Editor's note: This Q&A is a part of a survey conducted by Scientific American of executives at companies engaged in developing and implementing non–fossil fuel energy technologies.
What technical obstacles currently most curtail the growth of nuclear fission? What are the prospects for overcoming them in the near future and the longer-term?
Whenever there is a discussion about nuclear power, the question arises about the sustainability of the uranium supply. Critics observe that resources are limited and, at present consumption rates, would be depleted in 50 to 100 years. The dialogue ignores the reality of mineral resource development. Whether it is copper, gold, silver or uranium, private industry invests in exploration and new discoveries only in response to favorable price expectations and only a few decades ahead of need. Uranium is a relatively abundant element in the earth's crust, and yet, because the use for uranium only came about relatively recently, much of the earth remains unexplored. This is particularly true with respect to exploration using modern geophysical tools and geologic models of ore occurrence. Low prices for uranium in the 1980s and 1990s meant very little exploration. With the increasing prices of the last five years, this has changed and many new discoveries are being made. Thus, it is likely that known resources will expand by many factors and will not present a limit to the growth of nuclear fission. In the final analysis, there is an almost inexhaustible supply of uranium in seawater. Pilot extraction has been done and someday will be cost-competitive to land-based resources.
Are there obstacles to scaling up nuclear power to serve an even larger national or global customer base?
Again, from a uranium supplier's perspective, the length of time to locate, develop and commence the commercial operation of a uranium deposit is similar to the lead time for licensing and constructing a nuclear power plant. New construction is highly visible to the industry, and as nuclear power is scaled up, there will be ample time to ramp up uranium production and fuel fabrication to meet the growing demand.
Can the existing energy infrastructure handle growth in nuclear? Or does that, too, need further modification?
As new nuclear plants come online, the fuel infrastructure will have to be in place approximately three years in advance. Plant operators will begin ordering fuel well ahead of commercial operation and will generally want long-term contracts to provide fuel cost stability. At first, existing infrastructure will be expanded, but as the renaissance accelerates, new conversion, enrichment and fabrication plants will be built—some with new or evolutionary technology with lower emissions and environmental impact. Already we see facility expansion and new enrichment plant construction in anticipation of the first wave of new plants.
Given the current economic crisis, can your industry get the necessary capital (from public or private sources) to adequately finance its growth?
Traditional sources of capital for exploration and new mine development are difficult to come by given the financial crisis. In such times, industry participants turn to other mechanisms to raise necessary funds, such as joint ventures, partnerships and asset sales. Eventually the crisis will pass, and equity and debt financing will return. Given the long-term nature of the industry, the current crisis is not seen as a major impediment to adequate fuel supply.
From a strategic standpoint, which is the bigger competitor for nuclear: incumbent coal, oil and gas technologies or other alternative energy technologies?
I will leave the answer to this question to others, but would observe that fossil fuels and alternative energy technologies are beginning to experience the same regulatory scrutiny that the uranium industry has experienced for decades. We have internalized virtually all of our external costs (health, safety and environmental). The other fuels have not fully done so and are under increasing pressure to incorporate such costs.
Is there a cost target that you and others in your industry are aiming to achieve in, say, five years?
Again, I will leave the answer to others. The advantage of nuclear power is that the cost of the uranium fuel is a very small part of the cost of producing electricity, unlike electricity produced using coal, natural gas or oil.