Standard Uranium CEO Jon Bey makes a case for nuclear power
By Ellsworth Dickson
It’s obvious that everyone wants safe, affordable and reliable electric power. In the ongoing debates on power, somewhere in those various power proposals lies the most sensible solution.
Resource World interviewed Jon Bey, president and CEO of Standard Uranium, on comparing power proposals in real-life terms.
RESOURCE WORLD: I would like to compare the various proposed electric power technologies with nuclear power. To start, how do solar voltaic panels stack up against nuclear power in real-life terms?
JON BEY: Solar panels are good to a degree. However, they don’t produce nearly as much power as nuclear energy and they take up a lot more space. They are also intermittent, meaning the sun only shines during the day and not all days have sunshine. They typically have a 20% to 25% capacity rate. In other words, they only produce electricity about 25% of the time.
Another issue, at times, is that the variable energy from solar panels that goes to an energy grid. That grid needs steady and reliable power. As you can imagine, there are a lot of parts of the world with inconsistent sunshine. Some days they get a lot of power from solar panels – sometimes too much. Managing a grid based on solar power – and wind too – can be problematic which is why baseload power is much more preferred as the way to go in the future when possible.
RW: What about storing the power that solar panels generate?
JB: That would be the hope; however, the technology for battery storage is not quite there yet. A small amount of power can be stored but not nearly enough. When battery storage capability improves, both solar and wind will become much more viable. One additional problem with storing the energy is the inefficiencies where power is lost in the transmission to the battery, losses in the battery itself, and then losses in the transmission back to the grid. Not to mention, engineering has not solved the problem of battery life, where after a certain number of charges and re-charges, those batteries will need to be replaced. Replacing those batteries will come at a cost, whether it is building new ones or recycling the old ones. Either way, when you factor in all the resources to make and replace the solar panels themselves, and replacing the batteries, solar does not seem as “green” as it has made out to be.
RW: How does wind power compare to nuclear power out there in the real world?
JB: Wind turbine blades are very damaging to the bird, bat and insect populations. In addition, a wind farm takes up a great deal of space and can be a real eyesore to some. If you look at the power from a 1,250 megawatt nuclear reactor, that would take up about 50 acres of land. For the equivalent power from a wind farm, that would take up 320 square miles! Wind farms can be massive. Therefore, there are usually small wind farms of 20 to 30 towers producing 30 to 50 megawatts.
Then, like solar, wind power is intermittent. Another problem is inclement weather. When there are storms, or severe weather scenarios like we just witnessed in Texas, wind turbines can breakdown and, consequently, produce no power at all. On the other hand, nuclear power plants generate power in any kind of weather. Nuclear power plants only ever shut down to be refueled approximately every 18-24 months. Because wind and solar are intermittent, they also need a baseload power source to provide power when the sun does not shine or the wind does not blow. Unfortunately, most use carbon-based power sources for this.
About 65% of world electricity comes from carbon sources of some kind with coal accounting for over 45% plus oil and natural gas. If we look at the amount of energy that is going to be required to fuel global energy needs, we can see that it is continually increasing. To power the oncoming surge in electric vehicles, we will need much more power than we are generating today. The future global energy demand just cannot be met with solar and wind alone.
In addition, the amount of mining to obtain the metals needed for solar and wind would be tremendous. And the amount of necessary land or water for solar and wind farms would be outrageous compared to footprint for nuclear power plants.
Another problem for wind is that only special locations are suitable that have winds blowing favourably which can result in very long transmission lines. As well, wind turbines only last for 20 to 25 years. Some nuclear power plants can last over 80 years. How do you dispose of old wind turbines? Right now, 130-metre-high wind turbines are going into the land fill which is unfortunate.
RW: Isn’t hydro power a viable green solution with reliable power?
JB: You are correct that it produces consistent power, with low carbon emissions. The trouble that hydroelectric dams face is that there is a substantial environmental footprint needed to create these projects. In many parts of Canada, hydroelectric facilities have transformed entire ecosystems due to the disruption of fish habitat, and segmentation of the migratory patterns of animal populations. Northern First Nations groups are incredibly affected by these operations as they disrupt their traditional way of life. Proposed hydroelectric projects are facing increasing permitting and approval challenges due to these factors.
RW: What about portable nuclear power plants? How would they fit in?
JB: The new nuclear small modular reactors (SMR) are an exciting development. By the end of the 2020s, we will see them in operation around the globe. In Canada, specifically, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick are already pushing forward with small nuclear reactor ideas – also in the U.S., Oregon-based NuScale Power is a company that I really like, and I encourage your audience to investigate. It’s not just in North America; this technology is already in use in Russia and other nuclear advanced countries are developing similar type reactors.
A big advantage of small nuclear reactors, over traditional large ones, is that they can be built in an assembly factory. They can even be transported on the back of a semi tractor-trailer or ship. Because they are modular, you can have one or connect five or ten plants together. They are also extremely safe and mass production is expected to keep costs much lower. It is also easier to connect a small reactor to an electrical grid. Small nuclear power plants are an ideal solution in remote, northern communities which include First Nations populations, where they rely on diesel power generation.
RW: Is more nuclear power necessary to meet the world’s zero emissions goals?
JB: Necessary and essential. The world is aiming to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 and China by 2060. With today’s technology, I cannot see the world meeting those lofty goals unless nuclear plays a dominant role. There needs to be a mix of clean energy sources; solar and wind power currently produce about 5% of world power production. Hydroelectric is another good source of baseload power; however, there are only so many places that the world can build dams and they are expensive and have much larger environmental challenges. Nuclear power currently produces around 10% of global electricity and we need to increase that up to 20% by 2040 and much further beyond that.
RW: Are you optimistic about the world getting on board with more nuclear power?
JB: I am. We have recently seen nuclear power gaining acceptance around the globe and we are even seeing some environmental groups accept the fact that benefits far outweigh the negative sentiment nuclear has long suffered from. People are realizing that nuclear power is the safest form of power. The oft-cited concern of what to do with spent radioactive uranium fuel is currently being answered by reprocessing it and using that material to generate more power. One company to watch out for, amongst others is Terrapower, founded and chaired by Bill Gates, which uses traditional uranium fuel in addition to old, depleted uranium rods.
RW: Would-be uranium miners need a higher uranium price and are higher prices inevitable?
JB: Yes and yes. Right now the uranium price is about US$30 a pound. That is not high enough to incentivize any uranium miners to put their mines into production. We need a long-term price of US$50 a pound for the highest quality mines and closer to US$70 before we see the next tier of uranium mines put into production. I can see the uranium price reaching US$60 to US$70 a pound in the next three or four years. I think that this is inevitable.
The world wants to move towards a clean energy future and nuclear will need to be the largest source of clean energy going forward in my opinion. There is a place for hydro, wind and solar, but nuclear needs to lead the way. Clean Energy needs to be Standard!
Standard Uranium has an active uranium exploration project in the Athabasca basin of northern Saskatchewan.