Nuclear energy powered by uranium from the sea could promote peace in coming century

Frank Parker

One of the best things the world can do to promote peace and stability in the coming century is to expand commercial nuclear power based on the extraction of uranium from the ocean.

That is the proposition which Frank Parker, an internationally recognized expert in remediation of radioactively contaminated soil and water and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, advanced at an exclusive meeting held at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican last month. The subject of the conference, which was jointly sponsored by the Academy, the Ettore Majorana Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture and the World Federation of Scientists, was how science can be used to further world peace.

“One of the ways we can improve the chances for peace is by providing almost limitless energy,” said Parker, the Distinguished Professor of Environmental and Water Resources Engineering at Vanderbilt. Fortunately, this is possible because there is an estimated 4.5 billion tons of uranium dissolved in the world’s oceans that could be extracted to provide a virtually inexhaustible supply of fuel for nuclear reactors.

Control of resources such as water and oil is widely recognized as a major cause of war. Conflict over water has a particularly long and bloody history. Today, 40 percent of global food supplies are produced by irrigated agriculture, so food production is becoming increasingly dependent on the availability of fresh water. Despite advances in water conservation technologies like drip irrigation, the world’s growing population is putting increasing pressure on the world’s fresh water supplies, Parker said.

One of the few ways to increase the supply of fresh water is desalination. Improved technology has cut the cost of desalination in half in recent years. Currently, there are more than 14,000 desalination plants online. By 2014, desalination technology is expected to produce an amount of freshwater equivalent to the flow of the River Thames, an amount that should double by 2020. However, the cost of electric power accounts for a large share of the cost of the water that these plants produce. Estimates range from 44 percent for purifying seawater and 11 percent for purifying brackish water.

Nuclear power is one of the few technologies capable of providing the amount of electricity that will be required at a reasonable cost, Parker stated.  According to the World Nuclear Association, commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S. are currently producing electricity for slightly more than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, less than coal, natural gas or oil-fired generators. Japanese experiments have demonstrated the feasibility of seawater extraction of uranium and indicate that it could produce uranium at twice the cost of mining the ore. The cost of uranium is about half the total cost of nuclear fuel so such a doubling would add only about 5 percent to the price of the electricity it produces.  Even when decommissioning and waste disposal costs, which add about 15 percent, are included, the overall cost of the electricity remains highly cost-effective.

In addition, nuclear power has an extremely low carbon footprint – equivalent to that of solar, wind and hydrothermal power. So, if the nations of the world impose a carbon tax or something equivalent, it will make nuclear power even more competitive.

Two major issues surrounding nuclear power are proliferation potential and waste disposal. According to Parker, there are straightforward solutions to both problems.

Spent fuel removed from commercial reactors is highly radioactive so it is extremely difficult for terrorists to extract bomb-grade material from it. The risk of proliferation comes primarily from the reprocessing and recycling of spent fuel. Recycling is advocated as a way to expand limited uranium resources because it can squeeze 50 times more energy from a ton of uranium, when used with proven breeder reactor technology. Moving to seawater extraction, however, provides enough uranium to support a major expansion of nuclear power without recycling.

Parker also turns to the ocean for disposal. He favors disposal in deep-seabed sediments “There was a major international study about 25 years ago that looked into deep sea and other disposal methods. It confirmed the technical feasibility of this method but the program was ended and sea disposal was banned for purely political reasons,” Parker said. Recent advances in deep-drilling technology in the oil industry means that injection of the immobilized wastes under thousands of feet of sea water and hundreds of feet of sediments several miles underground is a promising alternative, the engineer pointed out. Proliferation risks from this methodology are practically non-existent since the infrastructure and time to recover this material would be so great as to be prohibitive.

Unfortunately for us, mathematically optimal solutions are not possible for messy, real-world problems of this type, Parker concluded. Therefore, we need to do the modeling, research and pilot plant testing to determine if commercial-scale extraction of uranium from seawater is feasible and the cost of the infrastructure to support this disposal methodology is reasonable. If so, then the hardest part will be to show the public that implementing it will promote peace and stability because of its low environmental impact, low cost and acceptably low proliferation risk  The bottom line is that leaders must adopt solutions that are imperfect, but are socially acceptable. Despite all the advances that have been made in science and technology over the last 200 years, the only practical approach is to “muddle through” and “hope it works.”