A Sobering Look at the Energy Available in Nuclear Waste

By Anonymous

TerraPower’s design for a nuclear reactor capable of running on natural uranium and nuclear waste has heightened the allure of carbon-free nuclear energy. CEO John Gilleland explains this technology “could supply every person on earth with U.S. levels of per capita energy consumption for 1000 years”.1 The ability to extract energy from nuclear waste provides inexpensive fuel with the added benefit of reducing nuclear waste stocks. Bill Gates, a primary investor in this technology, explains, “there is a pile of [depleted uranium] sitting in Paducah, Kentucky that’s enough to power the United Sates for hundreds and hundreds of years.”2 Unfortunately, though the prospect of reducing waste stocks is an appealing one, relying on nuclear waste to meet global energy needs will not be sustainable in the long run and will eventually require further uranium mining.

Using depleted uranium inventories and Terrapower energy generation estimates3, we can determine the energy available using this technology (Table 1). Based on this rough estimate we can confirm that vast American, Russian, and French depleted uranium stocks are sufficient to power each country’s present-day population for centuries. But such colossal inventories are not ubiquitous. Taking a global view, current depleted uranium supplies are sufficient to provide the present-day world population with US-levels of electricity for only 40 years.

TerraPower’s reactor may also use spent nuclear fuel to generate energy.3 Table 2 shows the energy available in spent fuel stocks. Using the TerraPower technology, spent fuel reservoirs of countries such as Canada and Sweden may be able to support US-levels of per-capita energy consumption within those countries for hundreds of years. However on a global basis, global spent fuel inventories would be able to provide the current world population with US-levels of electricity for less than a decade.

Taken together, this technology is capable of supplying nearly 50 years of US-levels of energy consumption for today’s world population using nuclear waste: a spectacular achievement, but an optimistic one, as this assumes their reactors will be as efficient as their modeling predicts4, and hinges on being able to deliver this energy where it is needed.

So where is the millennial energy provision promised by Terrapower? In the long-term, the company looks to the “limitless supply of uranium dissolved in seawater”.3 Taking ocean uranium supply into account does in fact yield thousands of years of energy for the world.3 But although seawater uranium extraction shows immense promise, this technology is currently five times more expensive than land mining5, and until this price drops, TerraPower plants will likely have to rely on conventional uranium mining to provide fuel for their reactors when and where nuclear wastes are not available.

The TerraPower reactor’s tremendous energy production and ability to diminish nuclear waste holds immense promise. However, relying on nuclear wastes to meet the world’s energy needs will not be sustainable in the long run. The success of this technology in meeting global energy demands in the century timescale still rests on additional natural uranium exploitation, eventually producing additional uranium waste.

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1 Nuclear News Interview, “John Gilleland: On the traveling-wave reactor,” Nuclear News, September 2009. http://www.new.ans.org/pubs/magazines/nn/y_2009/m_9, accessed February 2013.

2 Alan Murray, “In Search of One Energy Miracle: Bill Gates on the need to think big,” The Wall Street Journal Online, March 26, 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304636404577299343742435580.html, accessed February 2013.

3 Tyler Ellis et al. “Traveling-Wave Reactors: A Truly Sustainable and Full-Scale Resource for Global Energy Needs,” International Congress on Advances in Nuclear Power Plants, June 13-17, 2010. http://terrapower.com/uploads/docs/ICAPP_2010_Paper_10189.pdf, accessed February 2013.

4 30% uranium burn rate as reported in: William Sahlman et al. “TerraPower.” Harvard Business School Case 813-108, January 2013.

5 Will Ferguson, “Record Haul of Uranium Harvested from Seawater,” New Scientist Online, Ausust 22, 2012. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22201-record-haul-of-uranium-harvested-from-seawater.html, accessed February 2013.

a Depleted uranium stocks held by nuclear fuel company Urenco Group: “Depleted Uranium,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depleted_uranium, accessed February 2013.

b “Depleted Uranium,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depleted_uranium, accessed February 2013.

c Tyler Ellis et al. “Traveling-Wave Reactors: A Truly Sustainable and Full-Scale Resource for Global Energy Needs,” International Congress on Advances in Nuclear Power Plants, June 13-17, 2010. http://terrapower.com/uploads/docs/ICAPP_2010_Paper_10189.pdf, accessed February 2013.

d Population in 2011: “Population, Total, ”The World Bank” http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL/countries?display=default, accessed February 2013.

e Based on Terrapower reactor uranium conversion to energy used in: Tyler Ellis et al. “Traveling-Wave Reactors: A Truly Sustainable and Full-Scale Resource for Global Energy Needs,” International Congress on Advances in Nuclear Power Plants, June 13-17, 2010. http://terrapower.com/uploads/docs/ICAPP_2010_Paper_10189.pdf, accessed February 2013.

f Assuming US-levels of per capita energy consumption used in: Tyler Ellis et al. “Traveling-Wave Reactors: A Truly Sustainable and Full-Scale Resource for Global Energy Needs,” International Congress on Advances in Nuclear Power Plants, June 13-17, 2010. http://terrapower.com/uploads/docs/ICAPP_2010_Paper_10189.pdf, accessed February 2013.

g Assuming 30% uranium burn rate as reported in: William Sahlman et al. “TerraPower.” Harvard Business School Case 813-108, January 2013.

h Does not take population growth into account.

i 2007 Spent Fuel Inventory: Feiveson et al. “Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Reactors, ” International Panel on Fissile Materials, June 2011. http://fissilematerials.org/library/ipfm-spent-fuel-overview-june-2011.pdf, accessed February 2013.

j Predicted 2010 Spent Fuel Inventory: “China’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” World Nuclear Association, February 2013. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf63b_china_nuclearfuelcycle.html, accessed February 2013.

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About macomberjohnd

HBS Finance faculty interested in sustainability in the built environment including devices, structures, townships, and cities.

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