The Ergosphere
Monday, June 13, 2005

SMH:  anti-nuke propaganda organ?

The Sydney Morning Herald publishes a "sustainable energy" activist's claims that nuclear power does not reduce greenhouse emissions.  I am not a big advocate of nuclear power, but propaganda should not be allowed to stand; unless I am very wrong this claim is, to put it mildly, bunk.
Consider the plant itself, beginning with its containment building.  Plucking figures from around the web, suppose that the reactor containment is a cylinder 40 meters tall, 45 meters inside diameter and 1.5 meters thick capped by a hemispherical dome on top and resting on a flat foundation 3 meters thick.  The total volume of the concrete part (including reinforcing steel) is 19,290 cubic meters.  A maximum-strength, minimum-workability mix is used which has a density of 2400 kg/m^3, is 25% cement by dry weight, and has a water:cement ratio of 0.35; this mix has 550 kg of cement per cubic meter, or 10,600 metric tons of cement overall (the remainder being sand, stone, steel and water).
The making of cement requires 750 kcal/kg, or 8.0 trillion calories for the whole building.  This amount of energy is equivalent to 33.4 trillion joules, or 9,280 megawatt-hours; the plant will make this much electricity in nine and a half hours of full-power operation; a coal-fired plant of the same output would use 8 trillion calories of fuel in a bit over 3 hours.  Energy from the plant could make the concrete for the rest of it in perhaps a day.
Production of raw uranium:  The price of uranium is currently around $20/kg; extraction from seawater is thought to cost as much as $200/kg.  Suppose that this $200 is the cost of the crude oil or equivalent required to refine it to yellowcake; at today's prices, this would be about 4 barrels of crude at roughly 310 pounds each, or 1240 pounds of petroleum.  After enrichment from 0.7% U-235 to 3.5%, each kg of raw uranium yields 200 g of fuel; burnup in an LWR at 50,000 megawatt-days per (metric) ton means each 200 grams yields 10 megawatt-days of heat, or 82 million BTU.  The heating value of #2 diesel is about 19,110 BTU/lb, or 2.4 million BTU for the 1240 pounds.  Even at $200/kg of uranium, the heat produced by the uranium is around 35 times as much as its cost in fuel oil, assuming the entire cost goes for fuel oil (which is silly).
Next, consider enrichment.  According to this reference, a year's fuel for a 1000 MWe LWR requires between 100,000 and 120,000 separation work units (SWU) to produce.  One SWU requires about 2500 kWh in a gaseous diffusion plant, but as little as 50 kWh in a gas centrifuge plant.  If the LWR runs at 80% capacity factor, it would produce 7.01 billion KWH per year, while its fuel would require as much as 300 million kWh (120,000 SWU via gaseous diffusion) or as little as 5 million kWh (100,000 SWU via centrifuge).  This overhead runs from 4.3% down to 0.071% of its output.
All told the overhead of uranium mining and enrichment accounts for considerably less than 10% of the energy output of a light-water reactor, and we haven't even considered the possibilities of natural-uranium burners (no enrichment) or plutonium and thorium breeders (ditto after the first fuel load)  The energy of construction is replaced in days at most, perhaps in the first day of full-power operation.
Should the Sydney Morning Herald's editors be ashamed of themselves for publishing baseless nonsense?  Unless I've slipped a few decimals, it sure looks like it.
Actually they are quite balanced - there have been a number of pro-nuclear power articles as well (even if I don't tend to link to them).

And their stablemate "The Australian Financial Review" has been running a strongly pro-nuke campaign all year (which is likely to be much more influential).

So I think calling them a "propaganda organ" is both harsh and untrue.
I'm not quite sure you've got your calcs right by the way :

The price of uranium is $29 per *pound* (not kilogram) -

But the production cost of high grade uranium is well under that price. And yet you do have to look at the depletion curve for high grade stuff.

Your $200 per kilogram figure for extraction from seawater may be correct - but you don't reference a source - I've seen other articles write this method off as a complete pipe dream with negative EROEI - do you have a reference for that production cost ($ and EROEI) ?

The idea that nuclear power doesn't have the high EROEI claimed by the nuclear power industry is certianly contentious, so the writer that the SMH published may be basing his arguments on sources that are themselves perhaps incorrect. For example, Depletion Scotland makes pretty much the arguments here (the top ranked result for a google search on "nuclear power eroei" - - again without detailed references as to the sources (I'm not sure "The Party's Over" is reliable either - but I'd have to go and check Heinberg's references to see where he got his numbers from).

As another example, one person in a comment at Moon Of Alabama refers to a study that says the lifetime EROEI of a nuclear plant is 3.8 (

So I'd say the true picture is simply not clear - I've love to see a proper study done but in the absence of a totally reliable estimate I think you've been extremely unfair on the SMH...
Perhaps I am being unfair to the SMH by judging them based on a single guest piece (guest editorial?).

On the other hand, "he said / she said" journalism without factual analysis is one of the reasons that the profession is in such low regard these days.  The equal treatment of facts and baseless nonsense is one of the most unfair things they could do.
The $200/kg claim is in an abstract cited at Peak Oil Optimist.
Um... did it occur to anyone to actually read the writer's research, as opposed to the dumbed-down editorial that inevitably misses important info for the sake of accesibility?

You can read the author's research here:

Criticize that, rather than the op-ed - if he's wrong, he'll still be wrong there.
I was criticizing the editorial, in case you hadn't noticed.

I'll read the original PDFs when I have time.  Regardless, either they have the same weakness as the editorial (which I have rebutted) or the editorial misrepresents the research (in which case it is dishonest).

The only way the author can win is if I made some very big mistakes in my numbers.
I doubt if many journalists have the skills to evaluate or interpret quantitative data, or the scientific knowledge to know what questions to ask.
That's what their Rolodex of experts is for.

The authors of the SMH guest editorial seem to like layers.  They have a PDF of claims, without references or supporting data; then they have a rebuttal to a WNA commentary on it.  The rebuttal is also free of data and references, though it has a number of reasonably nice-looking graphs.

To actually find data you have to go through their facts and data page which points to a 5-part piece which allegedly supports their claims with hard data.  I say "allegedly", because I've found not one reference (not even a footnote) in the introductory section.  On the other hand, I have found several very questionable claims stated as fact (you can find them by searching for "second law").

I'm nowhere near done with reading, and the later parts may yet redeem the introduction.  However, what I've seen so far does not leave me optimistic; the authors' tendentiousness appears to overwhelm their academic virtues.

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