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The big bad nuclear mafia

Last updated on March 1, 2013

Quite often in the nuclear debate one encounters the idea that the nuclear industry is some industrial juggernaut of immense proportions, so large and rich that it can pay an army of lobbyists and crush the poor little renewable energy industry beneath its heel. Nuclear is firmly place next to oil, gas and coal in magnitude, richness and reach in the opponents mind. Renewable energy companies on the other hand are envisioned as small mom and pop buisnesses run out of the back of the yard with very small means and no political or economic clout to speak of.  But what is it really like?

We can start by looking at individuals, extraordinarily rich people can have extraordinary influence. When it comes to oil everyone has heard of the oil barons of the last century. Names like Rockefeller and Mellon and perhaps even Deterding and Samuel. There is no lack of modern examples like Khodorkovsky or T Bones Picke and of course one can not forget the house of Saud. Oil and gas has created many individual with vast fortunes and influence. But when one search for “Nuclear Barons” nothing pops up. How about “nuclear billionaires”? Nope not much there either. Nuclear certainly has many legendary names attached to it, Oppenheimer, Fermi, Teller, Dyson, Rickover and so on. But it tends to be scientists and engineers posessing genius minds rather than industrial tycoons. There are of course people that are well off due to nuclear, I imagine that Anne Lauvergeon made a nice salary being boss of Areva, but no one really stands out. Even steel has had its Carnegie, matches has had its Kreuger but nothing like that exists for nuclear or uranium.

What about influential cooperations? Lets first start by listing the 3 biggest oil companies. The three big private ones are of course ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and BP, their revenues and profits are.

ExxonMobil 486 billion USD revenue and 73 billion USD income
Shell 470 billion USD revenue and 56 billion USD income
BP 386 billion USD revenue and 40 billion USD income

If ExxonMobil was a country, equating its revenue as GDP, it would be the 20th largest country in the world! That is how big the big oil and gas companies are, they have the financial might of countries! Now what about nuclear companies? There is really only two big company that deals almost exclusively with nuclear energy and that is French Areva and Russian Rosatom. Areva owns and operates all parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. Mining, conversion, enrichment, fuel manufacturing and waste handling and they also design and build reactors. Other nuclear companies tend to be subsidiaries of larger companies, Westinghouse is a part of the Toshiba group, nuclear is a rather small part of General Electric and Hitatchi. KEPCO is a large South Korean company that builds reactors, but they also own and operate reactors and sell electricity. It is very hard to find any revenue figures for Westinghouse or General Electrics nuclear part so lets look at Areva, Rosatom and KEPCO. I could not find income for Rosatom or KEPCO. As far as uranium producers go Canadian Cameco is the largest with 16% of the world uranium production (ExxonMobil as comparison only produces 3% of world oil).

Areva 8.9 billion euro revenue and -1.9 billion euro income
Rosatom 15 billion USD revenue
KEPCO 39 billion dollar USD revenue
Cameco 3.2 billion CAD (Canadian Dollars, about same as USD) revenue

In comparison to the oil companies “big” nuclear looks pretty small, ExxonMobil has an income 5 times larger than Rosatoms revenue. Cameco’s whole revenu is like a rounding error in the big oil companies books. So what about the renewable companies? The situation there is kind of similar to the nuclear case, renewable energy is made by companies that does a lot of different things. Both General Electric and Areva are involved in the field and so is Toshiba and Hitatchi, many of the “big bad nuclear companies” also makes renewable energy. The one pure renewable company I know about is danish Vestas, Vestas is the largest manufacturer of wind turbines in the world. Vestas revenue is 6.9 billion euro and 310 million euro in income.

Vestas is about the same size as Areva, twice as large as Cameco and quite a bit smaller than KEPCO. But what does this say of the big bad nuclear maffia? One can have opinions if it is bad or not, but it certainly ain’t big compared to other energy companies. Renewable companies are of about the same size, making the claims that nuclear can somehow economically hinder renewable completely bogus. Not to mention that most companies that build reactors also build wind turbines or solar cells or other renewable energy plants along with natural gas turbines and equipment for all kinds of energy sources. Why would General Electric for instance try to smash its renewable business in favor of its nuclear business? Nuclear does not in any way have the same economic resources as big oil and gas.

The reason why nuclear is so small, even though nuclear energy produces more energy than Saudi Arabia, is actually quite simple. Big oil and gas is big because of the sale of oil and gas. No oil company got filthy rich making oil power plants or gas turbines, those markets are big but the major money involved in fossil fuel energy is the fuel itself. The same is not the case for uranium producers.  Lets compare the energy content and price of a barrel of oil, a cubic meter of gas and a kilogram of uranium.

Kg of Uranium:
Price 100 USD
Energy concent* 432 GJ (giga joule)
Price per GJ 0.23 USD

Barrel of oil:
Price 88 USD
Energy content 6.12 GJ
Price per GJ 14.4 USD

Million BTU of Gas:
Price  12 USD
Energy content 1.055 GJ
Price per GJ 11.4 USD

* I assumed a kg of nuclear fuel yields 50 MWd/kg, which is a typical value in a light water reactor. Roughly 10kg of natural uranium is used to get one kg of fuel so the efficient energy content of natural uranium is 5 MWd/kg. The total energy content of natural uranium however is roughly 1000 MWd/kg = 86400 GJ/kg, some 200 times higher than what is extracted in a light water reactor. Such high utilization however requires breeder reactors and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

We see that the price per unit of energy from uranium is almost nothing, all the cost of nuclear is tied up with the plant and personnel and a very small fraction is due to the fuel.  Nuclear “spreads the wealth” among a skilled labor force and there isn’t anyone on top that can easily control or hoard the resource. With natural gas power plants it is exactly the opposite, the plant itself is dirt cheap and the fuel makes up almost all the cost of electricity production. If you happen to sit on top of a large gas or oil field likely you will become an immensely wealthy person. Uranium producers on the other hand have to dig out of the ground 60 times as large energy content as oil producers to make the same amount of money! That is why Cameco is a tiny company compared to ExxonMobil even though Cameco produces one sixth of all the uranium in the world.

After reviewing these numbers, does anyone really think that nuclear has the economic might to prevent renewable, an industrial sector of about the same size? Does anyone think Nuclear makes a evil troika with big oil and king coal? If nuclear is in the same boat with other energy sources it is the renewables! The companies that build reactors also build wind power plants and solar cells. Nuclear and renewables both have to fight an uphill battle to take market shares from the big fossil fuels. Big oil and gas is the industrial juggernaut that can crush other energy sources, not nuclear.


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