Free as the wind…

We need renewables, because wind is for free and uranium is expensive? Sure about this?

We need renewables, because wind is clean and uranium is filthy? Again, sure about this?

Advocates of sun-and-wind argue that the primary energy sources sunshine, wind and hydro are for free, while oil, methane gas and uranium are costly. There are two distinct errors in this dogma.

First, nuke haters referring to the cost of uranium fuel and its evolution are shooting at the wrong culprit. The primary nuclear fuel of the future will be natural thorium Th232 and eventually natural uranium U238 in MSR convertor reactors, but not enriched uranium LEU, and surely not HALEU.

As enrichment is a very energy intensive and thus costly process, using natural fuel without enrichment is a relevant cost saving in the fuel preparation department. Avoiding enrichment is also a non-proliferation benefit.

And speaking about thorium in particular, this metal is currently a waste by-product of other metal mining activities, and shall thus not be considered as a cost as soon as we start using it to feed MSR fission reactors, but rather as an asset. It is easy to mine and easy to refine, by the way, and requires no enrichment in an MSR.

Secondly, it is perfectly justified to argue that oil, methane, uranium and thorium are totally free sources, just as sun, wind and hydro. Environmentalists find it trivial that nobody needs to pay for the wind or the sun, but consider mined minerals obviously expensive. If you give it a thought, you will realise that minerals are also “free”, in the sense that no-one pays a price to the Master-of-the-Universe to mine them. (The Master-of-the-Universe is the super nova that once created uranium and thorium, or the Sun that created oil and gas long time ago).

Obviously, the cost of a mineral is the mining, refining and transportation effort (or energy) that results in prepared fuel, This process is basically a rather small materials investment (drill, lorry, roads,…) but a large energy investment.

On the other hand, you cannot boil an egg in the wind either. You need to “mine” the wind in order to convert it to a useful energy source.

So if one compares the “cost” of wind and oil, or any other primary source, the comparison must be fair and thus drawn at the same level of energetic usefulness. One cannot say wind is free, and not account the wind turbine to “mine” it, while comparing it to mined oil ready to use in a barrel.

Now here’s the point.

If we convert the entire humanity to sun and wind, we need to build the -by far- largest industrial installation human kind has ever build: this includes the millions of turbines, the billions of solar panels, the interconnection, and by all means the backup system to account for both periodic and random intermittent down periods. On a global scale. Just to “mine” the absolutely free primary sources: sun and wind. Including the replacement of all non-electrical appliances by electrical appliances: cars, heating, aircraft, industrial processes. Complemented by a continent-size, distributed, asynchronous computer network of billions of processors to control and manage the energy budgets and availability of both industries and house holds. Requiring a safety-of-life reliability. Maybe even AI – whatever that may look like?

Compare this to the installation of a countable number of compact nuclear MSR reactor plants that seamlessly connect to both the existing fuel distribution system and the existing electricity grid (that requires no major upgrade but rather an organic growth as we are used to and proven capable of managing).

To make this comparison, do not make the mistake of using a monetary unit as a measure. It is not physically limited and not time-independent. Traditionally, the nuclear industry expresses the SWU (Separative Work Unit) or the energy required to enrich uranium in dollars. This shall be turned topsy-turvy: use a relative materials bill and the relative energetic cost as a measure to compare energy conversion systems.

It is true that the monetary cost of renewables (i.e. of the installation to convert sun and wind into electricity) have dropped significanty in the last few years. This is used as an argument to state that nuclear energy is not an alternative to renewable energy. This decrease is however an easy win, due to these facts:

1) the cost was extremely high (non-competitive) when the technologies emerged
2) the prices rightfully dropped due to scale expansion and but also due to market-buying sales strategies
3) the industry was funded with tax money hiding the real production cost to grease political acceptance (lobbying)
4) and finally the introduction is now politically enforced by introducing legislation (also lobbying) – it remains to be seen if
the population will vote alongs these political lines

However, the impact of renewables is still very limited, backed-up by the most expensive, not accounted systems (gas-fired plants and batteries) and especially optimistically coloured by conveniently
focusing on electricity only, and not on all other energy uses, such as carbon-free synthetic fuels.

The scale expansion of renewables cannot possibly be maintained nor globalised for many different reasons, the main reason being that the low-hanging fruit is already harvested, and the ladders are … short. Here’s why…

Extrapolating the decreasing cost tendency for renewables to a global scale, and to all energy conversion and not only electricity, is not allowed. The extrapolation will collide head-on with the one unbreakable Economical Law: if demand increases, and the offer limited, prices go up. Materials needed to convert “free” wind into electricity and carbon-neutral synthetic fuels will face an ever increasing demand, the overal system cost will therefore rise, not decrease.

On the other hand, the materials investment to install a sufficient fleet of MSR reactors are well within boundaries. Also, the resources of natural thorium and uranium are large, however finite. They are rather well accounted for, therefore drafting the world’s long term energy budget can and should be done right now.

If we fail to do so, at one point in time, we will face an energy price inflation, and ultimately we are planting the seeds of war. Again.

About 10 centuries from now, we will need the next technology: harvest thorium in space, or find a workable fusion technology – which -by the way- will not be a tokamak or a stellarator – but that’s another discussion…