X 105 moles (about 80 tons) of uranium into the bay each year.[22]  Chabaux collected[23] reported data from 33 major rivers and found that these rivers transport more than 5400 tons of uranium per year.   Major rivers like the Nile, the Danube, the Volga, the Murray Darling, and the Colorado, for just some examples, weren’t included.

In the case of the Colorado, it’s just as well:    The need for so called “renewable energy” as well as the exigent need to provide for water for fountains in Las Vegas, carwashes in LA, and golf courses in the Mohave Desert have completely destroyed the Colorado River Delta and its ecosystem and the river is almost always dried up before a drop of its water makes it to the Gulf of California.    Thus the uranium in the river – which should be expected to be significant owing to the fact that the river snakes through a region of rich uranium ores, some of which have been mined – all ends up where the water ends up.    This, of course, includes the agricultural fields of the Imperial Valley[24], the source of much of the winter table produce of the United States.

Interestingly four of the five rivers that carry the most uranium according to Chabaux’s paper have their source in the Himalayas, the top two being the Indus and the Ganges – which was discussed at some length in Part I of the series – at, respectively, 1176 tons per year, and the Ganges, at 900 tons per year.    Rounding out the top five on this (limited) list are Yangtse (763 tons), the Brahmaputra (612 tons) and the Mississippi (530 tons).     It has been estimated that the total flow of uranium from rivers alone is 42.5 +/- 14.5 million moles per year,[25] which translates, at an atomic weight for uranium at 238 g/mol to about 10,100 tons per year.  Riverine transport is not the only source of uranium flows into the ocean.    Additional uranium flows into the ocean through the leaching of fresh ground water into the ocean, as well as from hydrothermal vents, submarine volcanos, volcanic ash, and drifting dust from rocks eroded from the wind, and remobilization of uranium containing sediments.

Estimates of the total uranium budget of the ocean have been made,[26] with the assumption that the ocean is at a steady state with respect to uranium, with input matching output, the output being largely precipitation as sediment.   The reported figures in the paper just referenced is that the input flux is between 34 and 60 million moles of uranium, which translates to between roughly 8,000 tons/year and 14,000 tons per year.    The energy equivalent of this yearly uranium washed to the sea, if converted to plutonium and fissioned is between 640 exajoules and 1,200 exajoules.   Recall from earlier parts of this series that the most recent figures we have for worldwide annual energy consumption from all sources of energy employed by humanity, all the coal, all the oil, all the gas, all the nuclear energy, now produced, including all the hydroelectricity, and all of the thus far unimportant wind, solar, and geothermal energy industries was about 560 exajoules per year.

One of the strong uranium removal sinks are coastal marshes, in particular salt marshes.  Coastal uranium fluxes are on the order of 11 million moles per year[27] (210 metric tons).   As we have chosen to burn coal, oil and gas instead of uranium, and thus have chosen, among other things, to kill huge numbers of people every year with air pollution and to destroy vast swaths of natural habitat, we expect that many existing marshes around the world will be inundated with seawater and destroyed.   In this case the uranium budget for the ocean will be correspondingly larger.

Thus even if removed from the ocean, uranium will be ultimately recharged to it.   It’s clearly safe to assume that if the world was making and fissioning enough uranium (converted into plutonium) per year derived from seawater to fuel all of humanity’s energy needs, humanity would never run out of it.  Seen this way, the ocean and the rivers draining into it are giant uranium continuously operating extraction devices, driven, ironically enough, from the decay heat of the vast quantities of uranium and thorium – and their decay daughters -contained in the planet’s interior.   To repeat, because of the extreme energy density of uranium processed into plutonium, only small, manageable amounts of it are required.   Thus because uranium is inexhaustible, it is therefore “sustainable.”

“Sustainable” and “renewable” are different words, by the way, and they mean vastly different things, irrespective of ill-considered current fashion to use them interchangeably.    Only in the case where the ability to renew may be indefinitely maintained do they approximate equivalence.   As I argued in part 2 of this series, the mass requirement for constructing so called “renewable energy” infrastructure is almost certainly not sufficient to make it “sustainable.”   In fact, the use of the word “renewable” is this context is nothing more than doublespeak.

It is worth noting that naturally occurring mechanisms exist for the concentration of uranium from seawater (and for that matter, from fresh water).     Although many, if not all, species of coral are likely to go extinct in the lifetimes of people now living as the ocean acidifies, the organisms are excellent concentrators of oceanic uranium.  Specimens of coral analyzed in 2006 utilizing one of the more sensitive ICP-MS instruments available at that time, the Agilent 7500 instrument, were found to have uranium concentrations of 2,761.5 +/- 6.5 ppb, as compared to concentrations of uranium of approximately 3.1 ppb in seawater samples taken nearby.[28]   If we lose many, most or all coral species – cynical pessimist that I am, I worry that we will[29] – it may be an option to preserve part of its genome for insertion into other species to accomplish the same task, algae for instance.

However, it may not prove necessary to discover the proteins – presumably they are proteins – and their coding genes in coral in order to engineer organisms that concentrate uranium.    In a very interesting paper[30] published last year, scientists at Beijing University, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory screened protein data bases to identify proteins containing structural motifs that seemed suitable for the complexation of the dioxouranyl (VI) cation.   This cation, complexed with carbonate, is the ion found in seawater in an oxidizing environment.  They searched for proteins containing five or six equatorial coordinating atoms displaying either a pentagonal of hexagonal bipyramid structure with a binding pocket of appropriate size.   They wrote a program they called URANTEIN to conduct the search, whereupon they identified a protein found in a species of anaerobic bacteria, Methanobacterium thermoautotrophicum- isolated from sewage sludge in Urbana, IL – that fit the bill.    Upon isolating the protein, they then engaged in a mutagenic exercise in which they optimized to protein (for the purpose of extracting uranium) by the use of synthetic genes with appropriate substitutions, inserted these into cells, cultured them, lysed them, and isolated the new protein, which was shown to concentrate uranium from solutions in the femtomolar range, far more dilute than seawater.    It is easy to imagine inserting this gene into any number of organisms suitable for use in a particular set of circumstances:   The protein is apparently quite rugged and exhibits high thermal stability.

In practice the authors engineered an E. Coli organism to display the protein on its surface, with the result that 60% of the uranium in synthetic seawater was extracted from it.  As is noted in the news item[31] accompanying the paper in the Nature Chemistry journal in which it appeared, it is possible of course, that chemists might steal a page from medicinal chemists and synthesize peptides (probably left in the solid phase and not cleaved from the resin used in the solid phase peptide synthesis) that mimic the epitopic region (or pseudoepitopic region – since the uranium coordinating site may not prove to be catalytic) to do the extraction.   Otherwise they might further steal from medicinal chemistry by designing a peptidomimetic isostere (as are many of the new drugs designed by medicinal chemists) of the epitopic or pseudoepitopic region of the mutant protein they designed for the purpose of sequestering uranium.   From my perspective however, an engineered organism is likely to be cheaper and more easily sustained, since by definition, living systems are self replicating.

This is a very elegant paper, I think.

Take that, Ugo Bardi!

In the real world, regrettably, genetic engineering of course is, like nuclear energy, the target of lots of harsh rhetoric from people who know nothing at all about it but hate it anyway, although the process of such engineering has been going on for billions of years.   (It’s called “evolution.”)   So, as is the case with nuclear energy, nuclear energy being, again, the last best hope of humanity, while it is almost certainly technically feasible to insert genes for the concentration of uranium into some organism, such a technology is likely to fail the political feasibility test.    I remind the reader again, however, that political feasibility has nothing at all to do with ethics or sustainability.    On the contrary, what is politically possible is often at cross purposes with what is good and just for humanity as a whole.

We’ll return below to some alternate technologies for the isolation of uranium from very dilute sources, including seawater, but first let’s talk a little about politics, which is often the cover word for the main drawback for the expansion of nuclear energy to a scale that can do whatever remains possible for saving the world:   “Public perception.”

In recent times, politically, too much weight has been awarded to people and organizations that are pseudo environmental but in fact, serve only to foster ignorance, superstition, and paranoia that are entirely inconsistent with the achievement of environmental goals without the simultaneous wholesale abandonment of human development goals.   One can only imagine, for example, the backward bourgeois benighted brats at Greenpeace[32], for instance, contemplating the insertion of soon to be extinct coral genes into bacterial or other organisms to collect uranium, or even more to the point of blowing their tiny little minds, a synthetic mutant gene into a bacterium, something that has already been demonstrated with E. Coli.

I am hardly innocent in the facilitation of this very dubious state of affairs.   Let me discuss my own political views, irrespective of their relevance (although one should be aware of the biases of any writer).

I’m political liberal in the United States, but (and I hope this doesn’t sound oxymoronic), an old fashioned one.     By “old fashioned” liberal, I mean that I am interested not focused entirely on the lives of the “most successful” citizens – if you count the accumulation of wealth for its own sake and no other purpose as “success” – but rather on fairness:  decent living conditions; economic, political, and legal justice; openness of opportunity for precisely those citizens the most in need, as opposed to those citizens who already possess everything they need – or will ever need – but want more anyway.   As such, I believe that the most important opportunity, not only for our youngest citizens, although clearly they should be the focus for anyone who cares about the future, but for all of our citizens, is the opportunity to educate oneself, not merely for economic advancement, but also as a source of what might be called, for lack of a better term, “spiritual” depth.

In saying this I am not necessarily appealing to putative noumenal universe, whose definition, including those faiths I have held, has been the source of so much trouble since the dawn of civilization, but rather for the intrinsic beauty of universe in itself, as seen by the tools applied to the “ordinary” senses (as if they were ordinary), as seen not only in the microscopic – one might also say “nanoscopic” or “picoscopic” or “femtoscopic” or “attoscopic” – universe, but of the macroscopic universe as well.   In our age we are ever approaching new edges of spacetime, at the same time as we peer into a quantum universe with bizarre excitements beyond the ken of normal human experience.    If one sees the universe, feels the universe, if one is allowed the privilege of doing so, one must be filled with transcendent, ineffable awe.   My hope is that that anyone who desires to see this would be able to do so.

Without extending any real phenomenological import to their ideas, since being exposed to them, I have taken a certain liberating satisfaction – “spiritual” satisfaction if you will – in the concepts explored by Frank Tipler and John Barrow in their book, “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle,[33]” an argument that the purpose of the universe is to be seen.

Thus my “liberalism,” such as it is, is about vision itself and as such, is very much connected to the idea that the future matters.

In the United States we have, really, only two political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, neither of which can really be imaginative within the constraints of banal politics, and neither of which can possibly reflect the real views of even the tiniest fraction of their members.    It has come to my attention that a large segment, regrettably probably the majority, of the members of my party, the party for which I vote reflexively – that would be the Democratic Party – has a reflexive attachment, at least where energy is concerned, to ideas that are simply silly cant.    I am speaking here of the dogmatically dullard view that so called “renewable” energy is more sustainable than nuclear energy, and that nuclear energy is somehow, at best, to be avoided, at worst eliminated.   In these times these are very dangerous, very toxic, ideas.    The people expressing these very dangerous ideas – “fatal ideas” might not be too strong a phrase – go so far even as to define so called “renewable” energy as “sustainable” energy although, as I have been endeavoring to show, it is neither sustainable or, in fact, renewable.

To be fair, the United States historically was once a pioneering country in nuclear energy, where once upon a time liberal thinkers were enthusiastic supporters of its industrialization.  Most of these – Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg, in many ways the father of the commercial nuclear enterprise in this country, comes to mind – were Democrats.   Times change.   The fact is, many political liberals, many in the American Democratic Party, today are openly hostile to the sensible notion that nuclear energy is, in fact, not an anathema, but is rather our last best environmental hope.  In short, many American Democrats are completely clueless about environmental issues.

To wit:  We may contrast my “old fashioned” liberalism with what passes for “liberalism” in modern times , the banal, barely literate worship of billionaires like Egon Musk, whose Tesla car for millionaires and his fellow billionaires generates so much enthusiasm, even though it’s useless, unsustainable, and unavailable on any meaningful scale, liberalism we might define as “consumer liberalism” as if consumption itself were an environmental goal[34].

(None of my contempt for some ideas prevalent in the American Democratic Party, of which I am a member, is to imply that I am willing to vote for the other party, which in my view is comfy with racists, oil men and other oligarchs, this while being hostile to the very people we once advertised, by inscribing an excerpt of Emma Lazarus’s poem[35] on the Statue of Liberty, as being the very people we wanted in our country.   Politically, I’m between a rock and a hard place, but I’m sure that many Americans feel that way, which is why so many of us, if not me, stay home during election days.)

In any case, if I claim I am interested in the future, that the future is my focus, well then, this claim certainly raises a serious issue of hypocrisy!

In the discussion above about the inexhaustibility of uranium, it would seem that I am advancing an argument that is essentially placing the onus for doing the things about which I speak with future generations, i.e. some centuries hence, when we’ve burned all the surface minable uranium.   I freely confess that this bears an uncanny and unfortunate correspondence to those who drive in gasoline powered cars to solar rallies or who indirectly burn gas and coal (and some oil) to power websites telling us about the grand wind powered future replete with swell Tesla cars in which they our expect our grandchildren and their grandchildren will be required to live without being offered any other alternative.

Let me step away from that flaw in my focus and insert an argument that there is good reason for making artificial high quality uranium ores from dilute sources now as opposed to some far off future when terrestrial uranium ores are fully consumed.   Now, of course, it is politically probably too much to ask of own generation possessed only with its transitory obsessions own luxury – the future be damned – but perhaps we can appeal to these obsessive self-interests to inspire ourselves to do the right thing and prepare these artificial uranium ores right now.

As is well known, many elements in the periodic table are toxic, and uranium, although it is ubiquitous, is one of them.  Even if the radioactivity hazard of uranium when isolated from its decay daughters is trivial, the chemical hazard, is not.   Like many other relatively common naturally occurring elements in the periodic table, again, lead for instance, cadmium for instance, selenium for instance, and in the case of many other examples, uranium is biochemically toxic.

As was discussed at some length in Part I, we have seen that the Ganges River, which we will discuss again shortly, is involved in arsenic flows, with the result that its delta has accumulated large amounts of this toxic element in fossilized groundwater in Bangladesh, where it has become a serious health threat associated with “the largest mass poisoning in history.”  Bengalis have been drinking pumped groundwater and irrigating their rice fields with ground water in contact with significant mineralized arsenic.

As it happens, I live in an area served by groundwater.   All the homes in my neighborhood, my own included, have private wells.     Arsenic is not a naturally occurring contaminant in well water where I live – uranium and its daughters, radium and radon are, but arsenic is not – but nonetheless, I had my well tested for arsenic, mostly because of the wide use in this area which includes large suburban estates, some with significant fencing for horse corals or for deer fencing to protect agricultural fields and ornamental landscaping, of chromated copper arsenate as a wood preservative on fence posts, telephone poles, and wooden retaining walls.

As I considered the question of whether my well would have arsenic above the WHO defined limit of 10 μg/L, I began to think about how I would remediate the problem, should it exist.   Commercial arsenic removal systems are sold; what they are essentially is finely divided particulate iron oxides, since these oxides have a high affinity for arsenic.    According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average American family uses about 300 gallons of water a day for home use[36]; let’s say, for my home, 1000 liters per day.   If my home were just at the action level, 10 μg/L, each day my system would collect about a milligram of arsenic, and each year, something approaching 400 mg, which is about two lethal doses of arsenic for an adult human being.    In this case – in the end it turned out that my water was not that contaminated – I would have been wise to replace the filtration system every year or so, lest the arsenic somehow got re-mobilized.     Of course, then I would need to dispose of the filter, which would contain potentially toxic doses.   In fact, the matrices of arsenic separation have been evaluated for leaching after disposal[37], and they do, in fact, leach arsenic.

The point is this:   Since arsenic cannot be destroyed (except in the esoteric and impractical case where it would be transmuted in a neutron flux into selenium, which is also toxic) I would be ultimately creating a new problem for anyone in a future generation living in the vicinity of the landfill where my used arsenic filters were dumped.   In the case of the town where I live, the landfill in question is not all that far from where I live, and I would not be surprised to learn that some of the groundwater where I live has at least some landfill leachate contained in it.

Suppose we lived in a civilized world as opposed to the one in which we actually live, where a massive international effort were made to address the much greater problem of arsenic in the poor nation of Bangladesh, where, again, tens of millions of people are being poisoned by naturally occurring deposits of the element.   Supposed we filtered all affected water in Bangladesh to remove arsenic.     The collection filters, whatever technology they involved, would contain prodigious amounts of arsenic; we may imagine scales on hundreds, thousands of tons being collected, a massive accumulation of highly toxic “waste.”      On the other hand, in Part 2 we saw that in at least one of the periodic tables we saw that arsenic is listed as one of the elements that is expected to face serious threats to its availability in the next century.    Be that as it may, arsenic, which is an important constituent of many semiconductor devices, as well as having other uses (including, ironically enough, some medical uses) is actually quite an inexpensive element, with prices that are generally lower than $2,000 (US) per metric ton, with the US demand for the element being on the order of 6,000 metric tons per year.[38]

It’s conceivable that arsenic demand may rise:   In Part 4 of this series, we will look at yet another periodic table like those we saw in Part 2, this one on the subject of what elements are actually truly recyclable from the products which they are used to manufacture, and which are, in fact, irreversibly dissipated.   As it happens, it has been[39] claimed that the “record” efficiency for solar cells – many of these claims, if not this one, are dubious – are based on gallium arsenide.    Let’s pretend for a moment that solar PV energy someday becomes a significant source of energy – it won’t, but let’s pretend – then in this case, to the extent that gallium arsenide is used, distributed energy will become distributed arsenic, and to the extent that such arsenic is “distributed” it may also become, as well “dissipated.”

According to one account[40] the requirement for irrigation water in Bangladesh is about 33 cubic kilometers.    Suppose that the mean concentration of arsenic in this water was exactly at the action level, 10 µg/L – actually many wells have levels that exceed this amount by more than 500% – and that some of the available technologies for arsenic removal were employed for all of this water, with a recovery of 90% of the arsenic.    It follows that about 300 metric tons of arsenic would be collected each year, a modest amount.   The value of this arsenic, at current prices, would also be modest, about $600,000 (US).    Nevertheless, depending on the technology used for separating it, assuming that said technology would allow for reversible elution of the arsenic, the sale of the arsenic would certainly not come close to paying the cost of removing the arsenic for health reasons, it might help to defray some costs, especially the cost of disposal, by selling the arsenic to people who are interested in utilizing arsenic to make gallium arsenide semiconductors.     Further, the sale of arsenic collected from the river would have a hidden economic and ethical benefit inasmuch as the arsenic collected would be arsenic that would not need to be mined.    And let’s be clear, arsenic mining should not be expected to be devoid of health effects on miners, far from it.

In some cases for uranium, a few of which we will examine below, this is the result of anthropomorphic activities associated with mining and processing for the manufacture of nuclear armaments as well as for industrial nuclear power, but in others it a simple fact of geology.    Neither can we claim that anthropomorphic sources are solely limited to nuclear armaments and nuclear power:   For example, as things stand right now, rather large quantities of uranium are routinely distributed on agricultural fields, owing to the affinity that uranium displays for phosphates.[41]  (Historically these phosphate ores were evaluated as potential sources of uranium[42], but higher grade ores were found.   Had they been exploited for nuclear fuel purposes, of course, the uranium they contained would not have ended up on agricultural fields, but no matter…)

Earlier in this document we saw that the Ganges River, the Indus and the Brahmaputra which transport combined, almost 2700 tons of uranium per year.   Presumably – almost certainly – considerable amount of the waters of these rivers are diverted for irrigation of agricultural fields with their uranium content accumulating in the fields.    Suppose the Indian government decided to remove this naturally occurring uranium from the rivers for health reasons, as opposed to the desire to collect uranium, using something like retrievable amidoxime functionalized resins simply placed in the rivers with their waters allowed to flow over them.    Suppose too, that the goal was to remove 90% of the uranium.    In this case, India would be collecting about 2400 tons of uranium per year.   Converted to plutonium – India has newly constructed breeder reactor capacity, as well as the capacity to utilize 233U derived from its large thorium reserves in heavy water reactors – the recovered uranium would be able to provide close to 200 exajoules of energy per year, nearly twice the energy consumption of the United States.     The cost of this uranium would not matter; selling it would merely offset the cost of improving the quality of Indian river water by removing naturally occurring radioactive materials (often referred to in the literature as “NORM”), from its rivers.

If one refers to Ugo Bardi’s weak argument about the cost of isolating uranium from seawater – I actually think it’s not worth the time to do so – one will encounter an elaborate comparison of collecting putative uranium resins from the sea to the cost of collecting fish from the sea.   In the case just described, of course, the argument would be meaningless.    India, which surprisingly given the magnitude of its riverine water flows – probably tied to the historically high oxygen content of the river – has no real high quality uranium ores, and intends to rely on thorium, for which it has large reserves, would then have sufficient uranium to meet all of its domestic energy needs simply by cleaning its rivers.    The resins might be hauled in and out of the rivers (or irrigation canals, or near intake pumps) with simple winches.  Were this to happen, India’s thorium, along with uranium collected in a “clean up” process, could make India an energy exporter rather than importer.

There is no technical reason that this could not be done next year, not only in Indian rivers, but in all of the other places where uranium contaminates water supplies, whether the reason is associated with NORM type uranium or whether it is the result of residual anthropogenic uranium leaching resulting sloppy primitive uranium mining or processing technologies that were employed in the mid twentieth century.

A recent review of the subject,[43] relying heavily on uranium extraction technologies whose only goal is to produce uranium (see the notes attached to reference 10) that the estimates of the cost of these technologies come in at between $400/kg – $1000/kg as compared to terrestrial (mined) uranium costs of approximately $100/kg.    Although the author refers, if obliquely to the possibility of such collection as a side product of other efforts – the idea of using ocean going ships (conceivably nuclear powered) to collect oceanic uranium as they transport goods – it is clear that the approaches discussed miss an important point.

As an environmentalist, I personally regard the whole desalination scheme – if adopted widely as it may well be – with deep suspicion.   Certainly changing the saline gradients of the oceans will not have only huge ecological effects, but will also affect ocean currents, and in so doing, further destabilize already destabilized weather patterns.     On the other hand, as a humanist, I consider that desalination may be required, perhaps in many places, for human survival.    (We are in a bad place until we figure out how to manage our numbers.)

This year, a one billion dollar desalination plant in Carlsbad, San Diego County, California will be completed as a result of the near collapse of that state’s traditional water supplies, run off from the Sierra Nevada mountain snows.[44]    The desalination plant will intake about 378,000,000 liters of water per day, consuming, as average continuous power about 40 MW of electricity, and isolate about half of its intake as drinkable fresh water, dumping the other half, concentrated brine – diluted with industrial waste water – back into the ocean.  The plant’s capacity is said to be capable of providing just 7% of the fresh water consumption of San Diego County.    The plant will operate out of a lagoon maintained by a power plant which burns the single most important source of primary energy for the generation of electric power in that increasingly anti-nuke state of California, dangerous natural gas.    Using the figures above, one can show that the amount of uranium that could be recovered from this oceanic water intake is about 450 kg per year.   Converted to plutonium, this uranium would produce an average continuous power output of primary energy of around 1100 MW.   In this case uranium (and possibly other metals) would be obtained as a side product in the isolation of water refining, much as indium, as described in Part 2 of this series, is obtained as a side product of zinc refining, thus reducing the cost of indium to a lower value than is suggested by the “Sherwood Plots” described in Part 2.

As an aside, an interesting approach to desalination – however dubious it is from an environmental perspective – is by raising seawater to supercritical temperatures and pressures.  (The supercritical phase is a phase in which there no distinction between a liquid and a gas.)   In reverse of the property of liquid water, most salts are insoluble in supercritical water.  The case has been recently discussed, as an approach to “brine free” salt separations from seawater, in a very interesting paper[45], although the process has performed, at least where this paper is concerned, only on a lab scale.    In the case where supercritical water is provided by nuclear heating, the expansion/phase change of the supercritical water to give superheated steam released against a turbine, might give a series of Rankine cycles (as the emerging steam would still be hot enough to boil water) operating at high efficiency to provide electricity.    Alternatively this heat might be used for thermochemical splitting of water to provide hydrogen for the captive synthesis of fluid fuels.  Thus, since supercritical water exists at temperatures in excess of 373oC and pressures of roughly 22 MPa, about 217 times atmospheric pressure, the energy of desalination is partially recovered.

We’ll discuss uranium collection from other dilute sources shortly, but another of my trade mark asides:

In Part 2, we noted that even though it is fairly small scale, and just getting underway, there have already been two fatalities[46], and a high incidence of illnesses and injuries from working with either recycled or fresh indium tin oxide[47].   A recent paper[48] evaluating the desirability of recycling solar cells, including CIGS (Copper Indium Gallium Selenide) solar cells, makes no reference whatsoever to the health implications of indium recycling, nor should it, since this may interfere with the official internationally endorsed notion that solar energy is “green” and thus without risk.   Interestingly, the authors of the paper suggest that the recycling of CIGS solar cells will “only” reduce the energy payback time by 3% for these cells, despite professed agnosticism on what the indium recycling technology might involve.    This, of course, is just another example of “hand waving.”   Indium recycling is a fairly hot topic, given the expected shortages of the element.   A recent process evaluation[49] of indium recycling suggests finely grinding ITO coated glass and oxidizing the indium in it and oxidizing the indium with hydrochloric acid in the presence of manganese dioxide.    This is a dangerous enterprise.

Now, if anyone dies from the indium processing involved in making – or possibly recycling – solar cells, they will be largely ignored.   No one will care.  This is very different than the situation I am about to describe with respect to historical uranium mining.

As I prepared this work, I took some time to wander around the stacks of the Firestone Library at Princeton University where, within a few minutes, without too much effort, I was able to assemble a small pile of books[50] on the terrible case of the Dine (Navajo) uranium miners who worked in the mid-20th century, resulting in higher rates of lung cancer than the general population.      The general theme of these books if one leafs through them is this:    In the late 1940’s mysterious people, military syndics vaguely involved with secret US government activities show up on the Dine (Navajo) Reservation in the “Four Corners” region of the United States, knowing that uranium is “dangerous” and/or “deadly” to convince naïve and uneducated Dine (Navajos) to dig the “dangerous ore” while concealing its true “deadly” nature.   The uranium ends up killing many of the miners, thus furthering the long American history of genocide against the Native American peoples.     There is a conspiratorial air to all of it; it begins, in these accounts, with the cold warrior American military drive to produce nuclear arms and then is enthusiastically taken up by the “evil” and “venal” conspirators who foist the “crime” of nuclear energy on an unsuspecting American public, this while killing even more innocent Native Americans.


I am an American.    One of my side interests is a deep, if non-professional, reading of American History.     Often we Americans present our history in triumphalist terms, but any serious and honest examination of our history reveals two imperishable stains on our history that we cannot and should not deny.   One, of course, is our long and violent history of officially endorsed racism, including 250 years of institutionalized human slavery.    The related other stain is the stain of the open and official policy of genocide against Native Americans:   There is no softer word than “genocide.”   Both episodes, each of which took place of a period on a scale centuries, were policies with open and “legal” sanctioning of the citizens of the United States and their “democratic” government, and were often justified by some of our most educated and influential leaders.     I cannot reflect on my country without reflecting on these dire facts.      I am not here to deny the role that genocide played in our history, and I note with some regret that the last people born within the borders of the United States to achieve full citizenship rights – this took place only in 1924 – were the descendants of the first human beings to walk here, our Native American brothers and sisters.

Still, one wonders, was hiring Dine/Navajo uranium miners yet another case of official deliberate racism as the pile of books in the Firestone library strongly implied?


A publication[51] in 2009 evaluated the cause of deaths among uranium miners on the Colorado Plateau and represented a follow up of a study of the health of these miners, 4,137 of them, of whom 3,358 were “white” (Caucasian) and 779 of whom were “non-white.”   Of the 779 “non-white” we are told that 99% of them were “American Indians,” i.e. Native Americans.     We may also read that the median year of birth for these miners, white and Native American, was 1922, meaning that a miner born in the median year would have been 83 years old in 2005, the year to which the follow up was conducted.  (The oldest miner in the data set was born in 1913; the youngest was born in 1931.)  Of the miners who were evaluated, 2,428 of them had died at the time the study was conducted, 826 of whom died after 1990, when the median subject would have been 68 years old.

Let’s ignore the “white” people; they are irrelevant in these accounts.

Of the Native American miners, 536 died before 1990, and 280 died in the period between 1991and 2005, meaning that in 2005, only 13 survived.   Of course, if none of the Native Americans had ever been in a mine of any kind, never mind uranium mines, this would have not rendered them immortal.  (Let’s be clear no one writes pathos inspiring books about the Native American miners in the Kayenta or Black Mesa coal mines, both of which were operated on Native American reservations in the same general area as the uranium mines.)   Thirty-two of the Native American uranium miners died in car crashes, 8 were murdered, 8 committed suicide, and 10 died from things like falling into a hole, or collision with an “object.”   Fifty-four of the Native American uranium miners died from cancers that were not lung cancer.    The “Standard Mortality Ratio,” or SMR for this number of cancer deaths that were not lung cancer was 0.85, with the 95% confidence level extending from 0.64 to 1.11.   The “Standard Mortality Ratio” is the ratio, of course, the ratio between the number of deaths observed in the study population (in this case Native American Uranium Miners) to the number of deaths that would have been expected in a control population.   At an SMR of 0.85, thus 54 deaths is (54/.085) – 54 = -10.   Ten fewer Native American uranium miners died from “cancers other than lung cancer” than would have been expected in a population of that size.    At the lower 95% confidence limit SMR, 0.64, the number would be 31 fewer deaths from “cancers other than lung cancer,” whereas at the higher limit SMR, 1.11, 5 additional deaths would have been recorded, compared with the general population.

Lung cancer, of course, tells a very different story.   Ninety-two Native American uranium miners died of lung cancer.    Sixty-three of these died before 1990; twenty-nine died after 1990.    The SMR for the population that died in the former case was 3.18, for the former 3.27.   This means the expected number of deaths would have been expected in the former case was 20, in the latter case, 9.    Thus the excess lung cancer deaths among Native American uranium miners was 92 – (20 +9) = 63.

I had a friend whose parents were each diagnosed with lung cancer – they were cigarette smokers – within a few weeks of each other.  (They were descended from Irish immigrants, had no Native American blood, and neither had mined uranium, although the father was an executive at a company that sold petroleum products for home heating.)    The father, the second parent diagnosed, informed the mother that his case was much worse than hers.

“Why is that, honey?” the mother asked.

“Because it’s mine,” he replied.

(Remarkably, the father survived for more than 30 years after his diagnosis, the mother died within a few years of hers.)

My father was a cigarette smoker by the way, and lung cancer killed him.    It is a horrible way to die, gasping for air while your lungs fill with blood and other fluids.

“Because it’s mine…”

Statistics are no comfort to a family member who has watched a family member die of cancer.   It’s a gut wrenching process, and, trust me, the emotions connected with it never go away.   One learns to live with these emotions, but they never go away:   (Personally I still despise cigarette companies and all the people who work in them.)

I’m sure that nearly every member of the families of the 92 Native American uranium miners who died from lung cancer despises uranium mining,  even if there is, crudely, without any more sophisticated Bayesian type analysis, a (92-63)/92 = .33 probability that the particular cancers were not caused by uranium mining.    We can probably add the families of the other 54 Native Americans who died from cancers other than lung cancer to this list, even if fewer Native Americans died of other cancers than would have been expected in a similar sized population.   This is human nature.   I’m quite sure if you heard their stories personally, if you’re a human being, you would be moved.     And you can hear their personal stories anytime you want; like I said, people never tire of writing books about the Native American uranium miners who died from lung cancer.

On the other hand, roughly 7 million people will die this year from air pollution.[52]  Of these, about 3.3 million will die from “ambient particulate air pollution” – chiefly resulting from the combustion of dangerous coal and dangerous petroleum, although some will come from the combustion of “renewable” biofuels.   Every single person living on the face of this planet and, in fact, practically every organism on this planet is continuously exposed to dangerous fossil fuel waste, and every person on this planet and practically every organism on this planet contains dangerous fossil fuel waste.    The only way to stop dangerous fossil fuel waste from accumulating in your flesh is to stop breathing, which is, of course, what some people do as a result of such accumulation, many of them as a result of, um, getting lung cancer.    This means that about 6.3 people die every minute, on average, from “ambient particulate air pollution.”  Seen in this purely clinical way, this means that all of the Native American uranium miners dying from all cancers, 93 lung cancer deaths and 54 deaths from other cancers, measured over three or four decades, represent about 23 minutes of deaths taking place continuously, without let up, from dangerous fossil fuel pollution.

The total number of deaths of air pollution – including both ambient particulate (outdoor) air pollution, ambient ozone and indoor air pollution, resulting largely from burning “renewable” biofuels (along with some dangerous coal) indoors – is 70 million in the last decade, more people than died in the Second World War.   Again, in a few minutes of walking around the Princeton University library I was able to collect five books on the subject of Native American uranium miners, a ratio of roughly one book for every 20 miners who died from lung cancer.   If we cared as much for the 70 million dead as we do for Native American uranium miners, the library would need to contain something on the order of 3.5 million such books, easily overwhelming the library’s space.   (The Princeton University libraries are huge; the university’s library system is probably one of the best library systems in the world.)  Were we to care as much for the tens millions who died as compared to the roughly one hundred Dine uranium miners who got lung cancer, I could spend my whole lifetime collecting such books, without ever pausing to open one up and actually read the pathos inspiring accounts within.

Now, some of the uranium mined by the Native American miners was utilized in the American participation in the exceedingly stupid (and expensive) international effort to wire the planet to blow itself up. Happily the number of people actually killed by the nuclear weapons at the core of this wiring exercise which took place after 1945 is zero, which is 70 million lower than the number of people who died from air pollution in the last ten years.   On the other hand, some of this same uranium also ended up in American nuclear power plants, more than 100 of which operated over the last half of the 20th century, preventing the release of billions of tons of dangerous fossil fuel waste while preventing the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives that would have been otherwise lost to the effects of air pollution if coal and been burned to displace the uranium (and plutonium) fissioned.     Seen in this way, the 93 Native American uranium miners gave their lives so that others might live, a practice seen in many ethical systems as exceedingly noble, which is not to say that the miners agreed to this trade-off, or even that they or anyone else at all recognized that this outcome would ultimately be obtained but still…still…

There is, by the way, some notice these days of the problem of coal mining[53] on Native American lands in the same general area of the uranium mines as although I have no idea if anyone actually writes books about the subject.   Without appeal to any knowledge of the composition of the specific coal ash from the Kayenta (and other) coal mines on Native American lands, I would expect that this ash is particularly rich in uranium, given that the area contains large amounts of naturally occurring ores of the element.   It has been argued that in some cases the uranium content of coal ash has a larger energy value than the coal from which it originated.[54]

The area mined on Indian lands, by the way, still contains significant uranium “contamination” from uranium and its decay daughters as well as a number of other elements, including arsenic.    On the Dine reservation, there are thought to be about 1100 abandoned uranium mining sites.[55]   The authors of the paper just cited note that there are many unregulated water sources in the areas of these abandoned mines and they set out to measure the concentration of these elements in a few representative water sources near one such abandoned mine.   They evaluate spring water some 5 km from the mine as well as water seeping the abandoned mine.   In the two seeping water sources they evaluate, they find uranium concentrations that are 163 and 169 μg/L and from the two springs they find uranium concentrations that are 67 and 135  μg/L.   The WHO guideline for uranium content in water[56] is 15 μg/L.   Thus the mine seepage is about 11 times higher than the recommended upper limit proposed by WHO, and the two springs are about 4 and 9 times higher than the recommended amount.     The fact that the springs have such concentrations by the way suggests that uranium exposure has always been an issue for the Dine people, long before there was any mining of the element on their land, indeed long before Klaproth discovered the element in the 18th century.   Clearly though the data suggests that the uranium mining has mobilized the naturally occurring uranium significantly, clearly increasing the risk to the Dine citizens of the area.

What to do about it?

Sometimes, when one reads about the “contamination” associated with uranium mine tailings one reads of proposals to truck them somewhere, in other words to move the dump.   One can’t make this stuff up.   It ought to be intuitively obvious, if not officially obvious in the regulatory sense, that the diesel exhaust involved in such trucking is far more likely to kill more people than any run off that may take place.

It should be intuitively obvious that the very same solution suggested above for the Ganges and Brahma might be able to work elsewhere.   Let’s consider the case for the Native American lands where uranium, both endogenous and that mobilized by historical mining, is ubiquitous.

Probably the least expensive way of dealing with uranium contamination in these places would, in fact, be by bioremediation, that is by inoculating these waters with species that demonstrate uranium uptake and concentration.    As long as the species are not eaten by animals or humans this would in effect remove uranium exposure.   An engineered organism along the lines described above, of course, would also serve; quite possibly significantly better perhaps a species of algae that grows in films on rocks.   When organisms containing uranium die, by the way, the uranium in them – generally uptake of uranium in organisms occurs in the fairly soluble +6 oxidation state – tends to be reduced by the organic matter to the far less soluble +4 state.    Sediments formed by such dead organisms will be enriched in uranium, probably not to the level of commercial ores, but certainly at the level making recovery feasible.

Another possibility would be place uranium solid phase extraction materials in any streams or arroyos functioning in the area, as well as to locate small pumps in remote ponds identified with having such issues, but relatively still water to recirculate water over such materials.   Since any such pumps would require a power source, many people, most people I would guess, might think this an excellent place to utilize solar cells as a power source.    I would disagree, at least in the case of the nuclear utopia of which I often speak.   Solar cells, and batteries designed to cover them when – as surely they would be in the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States – would have a profound reliability problem, given the snows, dust bearing wind, and of course, the existence of something known as “night time.”

In my admittedly utopian view of a nuclear powered world, a better alternative would involve the use of RTG’s like those that power the wonderful spacecraft sent recently to Mars and Pluto, substituting the Pu-238 in the space craft with the fission product strontium, specifically the Sr-90 isotope which has a half-life of 28.79 years.    Sr-90 is a pure beta detector, as is its daughter radioisotope yttrium-90, with a half-life of 64.0 hours, with the latter accounting for a significant portion of the heat generated in such devices.     The ultimate decay product is isotopically pure, non-radioactive zirconium, Zr-90, zirconium being a metal of tremendous utility, notably in nuclear reactors, but in many other places, including utilization, as its oxide, in thermal barrier coatings in very high temperature systems like those found in thermally efficient combined cycle dangerous natural gas plants.[57]  Freshly fissioned strontium has a higher energy output, and is less diluted by non-radioactive strontium isotopes like Sr-88, Sr-87, and Sr-86.     The isolation of strontium in situ in nuclear reactors is best accomplished in fluid phased reactors, types of which have been built and operated without ever being commercialized.   I briefly evoked my favorite among these types, the LAMPRE, utilizing liquid plutonium metal, elsewhere[58].    In a reactor built around technology first explored in the small LAMPRE in the 1960s, inspiring technology which has regrettably been more or less totally forgotten but might be rediscovered by a generation more sensible than our own, the separation of strontium (and other fission products) from the fuel is spontaneous and continuous, a fact that might be explored in visions of these types of reactors similar to those I imagine.   Be all that as it may, strontium based RTG’s were built and operated by the Soviets in the 1950’s for use in beacon lights in the Arctic as well as other applications.    Apparently they were forgotten and ultimately lost, without, apparently, any health consequences whatsoever.    As of 2015, the amount of strontium-90 still present in the forgotten RTG’s is slightly less than 27% of what was present in 1960.

Finally in this overly long and overly delayed piece, let’s look at the recently discovered fact that a new example of the anthropogenic mobilization of uranium that has nothing to do with uranium mining.     Naturally occurring uranium can be mobilized by nitrate, and it appears that this is happening in areas that represent the major portions of the American agricultural regions in California and more importantly, in the American Midwest, the latter region of which in many places utilizes irrigation by fossil and artesian ground water.[59]   Nitrate, of course, is the result of the utilization of industrial fertilizers without which it would be impossible to feed humanity.   As these fertilizers leach into the groundwater (and elsewhere) uranium that has been present for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years, begins to leach into the water.   Maps from the cited paper are quite evocative about the scale of this problem, which, given the scale of water use in agriculture, represents yet another case wherein an environmental problem with serious health implications might be converted into an opportunity to collect the inexhaustible supplies of uranium for the betterment and survival of the human race.

Blowups of the Nebraska, Kansan, and the Texas and Oklahoma “panhandles” as well as California’s San Joaquin Valley are here:

The correlation maps between nitrate concentrations and uranium in ground water are also suggestive:

The opportunity to collect uranium for future generations, even if the depleted uranium (as well as mined  thorium) already mined and isolated should be obvious from these maps.   Uranium collected by solid phase extraction from agricultural waters that already require pumping might well be stored in a concentrated form for use centuries, even millennia for now.    This is clearly technologically feasible and almost certainly wise, even if one doubts that reserves of wisdom might match reserves of uranium.

Note that the United States is hardly the only place facing the issue of natural ground water uranium, even if the example is indeed evocative.

This concludes Part 3 of this series.   I apologize to any interested readers for the long delay in completing this work, but, well, life happens.    I will not promise the completion of the revisions of Part 4 and Part 5 as quickly as I might like, but they are currently under revision.

Have a nice day.

References, Notes and Comments

[1] Linfeng Rao, LBNL Paper LBNL-4034E (2010)

[2] NNadir, Sustaining the Wind, Part 2:  Indium and Beyond…

[3] Ugo Bardi, Sustainability 2010, 2, 980-992

[4] Mamadou S. Diallo, Madhusudhana Rao Kotte, and Manki Cho Environ. Sci. Technol. 2015, 49, 9390−9399

[5] Seafriends:  The chemical composition of seawater. (Accessed August 28, 2015)

[6] I reproduce, for convenience, the entire text of reference 19 in the Part 2:    S. Krishnaswami and J. Kirk Cochrane, eds. U-Th Nuclides in Aquatic Systems.  Vol 13 of the Radioactivity in the Environment Series, Chapter 7, U and Th-Series Nuclides as Tracers of Particle Dynamics, Scavenging and Biogeochemical cycles, byM.M. Rutgers van der Loeff and W. Geibert, Elsevier, 2008.

The solubility of U isotopes and Th isotopes in seawater, including those in the two uranium decay series are discussed on pg. 228 (uranium) and pg. 230 (thorium).  The generally accepted value for the concentration of uranium in seawater is 3.3 ppb.   Back calculating from the figures in this text expressed as dpm m-3 determined from nuclear decay  – internally referring to two different papers from 1986 and 2002 – I calculate 3.7 ppb for the cited numbers.   The solubility of uranium is, however, not actually uniform in the oceans, being a function of salinity and thus density, which likewise varies with depth, temperature and location, as well as well as also dynamic carbon dioxide concentrations, and this may account for any discrepancies. In any case, this fascinating volume will tell you everything you want to know about the members of the three naturally occurring extant actinide decay series in the hydrosphere and atmosphere, the 232Th decay series, the 235U decay series, and the 238U decay series, and the use of their components as tracers for a wide variety of atmospheric and oceanographic processes.  (The fourth series, the 249Cf/237Np/233U series is, of course, extinct on earth, although many people would like to revive it.)  An interesting thing I learned in this text was that there is disequilibrium in the 234U/238U ratio of 1.14 in seawater, and other matrices apparently related to the injection of 234U into seawater and other matrices as a result of the recoil velocity associated with the decay of its parent 234Th, itself the daughter of 238U found in rocks.    (See page 228.)   This fact could surely be useful in estimating the surface area of submarine rocks, and thus recharge rates of uranium to seawater directly from exposed submarine rock, were the seas in fact “mined” by solid phase extraction to obtain uranium for fuel purposes.

[7] Khuloud T. Al-Jamal, Wafa’ T. Al-Jamal,Julie T.-W. Wang, Noelia Rubio, Joanna Buddle, David Gathercole, Mire Zloh  and Kostas Kostarelos ACS Nano, 2013, 7 (3), pp 1905–1917

[8] For a very early discussion on the topic of obtaining uranium from seawater, see Davies, Kennedy, McIlroy, Spence and Hill Nature 203, 1110-1115 (12 September 1964)  This, and a small sample of papers on the subject can be found in the internal references found in NNadir, Atomic Insights:  On Plutonium, On Nuclear War, On Nuclear Peace although the list therein cannot be considered even remotely comprehensive.   Since the 1960’s, many thousands of interesting papers on the subject have been published, and kg quantities of uranium have been collected from seawater as is discussed in reference 1 of this text.   None of these technologies thus far developed have been competitive with land based uranium mines however, although it has been demonstrated that the technology would be feasible to use with very little impact on the price of nuclear energy.

[9] Don P. Chambers, John Wahr, and  R. Steven Nerem  GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 31, L13310, doi:10.1029/2004GL020461, 2004

[10] Pavel Novak Surveys in Geophysics January 2010, Volume 31, Issue 1, pp 1-21

[11]Harry Lindner, Erich Schneider Energy Economics 49 (2015) 9–22  Lindner as Schneider use the 3.3 ppm figure in their review and evaluation of the costs associated with various technological approaches to the isolation of uranium from seawater.   Their internal reference is a little old, however, dating from 1984.   Unlike Bardi, they utilize a reasonably large survey of technologies, although, truth be told, their survey is already outdated by the development of new technologies.    Their figure of “13,000 years” for what they regard as 4.5 billion tons total, the number I use in the text, the amount time that oceanic could sustain the use of nuclear energy is however, completely wrong, apparently relying on a “once through” scheme.   If uranium were not recharges to the ocean, and could be completely removed from it and converted to plutonium, it would be sufficient to supply all of human energy needs at current levels for more than 600,000 years.    The point is irrelevant in any case, since uranium in the ocean represents only a small portion of the uranium being cycled through the crust, as we shall see.   Their estimate for the cost of uranium obtained from seawater is between $400/kg and $1000/kg, although the technologies they propose involve ships and – ironically – wind turbines that are dedicated to uranium collection.   Herein the argument will suggest a better approach, that of uranium collected as a side product of other operations, including operations designed to enhance human health.

[12] Chuan-Chou Shen, Huei-Ting Lin, Mei-Fei Chu, Ein-Fen Yu, Xianfeng Wang, Jeffrey A. Dorale Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems, G3, Volume 7, Issue 9 (2006) Q09005

[13] US Energy Information Agency (EIA) Webpage:   Electricity prices in Europe.  (Accessed August 29, 2015)

[14] Pushker A. Kharecha  and James E. Hansen Environ. Sci. Technol., 2013, 47 (9), pp 4889–4895

[15] Index Mundi Uranium Prices (Accessed June 14, 2015)

[16] NNadir Current World Energy Demand, Ethical World Energy Demand, Depleted Uranium and the Centuries to Come.  (Accessed September 5, 2015.)

[17] Op cit., S. Krishnaswami and J. Kirk Cochrane, ed U-Th Nuclides in Aquatic Systems.  Pretty much the whole book is about the uranium and thorium geochemical cycles.

[18] Morten B. Andersen, Tim Elliott,Heye Freymuth, Kenneth W. W. Sims, Yaoling Niu & Katherine A. Kelley Nature 517, 356–359 (15 January 2015)   For the data comparing uranium content of MORB specimens with OIB specimens see supplementary table 1 available free of charge at the online web page for the paper.

[19] Stephen E. Cox, Kenneth A. Farley , Sidney R. Hemming Earth and Planetary Science Letters 319-320 (2012) 178–184

[20] Sarah Aciego, B.M. Kennedy,Donald J. DePaolo, John N. Christensen, Ian Hutcheon, Earth and Planetary Science Letters 216 (2003) 209-219

[21] Op. cit. S. Krishnaswami and J. Kirk Cochrane, eds. U-Th Nuclides in Aquatic Systems, Chapter 3, by F. Chabaux, B Bourdon, and Jiotte, U-Series Geochemistry in Weathering Profiles, River Waters and Lakes, pp. 49-104.

[22] Eric Rosa, Claude Hillaire-Marcel, Bassam Ghaleb, and Terry A. Dick Can. J. Earth Sci. 49: 758–771 (2012)

[23] F. Chabaux, J. Riotte, and O. Dequincey  Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry, January 2003, v. 52, p. 533-576,   See Table 1 on page 555.

[24]  The main sink for agricultural water runoff in the Imperial Valley is the Salton Sea, which at various times in geological history has gone in and out of existence, depending on the every shifting location of the Colorado River Delta.  (Currently the delta effectively no longer exists.)    In its current incarnation it was first reformed in 1905 during an accidental diversion of the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley, most of which is below sea level, during the construction of irrigation canals.     Engineers using great effort were able to stem the flow before the entire Valley was filled with water with the (then) free flowing Colorado River, but in any case the Sea did not immediately evaporate, and was maintained subsequently by agricultural runoff from the irrigated fields of the Imperial Valley.    Uranium has been measured in the sea’s sediments where the soluble uranyl cation (UO22+), U(VI), is reduced under nutrient excess related anoxic conditions to insoluble neutral species UO2, U(IV).  See Lawrence A. LeBlanc and Roy A. Schroeder,  Hydrobiologia (2008) 604:123–135.    The concentration of uranium in the sediments is ranges from about 3μg/g to 5.7μg/g, (see table 4 in the reference), or roughly from just under1000 times higher higher than the concentration of uranium in seawater to nearly 2000 times higher.

With the California drought, the Salton Sea is now disappearing, and there is some concern that, among other things, the dusts wind-blown from the dried sea bed will lead to health problems in Southern California owing to the high concentrations of toxic selenium deposited by the runoff over the years into the sea as well as pesticides, arsenic and other materials deposited during the sea’s history as an agricultural run-off sink.

[25] Op.Cit. Krishnaswami and J. Kirk Cochrane, eds. U-Th Nuclides in Aquatic Systems. Chapter 10, J. Kirk Cochrane and David Kadko, page 293.    See also  Dunk, R. M., R. A. MiUs, and W. J. Jenkins. Chemical Geology 190, 45-67 (2002)

[26] R.M. Dunk, R.A. Mills, W.J. Jenkins, Chemical Geology 190 (2002) 45– 67

[27] Ibid.

[28] Op.Cit. Shen, Lin, Chu, Yu, Lu, Wang and Dorale,  G3, Geochem. Geophys. Geosys. Vol 7., Iss. 9, 2006 Q09005   (See Table 2 in the text.)

[29] Or maybe we won’t lose coral.    Israeli scientists, noting the seeming contradiction that coral evolution seems to predate previous acidifying mass extinctions, examined two Mediterranean species and showed that these organisms can apparently revert to their free swimming unicellular forms.   Maoz Fine and Dan Tchernov  Science 315 (2007) 1811     This may or may not be applicable for other coral species. For a discussion of some species of coral that manage to resist decalcification by creating locally basic environments, see Malcolm McCulloch,          Jim Falter, Julie Trotter & Paolo Montagna, Nature Climate Change 2, 623–627 (2012)l

Despite these encouraging caveats, coral is a huge concern with respect to the partially dangerous fossil fuel driven mass extinction now underway.   For a review of threats to marine life from ocean acidification and other effects of dangerous fossil fuel waste, and comparison with past mass extinctions see  Paul G. Harnik, Heike K. Lotze, Sean C. Anderson, Zoe V. Finkel, Seth Finnegan, David R. Lindberg, Lee Hsiang Liow, Rowan Lockwood, Craig R. McClain, Jenny L. McGuire, Aaron O’Dea, John M. Pandolfi, Carl Simpson, and Derek P. Tittensor,  Trends in Ecology and Evolution (2012) 27, 11 609-617.   It bears noting that the number of observed extinctions, as opposed to postulated or theoretical extinctions, owing to the half century of commercial nuclear power operations is zero.

[30] Lu Zhou, Mike Bosscher, Changsheng Zhang, Salih Ozcubukcu, Liang Zhang, Wen Zhang, Charles J. Li, Jianzhao Liu, Mark P. Jensen, Luhua Lai and Chuan He    Nature Chemistry, 6, 2014, pp. 236-241

[31] Yi Lu, Nature Chemistry 6 (2014) 175-176

[32] Greenpeace is rather famous for trivializing serious environmental issues, notably climate change, with puerile stunts.   For my money, one of the most evocative of such stunts is the rather insipid exercise in which 600 members of that pixilated organization drove – and I very much doubt it was in solar or wind powered cars – to the edge of a glacier in order to be photographed naked by Spencer Tunik, an artist who makes his living, um, photographing crowds of naked people in various contexts.   They produced a tortured explanation to prove that somehow this stunt is a protest against climate change.   If you just have to look, here’s the link: Greenpeace:  600 people get naked on a glacier.  (Accessed  September 4, 2015.)

One imagines that just after they took the picture, huge masses of them ran to their cars to start and run their engines to get the heaters going so they could to warm their cold little bourgeois butts.    The “protest” is evocative inasmuch as it subliminally suggests the real agenda of this awful organization for the promotion of stupidity, which is that huge masses of humanity end up cold and naked while still leaving serious environmental issues untouched by doses of reality.   It should be intuitively obvious that a bunch of people driving to the edge of a glacier to be photographed naked in order to protest climate change are clueless.

[33] John D. Barrow and Frank Tipler, “The Anthropic Comsological Principle” Oxford University Press, 1986.  ISBN-13: 978-0192821478

[34] Daily Kos “Consumer Reports calls latest Tesla best vehicle they’ve ever tested, right wing goes nuts.”  Apparently, according to the “leftist” journalist – an embodiment of the unfortunate scientific illiteracy that dominates journalism today – who wrote this piece, modern political “thought” in the United States has now degenerated into the automotive preferences of the right and left wings.    Politics now amounts to car ads.    Somehow I imagine that car ads and car consumerism are not the keys to addressing the serious issues before humanity, but I could be wrong about that.

[35]  The book held by “Lady Liberty” in New York Harbor displays an excerpt of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus.”

It reads:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The poem was written to raise funds for the erection of the statue – the statue itself a gift from France – on “Liberty” Island in New York Harbor in the late 19th century.

Times and attitudes have definitely changed in the United States since then.   We’re still fond of “golden” things here, but we ought to replace the poem with a car ad, or maybe a swell Tesla electric car ad, or an ad for a Trump gambling casino, or an ad put forth by anyone who can bid high enough to market to tourists inclined to visit the statue that was once dedicated to our now trivialized history as in immigrant nation.

[36] Daily American Domestic Water Use (US EPA) (Accessed Sept 05, 2015)

[37] Chuanyong Jing, Suqin Liu, Xiaoguang Meng Science of The Total Environment, 389, (1) (2008) 188–194

[38] USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries 2015  (Accessed 09/11/15)   The price given with in is 79 cents US per pound, or roughly $1.74/kg, or $1740/metric ton.

[39] Jonathan Grandidier, Dennis M. Callahan, Jeremy N. Munday, and Harry A. Atwater IEEE Journal of Photovoltaics, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp 123-128

[40]  Mohammed Mainuddin, Mac Kirby, Rehab Ahmad Raihan Chowdhury Sardar, M. Shah-Newaz Irrig Sci (2015) 33:107–120

[41] N. Yamaguchi⁎, A. Kawasaki, I. Iiyama, Sci.Tot.Environ.407, 1383–1390 (2009).  Other references on the topic of uranium in fertilizer can be found in my guest post on Rod Adams’ Atomic Insights: NNadir,  Uranium Catalysts for the Reduction and/or Chemical Coupling of Carbon Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, and Nitrogen

[42] J. Agric. Food Chem., 1953, 1 (4), pp 292–292

[43] Harry Lindner ⁎, Erich Schneider.  Energy Economics 49 (2015) 9–22

[44] Carlsbad Desalination Plant Website.    (Accessed July, 2015 and August 29, 2015.)

[45] Samuel O. Odu,, Aloijsius G. J. van der Ham, Sybrand Metz,and Sascha R. A. Kersten Ind. Eng. Chem. Res. 2015, 54, 5527−5535

[46] Hiroyuki Miyauchi, Aoi Minozoe, Shigeru Tanaka, Akiyo Tanaka, Miyuki Hirata3, Masahiro Nakaza, Heihachiro Arito, Yoko Eitaki, Makiko Nakano, Kazuyuki Omae, J Occup Health 2012; 54: 103–111

[47] Nakano et al, Journal of Occupational Health 51, 513-521, (2009)

[48] Michele Goe, Gabrielle Gaustad  Applied Energy 120 (2014) 41–48

[49] Xianlai Zeng, Fang Wang, Xiaofei Sun, and Jinhui Li  ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., 2015, 3 (7), pp 1306–1312

This reference was included in Part 2 of this series, whereupon I expressed my concern for the health of the poor graduate students who likely did the actual lab work.

[50] a)  Bennally, Harrison, and Stillwell, Interviewers, Memories Come to US on the Rain and the Wind:   Oral Histories and Photographs of the Navajo Uranium Miners.  Boston, MA : Navajo Uranium Miner Oral History and Photography Project, c1997.  b)  Doug Brugge, Timothy Benally and Esther Yazzie-Lewis  eds.  The Navajo people and uranium mining.   Foreword by Stewart L. Udall, former US Secretary of the Interior.  Published/Created: Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, c2006.  c)  Traci Brynne Voyles,  Wastelanding : legacies of uranium mining in Navajo country.   University of Minnesota Press, 1981.  Minneapolis, MN.    d) Judy Pasternak, Yellow dirt : an American story of a poisoned land and a people betrayed,  Free Press, NY, 2010, e)  Ann Cummings, Yellow Cake, Houghton Mifflin 2007.

[51] Mary K. Schubauer-Berigan, Robert D. Daniels, and Lynne E. Pinkerton, Am J Epidemiol 2009;169:718–730

[52] Lancet 2012, 380, 2224–60:  For air pollution mortality figures see Table 3, page 2238 and the text on page 2240.

[53] Claudia Rowe, Huffington Post, 6/6/13:  Coal Mining On Navajo Nation In Arizona Takes Heavy Toll  (Accessed September 11, 2015.)

[54] Alex Gabbard, ORNL Review  (Accessed September 12, 2015)

[55] Johanna M. Blake, Sumant Avasarala, Kateryna Artyushkova, Abdul-Mehdi S. Ali, Adrian J. Brearley, Christopher Shuey, Wm. Paul Robinson, Christopher Nez, Sadie Bill, Johnnye Lewis, Chris Hirani, Juan S. Lezama Pacheco, and JoséM. Cerrato Environ. Sci. Technol., 2015, 49 (14), pp 8506–8514

[56] Uranium in Drinking-water, WHO background document for the development of drinking water Quality  (2004)  (Accessed September 12, 2015.)

[57] Carter, E., Hinnemann, B. and Marino, K.  PNAS, 108, 14, 5480-5487 (2011) One of the interesting points about this paper – the lead author, the outstanding scientist Emily Carter, is the director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, where many of the lectures nonetheless are about the Godot-evoking solar utopia that never actually comes – is the role of yttrium in stabilizing ZrO2 based thermal barrier coatings.   Sr-90 always contains Y-90 after isolation, with the radioequilibrium ratio, the point at which it is decaying as fast as it is formed, being reached in about one month.    However, it is not relevant in the present case, since the crystal structure would be randomized, (as opposed to regular) as well as yttrium depleted, and because, in any case, SrO, which is highly soluble – in the presence of water it forms the dihydroxide – and corrosive would be a very poor choice for use in an RTG.   Many insoluble strontium compounds are known.    Among the most interesting of these are the oxygen conducting perovskites, some of which contain both strontium and zirconium, which have been evaluated in many settings of potential technological interest including reforming operations for the conversion of organic compounds into extremely useful syn gas.  See, for example, Hui Lu, Jianhua Tong, Zengqiang Deng, You Cong, Weishen Yang, Materials Research Bulletin 41 (2006) 683–689)    Yttrium – whose only stable isotope, Y-89, can be isolated from used nuclear fuel in significant quantities – has also be utilized in oxygen conducting perovskites and a thought stimulating example of such a perovskite is described in a paper,  V.V. Kharton, I.P. Marozau , G.C. Mather , E.N. Naumovich and, J.R. Frade Electrochimica Acta 51 (2006) 6389–6399.   This perovskite does not contain a zirconium oxide matrix, but is rather a cerium (IV) based oxide; however the similarities in the chemistry of  ZrO2 and CeO2 is suggestive, even if, to my knowledge, the oxygen permeability of a mixed oxide of zirconium, yttrium and strontium has not been evaluated.    Oxygen permeable perovskites only conduct oxygen at high temperatures, and I have often mused to myself that this might represent a wonderful application for a technological application of Sr-90, which self generates heat.

[58] Ibid, reference 16.

[59] Jason Nolan and Karrie A. Weber, Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 2015, 2, 215−220  (The reference is open sourced.)


By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

72 replies on “Sustaining the Wind Part 3 – Is Uranium Exhaustible?”

Recently, I did estimated there is sufficient ultimately recoverable uranium from the upper continental crust to supply 10 billion people at the rate of the current US per capita energy consumption for 24,000 years. I’d welcome a check and discussion of my estimate.
Enough uranium to supply all the world’s energy for 24,000 years

Here I estimate the numbers of years the world could be supplied with energy from uranium in the Upper Continental Crust. I assumed 0.1% can be extracted eventually (this may be optimistic) and it is used in breeder reactors. I have not included uranium in sea water or thorium. My estimate is 6.75 million TW-years of electricity. I estimate 10 billion people could be supplied at the 2011 US rate of total primary energy consumption per capita for 24,000 years.

Mass of Continental Crust (CC) = 2.171E+22 kg [1]
Mass of Upper Continental Crust, including sediments = 8.141E+21 kg [1]
Uranium concentration in the Upper Continental Crust = 2.8 ppm [2]
Heat Content (energy density), in FNR = 28,000 GJ/kg [3]
Convert MJ to kWh @ 33% efficiency = x 0.0926 [3]
USA Total Primary Energy Consumption per Capita (2011) = 296.5 GJ/per person [4]
Convert ½ the electricity to transport fuels and other energy @ 33% overall loss

TW-years of electricity generation from uranium possibly ultimately extractable from the Upper Continental Crust:

Mass of Continental Crust 2.171E+22 kg
Mass of Upper Continental Crust, including sediments 8.141E+21 kg
Uranium concentration in the Upper Continental Crust 2.8 ppm
Uranium in the upper continental crust, mass 2.280E+16 kg
Proportion that could be extracted ultimately 0.001
Uranium ultimately extractable 2.280E+13 kg
Energy density, in FNR 28,000 GJ/kg
Energy content (thermal) 6.383E+17 GJ
Conversion: MJ to kWh @ 33% efficiency: x 0.0926 0.0926
Electrical energy (MWh) 5.910E+16 MWh
Electrical energy (TW-years) 6.747E+06 TW-y

Years of energy supply for 10 billion people at 2011 US per capita energy consumption rate:

Energy content (thermal) 6.38E+17 GJ
conversion to electricity @33% efficiency 2.13E+17 GJ
Total Primary Energy Consumption per Capita, USA 2011 296.4648 GJ/person p.a.
World Population (10 billion) 1.00E+10
Total primary energy consumption for 10 billion population 2.96E+12 GJ
Years of energy available excl. conversion from electricity) 7.18E+04 years
Energy conversion to transport fuels, say 33% 2.37E+04 years


The quantity of uranium in the upper continental crust at eventually extractable concentrations, if used in breeder reactors, could power the world with 10 billion people consuming the same average per capita primary energy consumption as the USA in 2011 for 24,000 years.


[1] Peterson, B. T. and Depaolo, D. J. (2007), Mass and Composition of the Continental Crust Estimated Using the CRUST2.0 Model

[2] Chemical Composition of Continental Crust and the Primitive Mantle

[3] WNA, (2010) Heat values of various fuels

[4] EIA, Total Primary Energy Consumption per Capita


Peter Lang

0,1% extraction is certainly optimistic but as your numbers show you will never have to go for this very optimistic number.

Uranium based fission is not our only option and will probably never become a standalone solution.

Should Uranium at some point become the cornerstone of human energy supply then the outlined suggestions in Nnadir’s article would be more relevant because the Uranium replenishes itself according to Nnadir’s study.


Jens Stubbe

0,1% extraction is certainly optimistic

Why do you believe that extraction of 0.1% of uranium from the upper continental crust is “certainly optimistic” over 20,000 years from now?

Consider how uranium exploration and mining methods have improved over the past 50 years and project the rate of improvement forward. Recall that uranium is not evenly distributed but is concentrated in high concentration deposits. Consider how we’ve developed remote extraction methods such as in situ leaching requiring no mining. consider what nano technologies may be able to do in the distant future. We can’t even predict what will be best practice mining methods in 50 years, let alone in 20,000 years.


Peter Lang

I was just considering that your number amounts to 100% extraction of the uranium contained in some meters of all of the earths crust and I also gave the other explanation that uranium in seawater apparently will never dilute according to the interesting article we are discussing. If you further add the other research going on about mining the sea I think uranium mining from the sea is a much likelier enterprise than mining for uranium with the known problems with tailings, chemicals, radioactive dust etc. also discussed in the article.


Jens Stubbe, “the known problems with tailings” etc. is a beat up, if you compare it with the equivalent ‘problems’ with the ten times greater quantities of resources that have to be mined, processed, transported etc for renewable. So, lets. dismiss that nonsense for a start.. If you include uranium in sea water, oceanic crust and thorium, than you extend the 24,000 years out to probably hudreds of thousands of years. But fusion will likely be commercial withing this century so the whiole discussion is irrelevant. What is relevant is that nuclear fuel is effectively unlimited. However, renewables are not sustainable. the resources required for intermittent renewables are not sufficient. There are many ways to come to this conclusion and one of them very elegant explained by John Morgan in ‘Catch 22 of Energy Storage’.


Great post.

We have now conclusively learnt that there are no limits to fissile materials supply and getting hold of the material will represent tiny fractions of the kWh price.

What is not present today is cheap MSR technology. And especially cheap MSR technology that can safely be deployed onshore away from seawater access. To make MSR and indeed any other form of thermal power plants safe would require that the cooling is done without water consumption.

The work put into MSR development is finally getting somewhere but still I do not expect commercial MSR technology before around 2035 and whether or not MSR at that time will be price competitive will be anyones guess.

I still find your views on wind energy confused.

Facts are:
1. REE is not needed for wind turbines which is proven by Enercon that has never used REE in any of their turbines up to 7MW.

The average 20 year wind PPA in USA 2014 was $0.0235/kWh including PTC at $0.023/kWh for 10 years.
The average unsubsidized 20 year wind PPA in USA 2014 was $0.035/kWh.
The average unsubsidized 25 year wind cost in USA 2014 was $0.03/kWh assuming that the sales price for electricity between 2034 and 2039 averaged $0.01/kWh.
The average 20 year wind PPA in USA 2014 dropped 6% relative to 2013 down from the 15% average annual drops between 2008 and 2013.
Indium is not indispensable for wind turbines.
Wind capacity factors will grow from current average for all installed US generators around 33% to 65% average for new wind turbines with 140 meter hub height.
EROI grow on a steady base to to weight savings, design life extensions and higher capacity factor.
US wind resources are more than enough to power the entire globe.
33% cost cut will bring wind power in USA to a price point where Synfuel based upon electricity and dangerous abundant CO2 can replace crude oil as the raw material for the petrochemical industry. John Morgan calculated the price of petrol produced by electricity at $0.02/kWh as being competitive with todays price of petrol. I think Synfuel is a must to get rid of dangerous fossils altogether and thus equally important whether the future society will be based upon MSR technology entirely or a mix of technologies including wind power and solar power.
Synfuel production will provide a huge power dump opportunity and thus largely remove the need for storage to balance energy supply with demand.
Synfuel production yields freshwater and access to brine water with amble supply of minerals that can be mined just as you have themed in your post.

Making wind power truly sustainable would in my book require that all materials can be cradle to cradle recycled and that the industry stops using core strategic resources like REE and Indium. You have coined Bardi as a conservative because he implies that nuclear technology can not innovate far better energy efficiency. If you think nuclear can evolve into MSR technology why then not also consider that wind power could evolve to be sustainable.


Very good. A bit long to get across the point that U, Np, Pu… fissile isotopes offer 3GWHrs/lb and are abundant enough via non-fissile fertile (Th, U235…) to run the world at US per capita rates for many thousands of years.

These resources are fusion ‘batteries’ charged up by massive shock waves around exploding stars and very large young stars, billions of years ago. We already have fusion energy, gang!


“Let’s pretend for a moment that solar PV energy someday becomes a significant source of energy – it won’t, but let’s pretend – then in this case, to the extent that gallium arsenide is used, distributed energy will become distributed arsenic,”

What criteria do you use for determining whether an energy source is significant? Although globally it’s currently only about 1% of our total energy supply, its growth is near exponential – so what do you think will prevent it from becoming significant?

However, the extent that gallium arsenide is used in solar cells is likely to remain insignificant due to the cost of the gallium.


Aidan Stranger (or anyone else who would like to provide an answer),

What proportion of the world’s electricity would be supplied by nuclear in 2015 and in 2050 if the rate of acceleration in capacity growth demonstrated by nuclear when it was at low penetrations had continued? What does this suggest is the likelihood that the rate of solar roll out will continue to high penetrations – especially given that:

1) intermittent renewables (including energy storage) cannot supply sufficient energy through life to support modern society and reproduce themselves, and

2) per capita energy consumption will continue to grow as it has been doing since humans learnt to control fire.


Aiden: Somewhat arbitrarily, I confess, I consider “significant” to be something on the order of 10 exajoules of energy per year.

Alternatively, one could consider “significant” to be “on the order of the average annual increase in energy consumption.”

Solar meets neither of these criteria, which happen to be fairly close in value.

The word “exponential” in connection with solar energy has been abused for several decades now. It is easy to show “exponential growth” in my assets if I have one dollar. I only need to procure another dollar. On the other hand, if my assets are one million dollars, exponentially growing it is more challenging.

The putative “exponential growth” of solar energy over several decades is a reflection, not an invalidation, of its failure as an energy strategy. Regrettably, many people have chosen to bet the planetary atmosphere on this intellectual slight of hand.


Peter Lang

You and the catch 22 article on storage that you link to are absolutely correct within the framework that is presented by John Morgan in that article. However the framework is nothing but a snapshot of the then reasonable framework.

Since then and in the future many other options have been opened.

First of all just making wind turbines taller will increase the capacity factor by around 50% so it will approach 65% according to recently published research from NREL.

Secondly the also recently published average (observe not the cheapest in US) 20 year wind PPA in USA 2014 was $0.0235/kWh including PTC at $0.023/kWh for 10 years.
The average unsubsidized 20 year wind PPA in USA 2014 was $0.035/kWh.
The average unsubsidized 25 year wind cost in USA 2014 was $0.03/kWh assuming that the sales price for electricity between 2034 and 2039 averaged $0.01/kWh.

The cost will continue to drop which will pave the way for replacing crude oil as the base material for the petrochemical industry with electricity and abundant dangerous CO2 as John Morgan previously has analyzed in a great article:

I think everybody want to get it right and get rid of fossils ASAP. If in a later instance MSR technology yield to the promises it has to be cheaper than wind at that time or solar for that matter provided solar also manage to lower cost to enter the realm where substitution of fossils becomes commercially feasible.


Aiden: I should have added that a 1% figure of world energy coming from solar energy would imply close to six exajoules of energy being produced each year.

Solar electricity has never come close to this figure. The latest figures that I’ve seen suggest that it is still producing less than one exajoule per year, this after nearly half a century of wild cheering for the technology.


Peter Lang,

I presume it would be 100%, but that’s of little relevance as I never implied solar’s high growth rate would continue for ever; merely that it is unlikely to substantially slow before it becomes the significant source of energy that NNadir assumed it never would.

I’ll explain my reasoning a bit more when I reply to him later.

THERE IS NO CATCH 22 OF ENERGY STORAGE! We don’t need EROEI to reach some arbitrary threshold; the net energy needed can easily be supplied at a lower EROEI. And in an advanced society, energy costs are likely to be a smaller proportion of the total costs than in a more primitive one, so EROEI actually becomes less important. Meanwhile technological advances mean that EROEI for renewables is rapidly rising.

I have offered to debate this with John Morgan on a site of his choosing, but so far he hasn’t taken me up on the offer.

It is far from clear that per capita energy consumption will always continue to grow. Globally it always has been doing so continuously because countries have been industrialising, but it often falls in individual countries. Surprisingly it’s now falling in much of China, and this week it was reported that the growth in total Chinese electricity consumption was only 1%.


Aidan Stanger,

I suspect the reason he hasn’t taken up your offer to debate him (something you have been repeating ad nauseum on a number of Australian and international based we sites) is that despite the many comments you made on the Catch 22 thread you had not made a succinct, clear case to support your beliefs. Many highly competent people attempted to explain to you and you clearly did not understand.


Jens, if you have confused me with an adherent of MSR technology, you have demonstrated that you know very little about my views.

At one time I was a fan of MSR technology – and I fully concede that MSR technology will never be as dangerous as fossil fuels – but I’ve changed my mind, at least with respect to “traditional” FLIBE and/or NaFBe equivalents. While fluid phase reactors it seems to me are desirable, there are in fact, an infinite number of them, with fluoride based systems representing only a tiny subset of possibilities, nowhere near the best in my view.

As for all of your predictions about what wind power “will do” if this and if that; excuse me but I’ve heard them all before and have being doing so for a very long time, too long, in fact, given the decay of the environment.

One thing that never gets added to the unbearable cost of wind power is the fact that it necessarily requires redundancy. It doesn’t matter if wind energy is as cheap as gas power if one must still have the gas powered plant to operate when that junk is sitting uselessly on a still night. Somehow this cost always gets swept under the rug.

The external cost of gas is unacceptable, and since wind energy cannot work unless backed up by gas, it too is unacceptable.

As for syn fuels, I have been studying syn fuel for a number of years, a number of decades actually. There is nothing more absurd than the idea of producing it electrically. In any case, if you’re here to argue that wind energy might be useful for this purpose, I would propose that you examine how many exajoules of energy the wind energy industry produces each year and compare that with the world consumption of petroleum.

Before the wind industry can talk about petroleum, it should demonstrate that it can reduce gas consumption. Take a look at the data. Gas consumption is rising, not falling, this despite massive and unsustainable investment in wind energy.

If you knew anything at all about the economics of synfuel – and I suspect you don’t – a good place to start would be to consider why electrolytic hydrogen is only produced industrially as a side product of the chlorine and caustic industry, amounting to roughly 1% of world hydrogen production. Almost all of the remainder is produced by steam reformation of dangerous natural gas, with some, in places like China and Tennessee, being produced from the historically important process of steam reforming dangerous coal.

I would further note that the chlorine and caustic industries often rely on mercury electrodes, producing a rather high external cost in terms of health risk.

The various schemes for reducing carbon dioxide electrolytically, the stuff of Bocarsly and other groups, have not proved to scale industrially, and in any case, rely on rather exotic metal catalysts/electrodes. They remain pie-in-the-sky.

If you would like to learn something about synfuel, the ACS publishes a rich journal on the subject, Energy and Fuels. Almost every issue has an extensive section of papers about or related to syn fuels.

Personally I download every issue because, well, one needs to understand energy before one can comment on it. I generally gloss over the petroleum sections, since I believe that this is rather like what reading about whale oil was at the end of the 19th century must have been like, but I am always interested in syn fuel papers, particularly those involving C1, C2, and C3 species, particularly the C2 molecule DME.


Rather than make endless wishful thinking predictions about what wind energy “could” do “if” this happened, or that happened, the wind industry should at least show that it can match the growth – not the total output but simply the growth – of gas or coal. It has never done this and never will do this.

While we’ve been mindlessly cheering for wind and solar, the coal industry has risen in the last decade from being responsible for the generation of about 100 exajoules of primary energy per year to around 160 exajoules of primary energy per year.

After decades of cheering, the wind energy industry barely produces 5 exajoules, if that, per year, this after half a century of cheering rhetoric and vast sunk – and unjustifiable – costs.

The fastest growing source of primary energy on this planet is not wind. It’s dangerous natural gas.

That is, in my view, a crime against the future, and I note that the wind industry would die in a New York minute without access to gas.

I will address this lanthanide claim of yours in Part IV of this series. I would note that if I can find a population that only eats rice, I have not proved that world wheat production is superfluous. Lanthanides are being mined at the highest levels ever observed. The useless wind industry remains to this day a huge consumer of lanthanides, this for very little practical result. The number of lanthanide mines that have been shut because a particular manufacturer of wind turbines uses cobalt or some other metal is zero. In fact, as we will discuss, new lanthanide mines are being opened all around the world.

There are profound technical reasons why this is true, and we will discuss the physics and chemistry of permanent magnets in this context in Part 4.

Have a nice day tomorrow.


I am joining this website partly to get better information on wind energy avoided emissions and accurate economic and technical detail (Peter Lang I have found your dissection on this from 2009 and used information from it in a recent wind farm planning hearing in SW Victoria where we have a plethora of new sites in planning or development). I
But in this post it is a disapointment to read ‘so-called renewable energy, excepting hydropower, is not a significant form of energy’. Coming from the bioenergy side of things I am aware that biomass supplies singificantly more energy than hydropower, an in fact world-wide more than all the others combined, as it also does across the EU and in Australia.

I am regularly visiting Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Austria and see this up close. It is obviously possible to use the same mature technology to do this in many other parts of the world. Sustainability is clearly an issue to be worked on, and there are abberations in development direction in many places usually as a result of badly designed policy, but the countries in northern and central Europe are well ahead and proving technologies and th viability of this approach.
Interestingly the Swedes are presently getting over 34% of final energy from biomass (including biomass fraction of municipal wastes) on the way to the target of 39% by 2020, but only about 1-2% from wind. Biomass in Sweden is the largest source of final energy ahead of oil, nuclear and hydro (according to the Swedish Bioenergy association
Capital cost per MW-e capacity of new wood or straw biomass-fuelled plants in Finland, UK, Spain or China or elsewhere of about 25 MW capacity and 95% capacity factor is between US$3.5-4.5 million. But this does not include the fact that these are generally CHP plants that are producing heat (of an equal or higher value than the electricity) which is utilised locally (within a 15-25 km radius) by industry, commerce and households – including in some places to produce district cooling in summer months). The process is now in commercial use to use this quality of heat to produce ethanol from cellulosic material.

While this topic is dealing with the theoretical amounts and availability of uranium and other radioactive elements for producing electricity, use of these materials can’t be separated from issues of security, scale, and long term holding and disposal of waste, that biomass-to-energy just simply does not have. I recently visited a 10 MW-e, 20 MW-th straw-fired plant south of Copenhagen. there was no security at the gate and I was wandering about taking photos for five minutes before someone came out to ask if I wanted any information. This plant was automateed and normally remotely monitored and managed overnight and on weekends (from a much larger biomass-fuelled plant 120 km away).
The point being that biomass-fired power plants do not have any appeal for terrorists or others. In this case the 50,000 tonne of straw a year came from farmers within about 20 km, and the ash went back to these fields. Local jobs were created and energy money stayed in the local economy.
Each year in SW Victoria we burn over a million tonnes of straw a year due to total lack of any alternative market. The same for many millions of tonnes of woody residues (without even talking about native forest residues). Added to this is the tens of millions of tonnes of non-recyclable flammable municipal wastes and millions of m3 of putrescible wastes. All this material combined would be able to provide over 15% of current electricity needs and 10-20% of our final energy. My feeling is that we should be utilising this and all other economically available biomass before resorting to a roll-out of 1000 MW nuclear plants around our coast line


Andrew Lang,

I wonder where you hail from? :) I don’t recall seeing your comments previously.

Regarding biomass, my understanding is that it cannot provide more than a very small proportion of the global energy demand, especially as per capita energy consumption will continue to increase indefinitely as it has been dong since humans first learnt to control fire, and use energy from wind, water and animals.

You may find this of interest: “100% renewable electricity for Australia – the cost”: See especially the section on biofuels.

This may be of interest regarding wind power: “What’s the cost of CO2 abatement with Wind Turbines”:


Peter thanks for this. I am from the Lismore area in the Western District of Victoria and a distant cousin of yours – so it is good to find someone in this field who has expertise who I can hopefully access for the ongoing push against inexorable spread of wind turbines across this region that are in planning or development.

Re biomass the tracking of contribution of various renewable energy sources in terms of capacity and production of electricty, heat or transport biofuels has been done by the organisation REN 21 for the last five years or more in their renewables Global Status report But this has had some deficiencies (too many guestimates with no clarification, erratic use of units, etc. It is also a bt too starry-eyed about wind and solar PV), and so the World Bioenergy Association has put out our own Global Bioenergy Statistics in 2014 and now in 2015.

This has better data and more coherent presentation, though in the overall statistics all sources more or less agree that share of renewables in final energy consumption (for 2012) at 64 EJ is about 18.4% (though this assumes wind and solar PV do not generate use of fossil fuels to balance their production).

Of this, final energy from fossil sources is 271 EJ (electricity 46.1, heat 124, transport fuels 101), nuclear is 7.39 EJ (only electricity), hydro 11.2 (only electricity), biomass 48.4 (electricity 1.31 or 439 TWh, heat 44.7, transport fuels 2.51), final energy from all other renewables totals 3.25 EJ, split as electricity 2.07 and heat 1.18 (this category includes wind at 1.87 EJ in 2012, or 521 TWh)

Potential for energy from biomass can vary widely by climate and degree of use of more efficient technologies. I have just been in Finland where the region of Central Finland was getting over 50% of energy from biomass and aiming for 75%. Many cities (and 50% of the population are in cities at present) are getting up to 20% of electricity and 30% of heat from flammable municipal wastes and a large fraction of bus fuel from upgraded biogas from putresible wastes. So the sources of biomass when aggregated at a city can allow this already. In rural city municiaplities the energy from biomass can be up to 80% and the municipality of Vaxjo in Sweden is the exemplar of this (though good energy efficiency in all sectors including buildings plays a significant role in getting this figure).

The scene is changing with the adoption of commercialised technologies including cellulosic ethanol production, production of synthesis gas from municipal wastes that can be the feedstock for production of ‘green’ diesel and other transport fuels or substitutes for currently petroleum-sourced industrial base chemicals, small scale gasification of woody biomass, production of methane or pyrolysis oil from woody material, and many innovative processes in the biorefinery area.

The scope for bioenergy is relatively undeveloped in most parts of the world and it is particularly in the EU, and secondarily in USA, the BRIC countries and parts of SE Asia and East Asia, that things are moving. WBA estimates (using data from a range of authoritative sources) are that up to 150 EJ of energy (the aggregate of all three main forms) from sustainably and economically available biomass is attainable by 2035.

But the point is the scaleability, the potential for relatively small combined heat and power plants (5 MW-e up to 30 MW-e) and even smaller gasification CHP plants down to about 35 kW-e and 80 kW-th), and the dispatchability of electricity from these CHP plants.
I am not suggesting for Australia that biomass can supply more than 15% of electricity and 20% of final energy from presently economically available but unutilised biomass/biowaste resources. But with only very minor encouragement by policy it is quite feasible we could sigificantly increase the amount of biomass available in the form particularly of straw and woody biomass from farm land without affecting production of food and fibre or catchment flows – so in our case in this 550 mm rainfall area by dispersed multi-purpose wide shelter plantings that have overall beneficial effects for productivity and animal welfare, plus mitigating risks of possible impacts of climate change.


Andrew Lang,

That’s great to hear. I’ll get in contact with you.

I apologise for the delay in responding. I don’t have time to discuss this in depth now. And we’d be going too far off topic to discuss it on this thread.

I’d just make this point: For Australia and much of the world biofuels can supply only a very small component of electricity, let alone all energy. The issue that is critical but is commonly excluded from reports (such as that by the CSIRO for the AEMO analysis of feasibility of 100% renewable electricity for Australia), is the logistics. We have to be able to supply fuel to power stations continuously for the life of the plant (e.g. 50 years). Consider decade long droughts, and fires, floods, storms and disease that wipe out huge areas of growth. Consider that we have to transport biomass from far away to every power station if we are to keep them supplied with fuel through all such events. And/or we have to store sufficient fuel – either as biomass or biogas) to supply the power stations and/or the gas supply system continuously through all these disruptions to biomass production.

I’ve asked frequently what sort of contract arrangements could be put in place and what would be the cost to maintain farmers ability to supply biomass when the ones located nearest the biomass plant would supply biomass in all years (except when there is a drought or other supply disruption), but the ones further away might be required to supply biomass very rarely. How do we contract them so they maintain the ability to supply biomass feedstock at short notice but may not be called upon to do so for one to two decades and then for perhaps only a year or two?

From memory (I haven’t checked back to where I wrote this a few years ago) for Australia, to generate electricity to back-up 100% renewables electricity (about 13% from memory) from crop residue, we’d need about twice Australia’s average annual area of land under crops. And a large proportion of the biomass needed to supply eastern Australia would have to be transported from Western Australia.

On the other hand, nuclear power can provide all the world’s energy needs effectively indefinitely and it has demonstrated, over the past 60 years, it is the safest way to generate electricity. “Deaths by energy source in Forbes”

If we are looking for a genuinely sustainable solution for the long term, why should we search anywhere else?


Thanks Peter, I think for Australia your assumptions are not correct for a number of reasons. I was main author of a paper on the potential for bioenergy in Australia published a few years back in a journal by Springer. I agree about the issues of aggregation and of reliability of continuing supply but these only apply to some possible feedstocks.
One way to contact me could be via LinkedIn. I will go and look at this ‘bioenergy is just no good’ thread.



Firstly an apology: I should have written solar is about 1% of our total ELECTRICITY supply. I accept it has a long way to go yet before it reaches that proportion of our total energy supply, though I’ve no doubt it will in the next decade.

I was careful to avoid abusing the word “exponential”, hence the qualifier “near”. I completely agree that the larger the base is, the harder it is to maintain a growth rate. But looking at the limiting factors, I see that this is unlikely to be a problem any time soon; certainly not before it meets your standard of significance.

Dismissing solar because of its “failure as an energy strategy” ignores the fact that although it’s taken this long to reach commercial viability, it is now commercially viable (unsubsidised) in much of the world, and it’s really just a matter of time before it’s commercially viable in the rest.

“The number of lanthanide mines that have been shut because a particular manufacturer of wind turbines uses cobalt or some other metal is zero. In fact, as we will discuss, new lanthanide mines are being opened all around the world.”
That’s because lanthanides have great value for uses other than wind turbines.


Hi Peter

This whole article is about sea mining uranium and other water soluble minerals that can also be used for anything else than nuclear fuel. Mining for a variety of minerals and co-producing fresh water will definitively drive the cost associated with uranium mining from the sea down. The materials mined from the sea could comfortably build the entire global renewable infrastructure needed if that concept was the right solution to tackle the ongoing climate crisis and equally important inequality hindering the quality of life for the greater majority on earth. And among the materials that can be mined from the sea is CO2 for Synfuel production.

Wind turbines will become lighter as the technology improves and they will also demand less and less of strategic resources whereof some of the key resources Indium and REE already have been proven in practice to be completely possible to do without.

The catch 22 article was based on an outdated but interestingly REE free wind turbine from Enercon and on a once through estimate rather than accepting reality where all recyclable scrap from a wind turbine of cause will be recycled. Further the capacity factor was the then achievable in poor wind conditions in Germany.

Just as Nnadir and yourself use numbers for nuclear based on the natural assumption that the predominant light water reactor concept will become obsolete and replaced with far more fuel effective reactor designs you should at least base EROI calculations on modern average turbines or better still the best modern turbines or even try to make qualified estimates over the future EROI performance of wind turbines.

The choice of storage technology for renewables that John Morgan made in the Catch 22 article is surprising considering he also wrote the brilliant article, which makes a compelling case for producing Synfuel to replace liquid fuels based upon crude oil.

And as you know average US wind power from 2014 is very close to the $0.0204/kWh calculation that John Morgan did to arrive at $0.82/Litre.


Jenns Stubbe,

And as you know average US wind power from 2014 is very close to the $0.0204/kWh calculation

No, It’s nowhere near that. That is just part of the cost of intermittent renewables. You also have to add:

Decommissioning (three times higher cost than nuclear per MWh)
Grid costs (about $50/MWh at 50% renewable penetration – by linear projection to 50% from Nicholson and Brook:
Risk (expected monetary value) that renewables cannot meet requirements by 2050 (about $50/MWh, my calculation)

So, there’s an extra >$100/MWh to add to your $24/MWh.


Hi Andrew

You mentioned your visit to Denmark. Too bad you missed out on the opportunity to visit Novozymes the major producer of enzymes globally.

Novozymes second generation biofuels are currently price competitive with gasoline based upon $140/barrel but expect to be competitive with $100/barrel within a few years. Current oil prices are too low for second generation biofuels to be competitive but second generation biofuel plants can handle biomaterials that otherwise would not be used and also use intermittent sources of heat and electricity in the process. Also waste heat including from nuclear power plants will be usable to lower biofuels cost and you could use excess electricity outside peak hours in the production of biofuels.

My girlfriend is running algae reactors on research contracts for industrial customers developing all sorts of useful products which could be fed with waste streams from biofuel production.

Another consideration is that in Europe the entire agricultural sector is heavily subsidized so potentially we could lower the general subsidies and introduce biofuels and other modern concepts for using biomass as a way to direct the subsidies more intelligently.

So with some symbiotic thinking biofuels could be economically viable without direct subsidy.

Further a key factor behind the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere and the oceans is the ongoing depletion of carbon stored in the soil. In Australian context you could consider to grow hemp because hemp thrives in semi arid areas and does not require fertilizers and pesticides. This would turn large areas of Australia into carbon sinks because the deep hemp roots stores bio-materials in the soil and augment the biomass amounts. Hemp is usable for feeding animals and as basis for oil production and for production of paper and textiles.


Jens, thanks, I actually did visit Novozymes head office in Copenhagen a few years ago and met with some of their research and marketing people. I have also visited and toured the Inbicon straw to ethanol pilot pant at Kalundborg, and talked with people from the POET plant in central USA and the BEST Crescentino plant in Italy. But since this is off the thread topic I will leave it at that.


Since this thread is veering a bit off-topic with assertions about biomass, this article (below) may be of interest. The “take away” is that biomass is fundamentally a bad idea because, the author says, you can’t count it as carbon neutral, and, conceptually, if our species is going to use up land to grow things, there are better things to grow on that land.

May be useful to have the biomass discussion in the comment thread over there, as there is a standing thesis that is on-point.


Frank, my apologies, it all started when I found the quite erroneous statement in the original article that hydro was the only renewable (dispatchable?) energy source of any significance. I just assumed that you were keen to base the discussion on correct facts.

If you are saying that I have said bioenergy when done properly is not carbon neutral then this is a misreading. Your own ‘takeaway’ may be that biomass-to-energy is a bad idea, but this would be ignoring the many examples use of where modern bioenergy technolgies is a major contributor in a growing number of countries to decoupling production of GHG emissions from GDP growth, plus for stimulus to rural economies and employment, and many other environmental, economic and social benefits.


Aidan: I’ve heard so many “inevitable” representations about the future of solar energy that I really can’t take any of them very seriously.

You say that you have “no doubt” that solar will meet “my standard” – that being ten exajoules of primary energy per year – with the next decade.

I should tell you that this kind of rhetoric is something that I freely confess I once held myself: In the 1980’s.

The most famous “no doubt” about solar is the awful un-referenced hand waving piece written in 1976 by the insufferable fool Amory Lovins.

In the last 10 years, we spent damned near a trillion dollars on solar energy on this planet, only to hear that there is no doubt that it will work ten years from now. What, exactly besides vast contamination of the Chinese grain crops with cadmium do we have to show for it? To reach 10 exajoules of primary energy solar energy production – note the word “production” as oppose to the often abused (to the point of maceration) capacity -would need to increase by a factor of 1000%.

My question, which remains unaddressed, is “Why bother?”

You say that solar is cost competitive without subsidies in many places in the world. I’ve also been hearing this sort of things for many decades as well. I know a few people who’ve installed solar cells on their homes because they make the rote assumption – not really a valid assumption in my view – that “it’s good for the environment.” Not one of them is a person struggling to put food on the table, working two or three jobs for that alone, never mind to keep the lights on. 100% of the people I personally know are bourgeois and wealthy.

I almost never seen anyone who mutters that they are “saving money” with solar show the actual yields of electricity, their installation bills, the amount of the tax subsidy that they are accounting or the cost of repairs. In fact, the only such accounting – I grant it was in Canada – was a cute little paper a few years back in Environmental Science and Technology, subtitled “A modest Experiment” (Piggott, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2011, 45 (21), pp 9118–9119)

Piggott installed a home wind turbine and a set of solar cells for an out of pocket expense of $7,450 (Cdn) while stating that several hidden costs were ignored. For this, given that as he states, “The solar panels only contributed a significant amount of power in the summer. They were covered in snow in December, January, February, and part of March. The monthly averages conceal much day-to-day variation. For instance, in June 2010 the power varied between 2 and 120 W,” he calculated that his mean power output was 28.3 watts.

He calculates that his economic payback time, given the power rates from the grid was 14.82 cents/kwh (Cdn) would be more than 60 years.

Sixty years from now, of course, he, and all of the hundreds of millions of people who were willing to bet the planetary atmosphere on the proposition that solar energy was a good idea, will be dead, and future generations will be required to clean up the mess (if possible) or to deal with their moral abandonment by their ancestors – that would be “us.”

I hear all the time, year after year, decade after decade, that solar energy is economic or, as Amory Lovins put it in 1976, without providing a single reference, “nearly economic.”


What I can never recall seeing is a detailed accounting like that provided by Dr. Piggott, a Chemical Engineer at the University of Toronto.

Perhaps you can share some such accountings, based on real data, similar to what Dr. Piggott provided, to support your statement that subsidy free solar energy is competitive.

Note too, that Dr. Piggott’s account makes no mention of the disposal of the solar cells when they have become just so much more electronic waste, which surely they will. How many functional electronic devices are still operating from sixty years ago. The first solar cell, which was invented in 1954?

Solar energy, even if it was producing busbar power comparable to grid power, would still have a very, very, very, very profound – if almost always ignored – external cost, owing to the simple fact that it has an extremely low energy to mass ratio.

Thanks for your comment. Have a nice day.


Re the comments on solar PV output not able to achieve 10 EJ by Peter Lang to Aidan, I can suggest that the insights in the book ‘Green Illusions’ may be worth a look.
This website can give assess to the preface and chapter one – which dissects solar PV. The whole book is very centred on the USA experience (so not well informed on bioenergy) but for the solar PV issue (and its economics and its future) this is not a problem. The author proceeds to take each of the renewables to bits for examination and I expect does this for nuclear energy as well.


Hi Andrew

I do not think the topic biofuels is irrelevant for the topic. As you know biomining where you use the fact that different minerals are concentrated by living organisms is one way to get hold of important minerals such as for instance Uranium. To get biomining to an industrial scale you have to have several revenue streams.

In an Inbicon style plant you end up with a mineral rich fraction which could be the basis for alternative sources for Uranium. And contrary to Gen1. Biofuels Gen2. Biofuels are based upon uneatable fractions of the plants.

Also Novozymes have formed an alliance with Monsanto because Novozymes have conducted research in bioengineering soil microbes that increase yield upwards of 4% while also decreasing the need for fertilizers and pesticides.


“Aidan: I’ve heard so many “inevitable” representations about the future of solar energy that I really can’t take any of them very seriously.”
And that, I suggest, is your problem: you’ve stopped listening so have failed to notice the enormous recent advances in solar energy!

I suggest you read for an overview of where we’re up to now.

I don’t know why anyone was claiming in the 1970s that solar PV was “nearly economic” when at that time it wasn’t even technically viable as an energy source. But technology improved. In the 1980s it became economic to use in very remote places. In the 1990s it started to become practical for some low powered applications such as lighting bus shelters. It’s only in the 21st century that it’s really become practical for on grid applications, and initially that was just because of the subsidy. But falling costs (combined with low interest rates) have at last made it viable without a subsidy. And as costs continue to fall, demand will continue to rise. Probably much more quickly. When it’s cheaper than the alternatives, it doesn’t make sense to fail to take advantage of it.

UPDATE: I had a quick look at your Amory Lovins link. It was solar heating, not solar PV, that Lovins thought could be used immediately; photovoltaic was listed as an “exotic” method that “if developed… could be convenient, but … in no way essential for an industrial society operating solely on energy income.”


Andrew Lang: I haven’t had a chance to read through most of the comments here in any detail, but as I’ve noticed your most recent posts on the matter, and have noticed your participation in the biofuels industry in some capacity, I thought it might be worthwhile to comment.

Let me begin by saying that while I am pretty hostile to most forms of so called “renewable energy,” those to which I am least hostile are biofuels. The reason is that theoretically at least, biological sources of energy can be self replicating and right now, biology is the only major successful mechanism by which carbon is captured from the atmosphere, said capture being an issue that is increasingly exigent.

Persistent human inaction on climate change has lead me to endorse the argument made in PNAS not so long ago:

Click to access PNAS%20paper%20on%20CO2%20air%20capture.pdf

This of course, air capture, is an incredible thermodynamic challenge and while an examination of carbon fluxes from all biological sources, including natural habitats not yet ground up to put in gas tanks, are being widely investigated, and in comparison to anthropogenic fluxes from dangerous fossil fuels, quite limited (as I will discuss below), it may not be wise to throw out the baby with the bath water.

In one argument I made on the internet, this on the subject of the utilization of carbon captured from the glycerol by product of biodiesel via its transformation into soketal, I used exactly the same baby and bath water analogy:

Except for standing outside on a warm day, biofuels are of course, the oldest form of so called “renewable energy” and without a doubt they remain a significant – if difficult to trace because the majority of users are desperately impoverished and thus largely ignored – source of energy. This type of utilization, utilization by impoverished people, remains what it has always been, even when utilized by rich people, a serious human health risk: As noted in the Lancet article to which I frequently have referenced in this space and elsewhere, about half of the 7 million people who die each year from air pollution are connected with biofuels utilized in a primitive way, straight up combustion.

As for modern biofuel strategies, their external costs should, and often do, raise some eyebrows. As I noted in the text of my solketal article referenced above, no less than the former editor of the journal Environmental Science and Technology, himself a scientist at the University of Iowa, has noted that the total destruction of the ecology of the Mississippi River delta is connected with the utilization of corn ethanol grown in, um, Iowa.

As an environmentalist, I have been known to throw a jaundiced eye on things like palm oil plantations replacing rain forest in tropical regions. (Interestingly a recent genetics article in a recent publication in Nature, pointed to a way, however, to increase the biological efficiency of these otherwise awful entreprises, thus slightly limiting the damage they do:

I also note that the biofuel question is very much involved with a huge environmental risk that is generally ignored, the slow but steady increase of the ozone depleting agent nitrous oxide. This is a huge, if largely ignored, issue before humanity in my opinion.

Nevertheless, I’m not totally hostile to biofuels. I believe that they may play a limited role in sustainablility, particularly if they are utilized, whatever their limitations, in high temperature reformation schemes with water, or better carbon dioxide itself, functioning as the oxidant and nuclear energy as the source of driving heat. To the extent that these processes result in the formation of asphaltenes, utilization in the manufacturing of polymers, graphenes, graphites, and carbon fiber based materials, etc, they will represent more or less permanently fixed carbon dioxide.

I wrote, but did not publish anywhere a rather long review of carbon capture strategies, from air without the use of biological intermediates. To the extent that these strategies may or may not be feasible, ironically enough, given the text of this installation, seawater may prove to be the best extraction device.

(As I noted at the conclusion of the solketal piece referenced above, as a sort of dreamy “back of the envelope” sort of suggestion, ecologically destroyed stretches of ocean may offer an opportunity to collect some atmospheric carbon.)

The viability of biofuels in general might be improved were we to electrify all the world’s railroads, and replace all the freighters at sea with nuclear powered ships, certainly a nontrivial, but technologically feasible, and in my view, desirable, goal. Biofuels, like all forms of so called “renewable energy” suffer from the fact that they are diffuse and have a low energy to mass ratio. They’re not as bad in this regard as solar and wind schemes, but they’re hardly ideal.

As for schemes utilizing so called “waste biomass,” straw, corn stover, switch grass and the like, enzymatic approaches are unlikely to be sustainable in my view. There simply isn’t enough water to accomplish this. The other issue unaddressed, of course, is the phosphorous and other nutrient fluxes; also an important challenge before humanity, which are also involved with biomass reformation schemes that I mentioned.

In any case, the potential is clearly limited by the size of the carbon flux. Right now humanity is dumping about 30-35 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmospheric waste dump each year. As carbon is roughly 27.3% of carbon dioxide, at 30 billion tons, this represents about 8.2 billion tons of carbon each years.

Chinese scientists have been publishing quite frequently about the mass of their “waste biomass,” for example, rice straw. Here is one such reference I happen to have in my files that are convenient:

According to the authors, the mass of rice straw in China, the world’s most populous country, and, as of this writing, self sufficient in food, is on the order of 600 million tons. Some of this mass, is of course, lignin, but let’s for the sake of a back of the envelope arogument, treat the carbon content of this biomass as a carbohydrate, and take the carbon ratio as being what the name “carbohydrate” implies, one atom of carbon to one molecule of water, that is, roughly 40% carbon. It follows that all the straw in China has a carbon content of about 240 million tons.

It will never be feasible or sustainable to collect every gram of carbon contained in Chinese rice straw, of course, but even if it were, a comparison of the mass of carbon so contained with the mass of carbon dumped should have a sobering effect on the idea that biofuels represent a strategy for limiting the flux of carbon to the atmosphere by all that much.

Thanks for your comments. Have a nice weekend.


Thanks for this and I am not even dead sure if it is NNadir or Barry Brook I am addressing. But your response reminds me of the quote ‘yes I can see it works in practice but I am pretty sure it won’t work in theory’. So it is ‘working in practice’ in much of the EU, states of the USA and provinces of Canada, South Korea, China, Brazil and NZ, among many other places. It clearly could work here. On our property we annually burn 2000 tonnes of straw and up to 500 tonnes of wood for want of any market for this biomass. All around us the same. All Australia’s urban wastes go to landfill with relatively low levels of recycling. Almost all putrescible wastes either go there too or are aerobically treated, or, possibly no better, composted. Between 100,000 and a million ha of native forest burns in wild fires in Victoria most years and fuel reductionn thinning could help protect communities, as done in the south and west USA federal forests.

Getting 40-50% of an industrially advanced nation’s energy from biomass and biowastes is achievable and a number of countries are nearly there or on track by 2050. Having it done sustainably and perpetually requires smart policy, competent systems and efficient technology. The issue of corn ethanol ‘decimating the Mississippi delta’. In a visit to Minnesota in about 2006 – well before the corn ethanol saga – I was told that overuse of nitrogenous fertilisers (and other agricultural chemicals, plus maybe soil loss) had resulted in 10,000 km2 of the gulf of Mexico the Mississippi flows into being biologically dead. Any Australian farmer could see that there is a lot wrong with the American farming system and the way it is maintained in most unsustainable practices by subsidies and bad policy. For a start the entire midwest seems to be growing only annual crops and there are almost no trees even on stream lines or drainage channels.

So just in response to some of your points in no order. The 600 million tonnes of straw in China is part used for animal feed and bedding but it is estimated 300 tonnes is available and of this an increasing amount is now not simply burned (as is done also across south Asia and SE Asia) but used to fuel 15-50 MW CHP plants – last I heard there were up to 40 of these in operation and it may well be more by now). The Chinese are leaders in straw gasification and they are also now entering into production of cellulosic ethanol (production of cellulosic ethanol is not a great user of water and I understand some plants now are essentially self-contained for water and energy within the process. They also have targets to establish 40 million ha of forestry plantings (I was told 20 million ha was already in the ground) and the residues from that part that is commercially managed (20 million ha?) will provide a signficant amount of biomass for various technologies.

Maybe biomass is ‘diffuse’, but this is a very relative concept. Bringing together 200,000 tonnes of straw or cornstover is economically possible. The Averdoere 2 plant south of Copenhagen uses an annual supply of 150,000 tonne of big bales of straw from only within Zeeland. It is all about the money available for freight within the equation. A good rail system is key to this process. The new Metla pulp plant at Aayakoski in Finland will be drawing in 6.5 milion m3 of round wood and will be essentially an energy producer using the process residues. UPM in its plants in Finland and Brazil is a net electricity producer, plus up to 100,000 t/yr of green diesel from one site in Finland

Re the issue of deaths in third world countries due to smoke inhallation and other toxic products of wet wood burned inefficiently, the contribution of anaerobic digestion now means just by use of 25 kg of animal dung a day into some sort of anerobic digester (including very cheap bag digesters) that enough biogas is produced for the daily family cooking. The scale of this can be infinitely scaleable and the feedstock can be very diverse. The residue of the process is a very good quality odourless fertiliser. I am working in this area of biogas in Sudan where there is great protential and the scope is vast. The country is very badly deforested and so with this one technology at various scale and with low investment of capital is is possible to significantly improve the situation by providing a cheaper substitute for charcoal. So the takeup of small biogas producers worldwide is somewhere around 25 million or possibly more so providing cooking for up to 100 million people. As the dutch NGO SNV has shown diseminating this simple technology within a country is not a complex process once the organisation and government support is there.

I am similarly working with Khartoum state on options for waste to energy. Their 1.6 milion tonnes of dry municipal waste a year from 8 million people is collected and could be the source of up to 320 MW-e plus industrial heat. We just have to make the money work. You mention some concern about the economics of biomass to energy, but the figures I see for biomass-fuelled combined heat and power capital cost are at the bottom of the range of renewable energy sources (by the measure of per MW-e produced). On a levelised cost of production basis biomass to energy (for a wood fuelled CHP plant of 25 MW-e capacity) is only a little more expensive than onshore wind, but by contrast the electricity is dispatcheable and the heat (of twice the amount and saleable for a similar amount per MWh) is not being included.

So back to our property and the biomass we produce that presently goes to waste: the straw of 2000 tonnes sent to a cellulosic ethanol plant 80 km away could be producing 500,000 litres of fuel grade ethanol, the 100 ha of low quality grass that is not consumed by sheep and only dries to be a fire hazard, if ensilaged gives us 500 tonnes to feed a biogas plant and get enough biogas to feed a spark engine driven 34 kW generator, and most of this can go into the grid though we get about 80 kW of heat (plus CO2) for some intensive production system (aquaculture, or growing algae to feed the biogas digester). Plus the plantation thinnings and other unsaleable wood – about 250 tonne on average – could feed a Spanner gasifier to produce another 50 kW of electricity plus 120 kW-th, but it may be simpler to send it as chip to the biomass fuelled 30 MW-th plant 80 km away for a small net revenue. The point is that what is presently waste biomass soon to become freely emitted CO2 and other GHGs could become utilised energy. And this is happening in more advanced countries.

Finally use of biomass is not so difficult to trace and to get overall quantities of (or the energy it can produce). In the OECD or other countries with fair to good data you can get the country data or at least apply it from comparable places, and for the rest you can estimate it. Every where it takes the same energy to make a litre of water boil at sea level, it is just about the fuel type and the efficiency of the heat transfer. So in the WBA 2015 statistical review (see in Table 12 we have done this, first splitting primary energy from biomass by continent, and then beginning to do it by country. While it all needs review and cross checking for sense (i.e., does it seem feasible that Nigeria is using 4.53 EJ of biomass, when Indonesia is using 2.26, Thailand 0.98 and India 7.74 – looks suspect to me) it is something we are working towards getting a good handle on this. What is likely is that figures for Thailand and Indonesia are too low.

And so it goes. I hope this all helps. In the meantime I am aware of the real problems Finland is having with its latest nuclear plant – way over time (4 year or more?), way over budget (could it be double?) and legal processes are underway. A few weeks ago in Xi’an I sat through a very interesting series of talks on nuclear development in China and from a senior person in JANSI on analysis of not only the major nuclear incidents but of the many thousands of notified incidents – with about 75% being due to human error of one sort or another. So I see the gravitation of the Sudanese government toward a nuclear plant at Port Sudan with some alarm. A country that canot yet organise its rubbish collection and disposal, and has 4 million internally displaced people receiving UN food aid, does not seem ready to be looking at a nuclear program.

I have to add that none of this advocates planting productive land to trees en masse, though it is feasible to plant 10-20% of land area in ways that only enhance the productiveness of the rest and improve many environmental, animal welfare and aesthetic aspects (as we have done here).


This thread is veering way off course. I have spoken to Barry and he is going to start an Open Thread.Some comments are held in Pending until we sort this out and we suggest you do not add any more off topic comments here as they may be deleted.
If you have copies of your past postings in this thread you should re-post them in the new Open Thread. Thank you.


I have left the above digressive comment thread in place, and approved the posts, because it is troublesome to try and move them, and there was some useful material there. However, I insist that any further discussion of topics not related to the topic of this post (the abundance of uranium, etc.) be posted on the new Open Thread 23. Thank you.


Aidan: I will move my response to “the solar is economic” argument, and the question of who is listening to what to the open thread, but probably not today, as I am traveling on business.


Andrew Lang: As suggested by the moderator, and as suggested by Aidan, I will do the same with my response on your biofuels remark to the open thread, within a few days.


NNadir. Thank you … thought provoking as always. It’s taken me a while to read and will take even longer to fully absorb! Just one question about the uranium mining study of 4137 people. You write as if this is all the miners, but it looks to me like just one cohort … at best representative. Have you any idea of the entire mining population?


Geoff: The data for the entire Southwest mining population is available in the paper cited, however, because special notice is attached to the Native American miners as opposed to the entire population by the people who write books with emotive, I focused on this group alone.

It occurs to me now, depending on the statistical significance one can attach to the sample size, that it may, by looking at this data, one might be able to discern the difference between people who lived on the reservation their whole lives, and were thus always exposed to some, if less, uranium and radon, and people who came to the reservation merely to mine.

I will, however, not have time to look that deeply, but one might suggest such a strategy to a real epidemiologist, which I am not.


Mainly to the moderator. Nnadir answered one of my comments and I answered back but the answer I brought with references from official statistics has newer been posted in this thread.

I do wonder why since we are all better of discussing based on correct facts.
I can’t explain why your comments did not appear unless it was caught in the spam trap which happens to posts with several links sometimes.
If it was posted after Barry put up the new Open Thread, and it was off topic to the subject of the post regarding the sustainability of Uranium, it may have been deleted as we can’t move comments between posts. If this is the case please re-post in the Open Thread. The same applies to your latest post which I an holding in the Pending box It appears to be off topic. Please post that on the Open Thread too. Barry has insisted that all off topic posts be in the new OT. Thanks.


Extracting uranium from seawater rather than from the crust has to be strategic rather than economic. After all, India and Japan etc will always have access to seawater, even when their land is covered in people, or when they are cut off from international trade in uranium.


One of the often overlooked, great benefits of nuclear power is he energy security benefits. Countries can hold many years or decades of nuclear fuel at little cost and requiring little storage area. This has enormous benefits for energy security. It means all countries can have reliable fuels supplies that are not threatened by economic and military disruptions or threats of disruptions. Australia’s extremely vulnerable to oil supply disruptions (we hold about 3 weeks supply of oil). Europe is threatened by Russia’s control of gas supplies. Energy supply threats could be avoided if the world relied on nuclear energy for most of its energy.

Nuclear fuel is safe until it has been in a reactor. The fuel rods hang from the ceiling of the warehouse and people walk among them with no more than lab coats for protective clothing.


Peter totally agree about the transport fuel holding stocks but I am informed they are mcuh lower than that for some fuel types – it is a national security issue. And getting a Pederick-Cheney charcoal gasifier to work on a computer-managed Commodore would be a nightmare. Which is why I am hanging on to my 1976 mercedes on gas.
Could you contact me direct – I am looking for update info on avoided emissions from wind, and info on brown coal-fired furnace management procedures for fast output reduction.


@Peter Lang

I accept that you apparently feel nuclear cost $1.04/kWh and can back that with several authoritative analysis of the LCOE of nuclear energy or you can come up with a sensible argumentation that explains why the World-nuclear numbers from 2015 are incorrect.

Hopefully you can back your strange claim up.

In Scandinavia nuclear power plants sell at the Nordpool spot market, which on average is below $0.03/kWh or more than a factor 33 cheaper than you seem to think nuclear cost.

At that cost point and assuming the nuclear power plants in Scandinavia are not superior to the US counterparts the fuel purchase cost is approximately 20% of the electricity cost.


Jens Stubbe,

I accept that you apparently feel nuclear cost $1.04/kWh

I am sorry. I don’t have a clue what you are talking about. I don’t recall ever saying this. Can you please quote where I said it. Or are you trying to put words in my mouth? If you are doing that, it is what is called a “strawman arguments”; it is one of the 10 signs of intellectual dishonesty.

Anyway, before you try to divert the discussion you should first acknowledge you were incorrect on the original point I responded to and corrected you on, i.e. your assertion:

It is not a question of shortage [of nuclear fuel] but of cost.

As I explained LCOE of nuclear energy is very insensitive to the cost of the fuel. Do you accept that?


Hi Peter

First of all I have to excuse for a major calculation error. The fuel cost figures from world nuclear org that stipulates half a cent per kWh as the purchase cost for nuclear fuel will if it represents 5% of total cost not lead to $1.04/kWh but a factor 10 less = $0.104/kWh.

However you are still not correct in assuming that the nuclear fuel cost are negligible.

First of all the nuclear fuel purchase is only one small part of the total cost associated with the nuclear fuel that has to be stored and disposed of. The Thorium enhanced fuels that are under way will reduce the spent fuel stock piles and require significantly less cost regarding spent fuels, final storage and decommission of nuclear power plants.

If you do not accept the numbers from that represent a large proportions of the companies in the global nuclear value chain, then please link to any of the studies you claim put nuclear fuel cost at 5% of the the kWh cost.

Quite to the contrary of your beliefs nuclear fuel cost is an ever growing factor for nuclear power plants that sell electricity in the market place.

Hinkley Point and other nuclear power plants that is not dependent upon free market prices may in fact see nuclear fuel cost as totally irrelevant for the economic success, which is guaranteed upfront by a PPA.


@Roger Clifton

Yes it is of vital importance to lower nuclear fuel cost as if it does not happen Nuclear power will need larger subsidies to keep going and still larger subsidies to be built in the future.

Your back of the envelope calculation is totally off.

If you trail the discussion back to my link to world nuclear org (the single most important international association for nuclear companies, international bodies, universities and lobby organizations in the world) you can see what they present as the data relevant for USA that has the largest fleet of both civil and military reactors in the world. As per July 2015 the purchase cost of nuclear fuel for US reactors was $0.0052/kWh.

That means that for your 10 cents calculation you can get 19,23kWh in real life if you only calculate the purchase cost related to nuclear fuel and omit all other fuel related cost.

The average Dane consume 730Watt per hour so your 19,23kWh would in Denmark deliver 26 hours of electricity consumption. In USA and probably also in Australia the average consumption is higher so you will get less electricity than the average person needs in just one day.

Your claim 1kW supply per 10 US cent adds up to 8760kWh annually for 10 US cents and is therefore no less than a factor 455 wrong. (and much more if you also calculate other fuel related cost than just the purchase cost).

If you actually want to know something about the subject world nuclear org also offers level headed views on other cost that are associated with nuclear fuel.

Also you could read the links to Thorenergy, Lightbridge and Arreva that all have made successful efforts to lower the nuclear fuel consumption and associated cost.

Or you could read about the successful incremental innovation in the nuclear industry that has led to doubling of the average fuel efficiency over the last 40 years, but perhaps you should lesson all these hard working nuclear engineers and technicians that their efforts in reality have been money down the drain and not really needed.


Your estimate of the global flux of U into the oceans may be far too low: see the recent paper by Kwon et al. (2014) Global estimate of submarine groundwater discharge based on an observationally constrained radium isotope model. Geophysical Research Letters, 41(23), 8438-8444 — in which the authors estimate that groundwater flux into the global ocean exceeds riverine flux by some 3 to 4 times. And considering that groundwater is several times more concentrated in U than river water (because it percolates through the rocks instead of riding on top of them — and I have a reference for that somewhere, but I can’t find it at the moment) the net result is that the annual flow of U into the oceans will always and easily be far greater than the annual amount we would ever use in a full-use fuel cycle.

Another point to consider is that even with continental mining, there is a very steep slope in the price-vs.-reserve parameter space: doubling the price of U increases reserves by a factor of 10 (roughly) over several orders of magnitude. This is contra oil, where the slope is quite shallow. See my post on this topic, at


Well, Keith, that estimate is not “my” estimate, but comes from the references I cited. I haven’t claimed to have made a comprehensive review of all the literature by any stretch, Whether a particular reference is superior to another is certainly an open question. I suspect that the actual size of the uranium flux to the ocean is difficult to nail down with high accuracy and precision, what is clear that it is sufficient to provide at least twice, perhaps more, of the world anthrogenic energy flux now observed. Even if we have sufficient energy, however, it is not clear to me that there are enough resources of other types, including air and water, to sustain this scale of consumption for very long without completely destroying the planetary carrying capacity.

In any case, it is clear that many crustal rocks, including, but not limited to, commercial uranium ores, have much higher concentrations of uranium than does seawater. As noted in my text and the references therein, the extent to which uranium is mobilized is a function of the local chemistry of the water flowing through it. The point was made by the authors of the very recent Nolan and Weber paper cited above, with respect to nitrate’s effect on the mobilization of uranium in the region of the Ogallala aquafer/artesian well system and the nearby areas in the American Midwest as well as in California’s central valley as is shown in the maps included in this text.

I note that the formation of the natural reactors at Oklo and elsewhere was involved with a change in atmospheric chemistry, specifically the rise of oxygen in the formerly reducing atmosphere.

In any event, as is the case with riverine waters, ground water flows are certainly subject to anthropogenic disruption. As you may be aware, in the Ogallala case the groundwater levels are falling, in some places quite rapidly. In effect, this water is being strip mined, much of it may in fact be fossil water. These kinds of activities are likely to effect the flux to the sea from groundwater extraction.

The nitrate case, as it represents the disturbed nitrogen cycle owing to Haber type fixation, is actually a very serious matter, maybe even more serious than other environmental issues before us. No one is talking loudly about it, or certainly not loudly enough, but the N2O accumulation in the atmosphere is a very serious matter, with its global warming potential a subsidiary matter in comparison to its ozone depleting potential. Interestingly the only reasonable fix for this very, very, very, very big problem involves exposing the air to radiation. It’s a shame in that sense that used nuclear fuel is often sequestered under helium rather than being exposed to air.

I haven’t had a chance, and won’t for a while have a chance to access the paper you suggested, but one should be aware that radium can be a poor surrogate for uranium itself, and in many places around the world there is a distinct disequilibrium between uranium and its daughters, most notably in seawater itself. This too is an effect of local chemistry and to some extent, physics. Reference 6 in this part (Reference 19 in Part 2) has a number of chapters that explore these disequilbrium cases, the most interesting being between U-238 and U-234, apparently related to recoil velocity associated with the decay events.

I am hoping that I have not emphasized uranium extraction from aqueous systems as a purely economic exercise. It should not be comparable with uranium prices for many centuries, particularly where a fast neutron flux device becomes commonplace. What I am suggesting is that we isolate uranium (and perhaps other elements) from natural waters as an effort to improve water and food quality – uranium is, irrespective of its wonderful properties as a nuclear fuel – a nephrotoxin. Any uranium so isolated might be stockpiled for generations that will come centuries after our own.

A point I frequently make is that in a closed cycle, i.e. a breeding cycle, the uranium and thorium already mined and isolated – or in the case of thorium, in some cases partially isolated, is sufficient to provide all human energy needs for periods on the century scale.

I will discuss the partial isolation of thorium from lanthanide ores when I turn to the subject of wind turbines, metal hydride batteries, and electric cars and other motorized devices in Part IV.

I will try to find some time to drop by your Kos post. I’m sure it’s superior to what passes for “environmentalism” over there. I was thinking of Tim Lange (Meteor Blades) while writing the part on the Dine above and the Four Corners uranium mines on Dine land. I had never so carefully looked at the statistics for that great tragedy he so often prattled on about while seven million people die each year from air pollution. (I don’t know if you saw the Nature paper in September suggesting that the air pollution mortality figures cited in Lancet in 2012 may be too low.) If you hear from Kos himself, be sure to send him my best regards, and tell him how deeply moved I am his new definition of liberalism as affection for that dumb billionaire’s electric car, the Tesla. With political thought like this being passed around, we’re in real big trouble.

I’m not found of journalists, left and right, when I see how destructive they can be.

Thanks for your comment. I will, in time, follow up on your suggested readings.


Ok Nnadir I should not have presumed you are a MSR fan.

You are holding up the future perspectives of nuclear as superior to wind but only ever factor in the continued positive developments of the nuclear fuel cycle despite the obvious fact that a snapshot of todays wind technology does not factor in the well-known fast paced technology development.

To create a level playing field you have to acknowledge that engineers within both categories are making progress.

The wind redundancy issue is going to be less than it is today simply because a number of technologies will progress. HVDC technology is constantly improving and is becoming more widespread.
Wind capacity factors are on a constant upwards trajectory.
The stability of wind turbines is also increasing with availability above 99%.
The design lifetime of wind turbines is ever growing with Siemens 6MW offshore wind turbines designed for 25 years of operation.
REE free designs are already available in all sizes up to 7MW.
Wind power is Indium free today say for a few grams used for displays and sensors.

If you use cheap electricity when in over supply to produce Synfuel then there will be no problems with meeting societies electricity requirement without backup from any dangerous fossil fuel and at the same time you can start making a real dent in dangerous fossil fuels including oil.

Your remarks on the exajoules of energy the wind energy are quite frankly not enlightening for anybody. A more useful approach would be to analyze how many state of the art wind turbines would be required to supply the global energy need and how much area of land would this require.

As for the economic viability of wind power as an alternate source of primary energy for the petro chemical industry then wind power is already more viable than most oil fields if you include the externalized costs of dangerous fossil fuels.

Gas consumption is rising because of the legislation put in place by Dick Cheney that effectively makes it possible to extract fracking gas anywhere without liability for external costs. The fracking industry is however in a very tight economic squeeze. Nuclear only delivers base load so what kind of power generation should do the load following in a nuclear scenario ?

Your whale oil analogy is spot on. Why do you believe that dangerous fossil fuels are impossible to substitute ? It is really bewildering since your other views generally tend to be positive towards development of new technologies and you definitively know your history.

You write “ the wind industry should at least show that it can match the growth – not the total output but simply the growth – of gas or coal. It has never done this and never will do this.” I think you need to see this. Installed wind power capacity grew from 18.000 MW in 2000 to 318.000 in 2013 that is 1.700%. According to you coal grew from 100 exajoules to 160 exajoules in the last decade.

You also wrote “The fastest growing source of primary energy on this planet is not wind. It’s dangerous natural gas.” Take a look Global NG production has increased at an annual compound rate of 5.3% since 2000 many factors less than wind powers 25% annual compound growth rate in the same period.

Even though addressed to Nadir this post is veering off topic. Please continue in the OT. Thanks.



[It seems some OT comments are acceptable but others are not. I’ll offer a response and hope it is allowable.]

You are holding up the future perspectives of nuclear as superior to wind but only ever factor in the continued positive developments of the nuclear fuel cycle despite the obvious fact that a snapshot of todays wind technology does not factor in the well-known fast paced technology development.

To create a level playing field you have to acknowledge that engineers within both categories are making progress.

I agree progress is being made in both wind and nuclear. However, there is very limited potential for wind and solar to be provide a large proportion of global energy. To replace fossil fuel energy, alternative technologies are needed. Wind and solar cannot make much contribution; conversely nuclear has enormous potential to massively reduce costs (by perhaps two orders of magnitude with fission, without even considering fusion) and uranium can provide all the world’s energy needs for many thousands of years, not even considering thorium.

The only thing stopping progress with nuclear is the irrational, fears about it (nuclear is the safest way to generate electricity )

That’s what you need to understand.

Most of the rest of your comments (e.g. about wind capacity factors, energy storage, transmission, etc.) are uncosted, and mostly incorrect. I gave you links in previous posts to sources to read so you could understand this. But it seems you may not have read them or have simply ignored or dismissed them without coming to grips with them.
Thanks Peter – I dithered with Jens comment but I think you are right and it is OT. As it was addressed to Nadir I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I will leave them both up this time.



I am personally happy that the moderator left your comment up. The point of this series as a whole, if not this particular part is, in fact, to compare nuclear energy with its alternatives, real and not real, including, from my perspective, all forms of so called “renewable energy.” The latter gets a rote environmental “bye” when its environmental sustainability is dubious at best, absurd at worst, while the former is almost constantly under attack by people who 1) set criteria for its performance that no other form of energy can meet, 2) are hate whatever they cannot understand; almost ever single opponent of nuclear energy with whom I have personally interacted – with a few notable exceptions – knows nothing about nuclear technology at all. There is a good reason that many people know little about nuclear energy: The topic is difficult; one must be aware of issues in materials science, unusual statistical dynamics, physics, chemistry, epidemiology, etc. So called “renewable energy”, by contrast, gets loads of rote cheering from people who do not know enough chemistry to understand the very real risk of this relative primitive technology.

Engineers are decidedly making progress on making wind power less obnoxious than it is. This is true. I have been studying some of these issues as part of the preparation of part 4, and will discuss them there. I do hope you’ll show up for the discussion.

However any advances made with wind energy – and there are some notable ones that will have application elsewhere, just as the useless solar thermal industry has provided a lot of research into refractory materials that are, in fact, useful for nuclear applications – are in general a waste of resources, if in fact the goal is to make the unworkable work. The reason is very clear: The wind does not always blow, and when it does blow, it may not blow at a time that the energy is required. Any and every attempt to store this expensive energy will, by necessity, raise costs higher, face a thermodynamic penalty because the 2nd law of thermodynamics cannot be engineered away, and as a result of the second law, raise the already unacceptable environmental impact of the technology. Again, any fool can see that the wind doesn’t blow. I’m in downtown Boston today, where turbines have been located right in the urban area. I can see one from my hotel room. It’s as still as dust in an enclosed attic. This fact, the fact that the wind doesn’t always blow, is why Denmark is still drilling oil and gas in the North Sea. I’ll be impressed when they stop doing that, but they won’t, because the Danes, who despite giving the world Neils Bohr and his son Aage, have become scientifically immature. I don’t think there are any modern technical books on the topic of nuclear energy written in Danish; I could be wrong about that, but I suspect that is the case. In Denmark, from what I can see, the attitude toward nuclear energy is fear and ignorance, which is why the Danes have been agitating for shutting Swedish reactors that are saving lives right now.

The best wind energy can do is to slow this disaster of climate change. It cannot stop it. Thus it is a bad decision to invest limited resources in it when nuclear energy is clearly and unambiguously superior.

Wind energy also has an energy to mass ratio problem, as I suggested in part 1 of this series and on which I will elaborate in Part IV. This puts a huge limit on what it can do.

Thanks for your comment.


Hi Nnadir

There is limited direct government funding for nuclear in Denmark but we do participate in international efforts where we commit about €200 million annually (CERN, ITER and EU) and have a nuclear research institute ( that is not however devoting much resources into design of nuclear power technology. Besides that we have two Danish MSR R&D companies, and Neither is funded well insofar but they will hopefully make some progress towards commercialization.

Denmark is small and densely populated and we had the misfortune that the Swedish decided to place Barsebeck 17km from Copenhagen downtown and smack in the middle of the economic centre of Scandinavia with several fortune 500 companies HQ’s even closer. On top of this Barsebeck is on top of the only major fault line in Scandinavia. My own office and lab is 700 meters from the research reactor initiated by Bohr but now it is being decommissioned, which is costly.

I am not hateful but sceptical about the manifestations of the otherwise interesting concept of nuclear power. My particular favourite among the novel approaches to create sustainable nuclear power is who have a very direct get to market strategy and smart solutions to waste handling. According to the CTO David Leblanc in this article see the video, they expect to launch the first reactor 5-8 years from today.

Their design is not intended as a breeder but it can be transformed into a breeder later on and also it is not designed for Thorium but it can be transformed to burn Thorium as well. As a burner it utilizes the fuel 6 times better than current light water reactors.

Also the waste can at any point in time be reused when nuclear reactor technology matures to handle the waste.

The cost per kWh is not totally clear but there is potential according to this article of reducing the price under 1cent/kWh and 0.86cent/kWh is speculated to be a reality after three development iterations.

At that price point nuclear becomes cheaper than current wind power but wind power lowers cost fast so whether Terrestrial Energy will be price competitive when they launch and can remain such is anyone’s guess.
As N Nadir has indicated he wishes to pursue this conversation with you, although off the topic “Is Uranium Exhaustible” I am approving your post here. Please do not post any further OT comments here as they will henceforth be deleted.Thank you.


The Barseback reactor saves lives, whereas the Danish drilling in the North Sea, given that seven million lives – which seems to be, according to a recent publication in Nature ( a conservative estimate = are lost each year to air pollution caused by the very same stuff that the Danes are drilling without abatement.

Are no Swedes dying from air pollution right now, without appeal to any kind of unusual natural event?

As pointed out by Nobel Laureate Burton Richter in his overly gentle rebuff to the anti-nuclear fool Mark Z. Jacobson (who we will discuss in Part V) – the Fukushima reactors, saved lives, even though they were destroyed by a tsunami resulting from an earthquake.!divAbstract

The loss of life from the leaked radiation at Fukushima was trivial compared to the loss of life that would have been associated with alternative power plants burning fossil fuels from air pollution caused by their normal operations.

The continuous appeals to nonsense about fault lines from people who care not a whit about the massive scale of observed deaths from air pollution as opposed to the imagined deaths from a putative earthquake – how many deaths from earthquakes have been observed in Sweden in the last 500 years? – and the observed deaths at Fukushima (whence will come the tsunami in Sweden?) represents a profound ethical problem for our times.

Clearly and unambiguously the Danish energy policy is a disgrace. There is no intention among Danish authorities to stop drilling toxic materials, oil and gas, out of the North sea. We can be grateful that Denmark is a small country, because behaving in this way on a larger scale (see, um, Germany) would represent a huge threat to a sustainable planet.

Irrespective of whether this is off topic in this part, these sort of statements need to be addressed whenever they raise their ugly heads. From where I sit, agitation to shut Barseback is a crime against humanity, in fact, a crime against all living things. This is also true of agitation to shut US reactors as well, any reactors, in fact, by appeals to fear and ignorance.

Enjoy the weekend.


Your post has been deleted as off topic on this thread. You have twice been asked not to post off topic in other than the Open Thread.Please re-post in the OT. Thank you.


This blog post asserted with emphasis that Lake Mono is a dying lake due to diversion of it’s water. However, the Mono Lake Committee has been fighting to protect the lake since 1978, and they claim to be successful so far. While the lake was most certainly impacted by water diversion in the past, from what information I am seeing online, the lake’s condition currently seems to be stable, and thus, not dying. Please clarify, support, or correct.

I know this is nit picking a side item, but when it comes to controversial topics, it’s good for everything to be well substantiated.


Mono Lake is a tourist attraction nowadays, with displays telling the story of water diversion from rivers flowing east from the Rockies. Consequently it no longer receives the meltwater floods of the past, just sufficient inflow – by arrangement – to maintain its attractiveness.

The Colorado River Valley, further east in the US, has suffered much more and its flow only reaches the Gulf of Mexico by arrangement. Australians cannot boast of better, as our largest river (Murray River) also often fails to flow into the sea.

Desalination has to be in the future of all three marketplaces. Desalination is a logical use of the exhaust heat from thermal power stations, including nuclear. But not wind!


@Roger Clifton:
True, but wind can drive electro-mechanical desal on the (exceedingly) rare occasion its electric output isn’t demanded elsewhere… Here’s my question on thermal-evaporative desal: It takes energy like any other industrial process. Is there really any usable thermal energy left over from a thermal combined cycle or coal or nuclear plant running at peak capacity?

Its an honest question — I don’t know the answer. But I suspect LWR’s in particular like to have their turbines exhaust at ambient for a reason. Can a desal do (nearly) the same job as an evaporative cooling tower? At what cost in thermal efficiency to the turbine?

How about the exhaust from an OCGT? Or one of those gas-htr hybrids Per Peterson’s group is working on? God, I wish I could do that kind of thermo!

Unrelated, but the mountains that feeds fed Mono Lake from the west are the Sierra Nevada. The Rocky Mountains lie about 1200 km to the east. The Colorado River drains the Rockies’ western slope, from west-central Wyoming on south. Amazing country either way. Wish I could compare it first-hand with Australia!
Off topic please move to the Open Thread and re-post there.


Ed Leaver, welcome back!

“Can a desal do (nearly) the same job as an evaporative cooling tower?” Well, the idea is to remove that exhaust heat without wasting any (increasingly precious) local freshwater. Instead of the heat being taken away by latent heat of evaporation, a desalination plant must conduct and radiate heat away from its naked pipework downstream. I say that rather casually, but the escape of one gigawatt of waste heat would require something like a square kilometre of pipe farm.

“Is there really any usable thermal energy left over…?” The useful temperature difference comes from the fact that the exhaust gas from steam turbines must be dry steam, that is, significantly above 100°C. So it still contains its latent heat of vaporisation at a sufficient temperature to boil brine in the desalination plant.

“At what cost in thermal efficiency to the turbine?” The steam is a closed system, turned to liquid at the condenser. Efficiency would be lost if there is a significant pressure impedance across the heat exchanger. Because desalination would require hot feed coming out of the condenser, presumably as a counter flow instead of a quench stage, I guess there is a risk of a pressure cost. But that is a matter for design to minimise.

“How about the exhaust from an OCGT?” Yes, you are right there. In a CCGT, the exhaust from the gas turbine is hot enough to raise steam in a second stage, so it certainly would be hot enough for desalination. Such a system would compensate for the inefficiency of OCGT when being run intermittently against a wind farm, because the storage represented by a tank of hot brine would allow the desalination to continue as the OCGT idled.

You say that the Sierra Nevada once fed Mono Lake, not the Rockies. I stand corrected, should have known better as I went there a few years back and was fascinated with the story of the Mono Lake and the implication of a vast desalination market in the American west. Er, west of the Rockies, that is.
Off topic – please move to the Open Thread and post there.


Thanks Roger. I’ve been collecting material for an article on energy storage, and demand-shifted desalination is somewhat related. I too enjoy Sustaining the Wind, and in particular look forward to NNadir quantifying “The loss of life from the leaked radiation at Fukushima.”

My apologies for not keeping up, I’ve been working On Nuclear Power Losing its Glow in California, which (coincidentally) lends figures to some of what you’ve been here discussing, and is part of an ongoing discussion of the United States’ contribution to the international Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project — I’ll leave you Aussies to conjure a suitable acronym.

Related to all this is a question I have for you or John Morgan or Peter Lang or David Jones or whoever else might have a clue as to what it takes to keep a steam turbine spinning: in his Ireland article Joe Wheatley explains that wind avoids gas rather than coal or peat because gas is the more costly. Similarly, in its RC submission linked by Ben on that other site, Terrestrial Energy says its small MSR’s would, in absence of carbon tax, preferentially replace gas rather than lignite for the same reason.

I vaguely recall Peter having said, as if it were self-evident, that attempting to ramp coal generation rapidly enough to even approximately match the vagrancies vagaries of wind will result in more carbon emissions than if you’d just feathered the wind turbines at let coal go it alone.

Or something to that effect. Assuming I remember correctly. But its an important point because at moment fracked gas is a glut on the market here in the States, and its not clear to me whether coal fuel cost might in fact sometimes be more expensive than gas. I don’t know, but I would like to know when, and under what circumstances wind can effectively replace coal.

Here in Colorado, for instance, Xcel Energy has a brand-new shiny 860 MW super-critical pulverized coal plant in Pueblo, gateway to southern Colorado’s sunshine and wind, for which it would dearly like local environmentalists to show some love.

Pueblo is also a whistle-stop on Union Pacific Railroad’s main track from the Powder River Basin to the Gulf Coast, so even on Colorado’s Gasland’s coal is probably the cheaper. But as a practical matter it doesn’t really matter how much carbon you emit, as long as the RPS is met.
Off topic – please move to the Open Thread and re- post there.


The Uranium supply is stretched a little further for classic nuclear by this now validated technology where Thorium enhances the performance of fuel rods.

Their US competitor is also underway with advanced fuel rods.

Full compatibility with existing light water reactor designs (no modifications to reactor internals are required);

Reduced natural uranium requirements (up to 10% natural uranium savings)

Improved fuel cycle economics (cost competitive on the front-end with significant cost savings expected on the back-end).


There is no shortage of nuclear fuel. There is sufficient uranium in the Earth’s upper continental crust to supply the world with 10 billion population at the current US per capita energy consumption rate (all energy not just electricity) for thousands of years. That’s not including uranium in seawater or thorium. Then there’s fusion. So, the argument about nuclear fuel not being unsustainable is a red herring.


@Peter Lang

It is not a question of shortage but of cost. The current Uranium price has picked up a bit but is considered unsustainable for the miners and it is certainly unsustainable in the market place where nuclear power is already under considerable economic pressure.

The interesting possibilities with Thorium enhanced fuels are all apparent if you read the links I supplied.

Coal power is no longer at grid parity except for a few locations around the globe and only with massive subsidies. In USA the cost of coal excluding transportation now match the average 2014 wind PPA contract cost of electricity. The owners of coal power plants has nothing left to transport the coal to the power plants and nothing left for OPEX and CAPEX, which means the entire coal value chain is withering away fast.

Nuclear is also very much in risk of falling victim to the relentless renewable LCOE drop so any technology that can improve the nuclear economics has to be considered.

China and Denmark just signed a contract where Denmark will be transfering coal power technology to China, which potentially could remedy the inability to ramp up and down, the inability to deliver district heating, the inability to clean exhaustion and bridge some of the huge 50% efficiency gap between Danish and Chinese technology.


It is not a question of shortage but of cost.

Nonsense. The cost of nuclear fuel is almost irrelevant to the cost of electricity generated by nuclear power. Fuel cost is about 5% of the cost of electricity. Double it or triple it and it has negligible influence on the cost electricity generation. That’s one of the great advantages of nuclear. The fact nuclear fuel is effectively unlimited is what’s important. Also the fact that the costs of nuclear power can decrease by a factor of one or two when the irrational impediments imposed on it are removed.


@Peter Lang

If you maintain your 5% upfront fuel cost claim and you accept the below world-nuclear numbers (for the fuel purchase cost only) one kWh from a nuclear power plant should cost $1.04/kWh.

“In July 2015, the approx. US $ cost to get 1 kg of uranium as UO2 reactor fuel (at current long-term uranium price):
Uranium: 8.9 kg U3O8 x $97 US$ 862 46%
Conversion: 7.5 kg U x $16 US$ 120 6%
Enrichment: 7.3 SWU x $82 US$ 599 32%
Fuel fabrication: per kg (approx) US$ 300 16%
Total, approx: US$ 1880
At 45,000 MWd/t burn-up this gives 360,000 kWh electrical per kg, hence fuel cost: 0.52 ¢/kWh.”

They also deal with the cost associated with nuclear fuel, which adds further cost the more spent fuel and the more radioactive the spent fuel is, but let us leave that subject aside for the moment.

If you then turn your attention to the two links I gave you in my previous post you will see that adding Thorium limits the amount of nuclear waste, increased the availability factor by extending the period between refueling and opens for an up to 20% upgrade of the power plants capacity. And further Thorium enhanced fuel increase safety and the load following ability of the power plant.

Others like tout higher power efficiency and better fuel economy as important competitive advantages.

I for one think that, when wind power use free wind as fuel and already is very cheap and getting cheaper fast, then every last option to lower cost matters and despite your rhetorics I think everyone else will agree that technologies that lowers Nuclear fuel consumption and hence spent fuel handling costs and decommission cost is of vital importance.


Jens Stubbe,

It’s not clear to me what point you are trying top make. Are you disagreeing that the nuclear fuel cost is about 5% of the cost of nuclear generated electricity? If so, go an look up any authoritative analysis of the LCOE of nuclear energy.


Jens Stubbe says – ” I think everyone else will agree that technology that lowers Nuclear fuel consumption … is of vital importance.” Yes, that was the reason fast breeder reactors were developed, sustainability. If the renewables movement is about sustainability, they should be in favour of fast nukes.


@Roger Clifton

The Thorium is not burnt directly but first converted into U233 so while it is not a breeder reactor design there is a small amount of breeding going on as Thorium transmute and become a fissile fuel.

I do not know of a coherent renewable movement as people supporting renewables comes from all walks of life.

If breeders was cost effective I would guess they would seize a larger market share. I do not think this will happen until you have MSBR technology and I think MSBR will be a later iteration than MSR burner designs.

The big question is whether MSR when it arrives will be cost effective enough to get a substantial market share or will be confined to a niche burning through civil and military nuclear waste piles.

Siemens that built all nuclear power plants in West Germany has declared that their wind turbine company in Denmark will lower wind LCOE by 40% by 2025, which means that unsubsidized wind electricity on average throughout the country will be generated in USA for $.021/kWh based upon fixed prices for 20 year periods. That is a very challenging cost level to meet for new nuclear technology with no market traction.

Since MSR according to the Chinese roadmap will be commercial about 2035 the kWh cost probably have to still lower.

The current way too high wind power cost in China proves that the Chinese wind turbine manufactures despite crazy subsidies never will catch up with the western counterparts so the situation in China will very likely be that they decide to drop their domestic wind companies and accept that Vestas, Siemens, Gamesa, Enercon, GE etc. will come to dominate the market. (Chines onshore is considerably costlier than Danish offshore – intact nearly double up).


Jens, you must admit that you said, “technology that lowers Nuclear fuel consumption … is of vital importance”.

Supplying my 1 kW would require only one gram of uranium to be fissioned per year. With the current price of uranium near $100/kg, that’s 10 cents per year. It represents an almost negligible component of my elec bill. Your claim is undeniably nonsense.


From the fan of this series so far. Author give interesting and insightful account of what “sustainability” really means, or should “should mean” when backed by data. Clearly it is more complex than just the availability of U and Th in earth crust.
When can we, the readers expect new installments?


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