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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If anything the nuclear mafia is terrible at convincing people; despite a great product.
What about thorium?
What about it? We don’t need it for the next couple of millenia…
This guy explains it better than I can.
I ask you again, why bother. We don’t need it, yet!?
The video says everything I needed to say, better than I can say it. Watch the video and let me know your response. Oh, there is one other thing. Promoting uranium makes it easy to maintain scarcity in the market by way of the “proliferation” argument. Thorium has very little proliferation risk.
The proliferation arguments against uranium is mostly based on lies and exaggerations and those same lies and exaggerations can just as easily be thrown at thorium by the anti nuclear crowd.
It is better, imo, to highlight that the proliferation risk is pretty much zero from civilian nuclear power, regardless of what fuel the reactor uses.
You can’t win over anti nuclear lies by new technology.
Sorry, I have seen this video before the gentleman makes a very convincing argument but why?
Uranium is still too cheap, has the same proliferation risk as thorium and there is enough of the stuff around (already mined) to keep us going for millenia.
You can make excellent weapons from Uranium-233, it is even easier to extract as the uranium is in a thorium matrix.
MSR may be the technology of the future, but we are not there yet. Lots of research is still needed to build a full scale pilotplant, in the mean time we will need LWR or metal cooled fast breeders…
If you can’t make your own argument, please do not post here but in our forum.
Very nice article Johan, thank you.
Nuclear has always been run by “managers” who didn’t see the point of effective PR. It’s way past time they stopped promoting managers and started finding leaders.
Thanks, I agree. It is a shame that nuclear is so inefficient when it comes to PR. But I guess it is because there is no nuclear champion. No one with a fortune solely invested in nuclear and willing to fight for it. It’s weird how the cheapness of the fuel can be a drawback.
Well, all the three nuclear companies in the above comparison are state owned, which can explain why they aren’t run like oil and gas companies. Most reactor vendors also don’t sell their products to end users so it can be difficult to justify PR spending directed toward the general public. Most of us have probably bought gas from Shell or motoroil from Exxon Mobil, we can’t say the same about Westinghouse or Areva.
Electric power producers on the other hand usually keep quit about how they produce their electricity unless the production method is viewed favorably by politicians and the general public. I’ve heard and seen several commercials about wind power, but not a single one about electricity from nuclear, coal, gas or oil even though these dominate in actual production. Even hydro is hardly mentioned and hydro was after all regarded as the most enviromentally friendly power source in the Extern-E study (before wind, nuclear and solar in that order, but with very little difference between them).
What about thorium indeed; total fuel burnup, production and recovery of medical radioisotopes and precious metals from the fission products. Waste that’s only radioactive for a few hundred years instead of hundreds of millenia. Surely the molten salt reactor is the way forward.
Yes MSR is the way forward but the technology is not yet mature for large scale energy production. For large scale production you need to be able to recover the neutron poisons in the molten salt matrix, continously and online. Development is not there yet but it might be in the future, in the meantime advanced LWRs and possibly liquid metal reactors is what we have available today.
GO NUCLEAR!!!! – a proud member of IThEO! If you are do not support thorium as the only means for powering our future, I beg you to do your research.
Well I did my masters thesis on a heavy water moderated variety of a thorium fueled molten salt reactor so I dare say I did my research. I still don’t think it’s the only means for powering the future. Just one great variety of how one can utilize fission.
Water moderated / thorium fueled molten salt reactor?
What kind of mess is it?
I think you investigated the wrong kind of reactor.
I did my research, would rather see the attention & funding go to PBRs. I think they are allot safer than anything that needs active cooling (or any coolant at all). A little support for something that even the “OH NO everything is as poorly operated-maintained-sited-designed bla bla bla as Fukashima!” bunch can recognize as much lower threat in most worst case scenarios might allow us to maintain a high energy/low cost civilization. I think most global warmistas would be more comfortable with it as well.
some basic refs on the web I used coming to my point of view:
Bunch of nuke enthusiasts nearly as radical as some anti-nuke enthusiasts
Nice posting, Johan.
Thanks for the comments,
Thorium is just like uranium in the sense that the cost per unit of energy is tiny (doesn’t really matter if you fission U235 or U233 both release about 1 MWd of energy per gram fissioned). It’s hard to imagine either nuclear fuel ever becoming a economic force in the sense of oil and gas. If all of the worlds energy came from uranium or thorium the energy sector would be much smaller economically, which is a good thing of course because it means all those economic resources can go into other things.
Good demonstration, but I think you could add one thing : Another important factor is how much new money is invested to expand the filed.
The money that is just spent running old processes is comparatively no as important, what gets you an edge is more how much is spent in those attractive new project that the selling department can boast of.
And the IEA Tracking Clean Energy Progress – Energy Technology Perspectives 2012 report http://www.iea.org/papers/2012/Tracking_Clean_Energy_Progress.pdf has that number, you can extract it, it’s there in figure 1.10 and 1.16. The sum is hard to calculate precisely, but even at first look it obvious investment in nuclear runs in the tens of bn $ a year, and investment in renewable in the hundred of bn $.
The sum from 2001 to 2010 is approximately 138 bn$ for nuclear, 1300 bn$ for renewable.
Also, remember that 1300bn$ the next time the renewable guys complain it’s unfair how little is spent for them. The actual spending is so huge that if all the money that has been invested in nuclear were spent in renewable instead it would barely make a difference in the total.
Great info, thanks! Hadn’t thought about that.
That is actually a very good argument. A lot of the time it is claimed that Nuclear costs risks stalling “renewables” investments. But at ten times the moeny, double the nuclear investments would still only marginally affect renewable investments – but probably give a much better turnout imo /K
To amplify the point, imagine the fuel cost if we had reactors that could use essentially all of the uranium (or thorium). That would drop the fuel cost per gigajoule by a factor of 200. For electricity, the fuel cost would be a rounding error in our monthly bill.
With current technology I don’t think fuel costs will be lower with breeders. That can be counterintuitive but the fuel costs are made up of several parts; purchase of natural uranium, conversion, enrichment and finally fuel fabrication. With a breeder, the type of reactor required to make use of all the energy in fissile and fertile isotopes of uranium the fuel costs will be divided between purchase of natural uranium, reprocessing of used fuel and fuel fabrication and due to the higher radioactivity and greater proliferation risk with used reactor fuel, the costs of the latter two processes are higher. So even if you save money by buying less uranium or thorium the total costs will not be lower.
Since fuel costs are perhaps 10% of the total production costs and the breeder reactor is perhaps 30% more expensive to build, overall economy will be worse than using fresh LEU with conventional light water reactors. That utilities select to operate light water reactors isn’t by accident.
If we want utilities to select breeders over LWR’s in the near future I think some sort of subsidy will be required.
Utilities might select breeders if the breeder reactor by itself is cheaper than a LWR. One can just run it in non breeding mode with a once through uranium fuel cycle. Fast reactors have better neutron economy so they should be able to achieve higher burnup with a given enrichment compared to LWR.
Considering how much uranium there is and how relatively cheap even uranium from sea water can be I wonder if reprocessing can ever become cheap enough to economically justify closing the fuel cycle.
One can of course also imagine a waste tax that taxes utilities based on amount of long lived waste produced per kWh of energy. That would be better than the current waste fee that is just a fixed amount regardless of how little or much waste is produced per kWh.