Applications by utilities to build uranium fueled reactors is deep into a growth phase. So much so that the companies that supply construction have already started expansion. This is in the face of just a year ago when the utilities were angling for federal support for the projects in a fight with the alternatives of wind and solar.

It all gets ironic, the credit crunch, which is perhaps a third or a half finished, is dampening most everything from consumers to bleeding the taxpayers isn’t a key for utilities. Utilities after all are a nearly distinct segment in the economy with their own Dow Jones average among other special considerations. That economic power and the welded relationship to the customers make for some interesting activities.

Those advantages drive a supply industry from miners to copper wire producers. Uranium miners are prospecting worldwide and have permit applications for the U.S. and other countries. As dangerous as some wish others to believe, uranium mining is actually pretty safe and expansion in geographic terms small.

Once uranium ore is in hand it needs to be enriched for fuel production. A few years back that was an expensive prospect, with little U.S. capacity, of old inefficient technology. Today two new facilities are being built with two more in preconstruction stages.

The environmental reaction to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl froze new reactor construction decades ago. The disappearance of business wiped away capacity to build reactor components. This too is rapidly recovering. In 2006 Babcock and Wilcox the big item supplier to large energy construction began offering services for reactor component construction. Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding announced it has a partnership agreement with the French based atomic fission giant AREVA to start building the heavy reactor vessel parts. Note that not so long ago the sole source worldwide was in Japan.

The other hand has some valid issues. Costs have risen dramatically. The Tennessee Valley Authority projects in their application to spend as much as $17.5 billion for a dual reactor plant at Bellefonte Alabama using the new Westinghouse AP-1000 technology. Granted, the range is an astonishing $9.8 to $17.5 billion up from last years $6.4 to $7.1 billion. Just where these kind and size of projects wind up in actual dollars will await completion, with steel and other materials dropping in price and the uncertainty in the interest expense in carrying the payouts during construction to the end financing. For a good look at the issues surrounding the TVA’s Bellefonte project Dave Flessner’s piece in the Chattanooga Times as a resource rich page.

The other hand also holds the fuel issue. While new uranium supplies are being located some of the best are in locations where trouble runs deep. Niger, famous for Saddam Hussein’s effort to secure a yellowcake supply has for years been a source for AREVA who is building another mine with the Chinese building another close by. But the terms of agreement with Niger and the northern ethic group called Tuareg is now an armed struggle. Yet uranium can be reprocessed and fuel formed with breeder reactors making the supply very large over time if technology is allowed to blossom to the fullest potential.

Beyond keeping the lights on, the computer running and industry humming fission based power generation offers jobs – the real thing jobs with education, skills and high pay. Westinghouse has 3,000 new ones and 2,900 more scheduled for a plant to build the modules used in reactor construction in Louisiana. That’s the end of a route that includes training engineers at Purdue, Texas A&M, and the University of Florida who are improving their programs while increasing students and the University of Virginia reopening their nuclear engineering program. The craft work skill sets are getting backing and offering education and training from New Jersey to Texas.

Uranium based fission is on a roll. Thorium could get a jump-start if Senator Hatch gets his way. Efficiency from the steam and turbine sets is increasing and some pressure is likely to mount for combined heat and power applications to extract more electricity from the reactors, perhaps as much as 80%. A doubling of current uranium fueled electrical production doubled again with enhanced heat use would push uranium in the U.S. to about 80% of electrical power shifting about 60% of coal fired generation into obsolescence.

The risk to utilities’ investments lies in other technologies. Fusion from the Nebel lead Bussard group or Eric Learner’s focus fusion and other concepts including Randall Mills’ Blacklight hydrino or binary geothermal systems could drive costs, risks and environmental risks even lower. Its time to be cautious, one wouldn’t want to be saddled with a big capital investment when new technology could deeply undercut the cost of production. Or maybe the uranium industry could use just a little cost to build competition. For now, time to grid hookup will be key.


5 Comments so far

  1. Stacey Derbinshire on December 16, 2008 6:00 AM

    Nice writing style. I look forward to reading more in the future.

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  3. Roy Harvie on December 24, 2008 9:23 AM

    Why old fashioned inefficient nuclear reactors that produce long life radio-active waste is even being considered is beyond my imagination. There is a well documented, proven solution in Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors that burn the existing waste, produce no products suitable for bombs, and have a tiny reactive waste with a 78 year half life.

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