In my current assignment, I make my living as an analyst. However, I happen to be in a profession that does not do analysis as its main line of work. My employer understands the need to do research and perform the math, but it is far more interested in obtaining and implementing recommended actions. It is common for us to be told to put our pencils down, stop entering more figures into the spreadsheets and make our best recommendation.
It is with that background that I responded in an email conversation recently. I have adapted my response to share more widely. That is another habit I have picked up at my day job I often create a product once and use it many times via a bit of adaptation to the specific question or task at hand.
In that email conversation, I was questioning why some people can accept that vast oil spills are simply a part of the cost of maintaining our current way of life and keeping gasoline available and cheap while at the same time those same people cannot accept the potential hazards associated with extracting uranium using solution mining. We all have a pretty good idea what a large oil slick can do to the local environment, but few people understand that uranium solution mining is generally done in places where the aquifers already have radioactive materials in them. It kind of makes sense – if there is uranium in the rocks, there is probably some uranium and its daughter products in any aquifers that fed with water that flowed through the rocks.
The response I got back was that I was a self-admitted advocate for nuclear energy and that it is not a matter of claiming that one energy source is good and all others are bad. My correspondent put oil well blowouts from a deep ocean exploratory well and solution mining that contaminates a local aquifer on an equal footing. There was also an implication that the people running the nuclear industry give as much thought to there impact on the environment as the people running BP do.
Here is my adapted response to those fighting words. (Sorry, but the meek and mild do not generally succeed in my chosen profession. I sometimes have to fight hard to get my thoughts and ideas heard, but it is often worth it when I see the results.)
My main point in my previous discussion was that as an analyst (that happens to be the way I officially make my living), I am concerned about both the probability of accidents and the consequences of those accidents. I am concerned about physical difficulties and recognize that the potential for mistakes, errors, and equipment failures increase when you approach the limits of human endurance and material strengths.
There are certainly issues associated with uranium mining residues and there are certainly reports of serious consequences for some miners. I have read pretty widely about the details of why those happened and about the studies that provided the linkage between the illnesses of the miners and the effects of working in unventilated mines with few, if any, enforced regulations. No need to go into great detail here, but my analysis tells me that uranium mining is safer than it has been portrayed. Many of the cancer deaths that were attributed to it have other potential causes; as is always the case, it is difficult to assign the actual cause of any particular cancer. That is especially true for smokers, drinkers, and people who live in communities with few resources.
My analysis also teaches me that the annual world market for uranium requires as much material to be shipped as about one week’s worth of coal for a large power plant. More than half of that material comes from just a dozen or so mines around the world or out of existing stockpiles.
So my advocacy of nuclear energy, and the inevitable uranium mining that accompanies the industry is based on an understanding that both the consequences and the probability of hazards are significantly lower than the probability and the consequences of hazards from other energy sources that are more widely accepted.
Some analysis shows that people accept the hazards associated with fossil fuel because those energy sources are “cheap”, but my analysis tell me that commercial nuclear fuel – with all of its extraction, manufacturing, licensing, and regulation costs included – provides the same product as fossil fuel – controllable heat – at a cost of about $0.47 per million BTU. The competitive sources provide heat – at current prices – of about $1.50 for coal, $4.30 for natural gas, $13.50 for crude oil, and $20.00 for refined diesel fuel. Unlike those other competitors, commercial nuclear fuel does not release any contaminants to the environment when it releases its heat.
If people really want cheap energy, and they want energy that imposes as little real harm as possible to the environment, then they need some people who can do the analysis and help them figure out where they should be looking for that product. Sometimes, providing that information requires someone who can draw conclusions from their analysis. Sometimes, analysts who have done enough research and run enough numbers to have reached conclusions need to become advocates and spread the information which apparently few others have recognized.
If people want cheap energy with a little impact on the environment as possible, they will not find it under 5,000 feet of water in a reservoir that is 18,000 feet below the earth’s crust. They will not find it in a gooey substance that contains many components, some of which can cause cancer under long term exposure, which have infinite half lives because they are stable elements and compounds. They will not find it under mountains whose tops must be blown off to enable large machinery to scoop out hundreds of train car loads per day of a substance that releases vast quantities of CO2, SOx, NOx, and fly ash when it provides heat. They will not find it in tight formations of shale rock that require sophisticated horizontal drilling, millions of gallons of a water and chemical mixture, and high pressure sources (which requires running smelly, high powered diesel engines) in order to coax a bit of explosive gas to come out. They most certainly will not find cheap energy with little environmental impact by erecting enormous wind turbines or square miles of solar collectors.
If people really want whatever energy source makes the most amount of money for the largest corporations in the world, they might make different choices and continue to accept what they are getting today. The advocates of what exists today are certainly not shy about painting large signs on buses implying that the world should run on “clean natural gas” or producing TV commercials that imply you can stick an electric cord directly into a lump of coal.