Uranium Contamination Persisting At Old Processing Sites Despite Remediation

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Uranium groundwater contamination at old uranium-ore processing sites is persisting despite remediation of contaminated surface materials two decades ago. The contamination is persisting at levels high enough to pose significant risks to human health — as per recent studies.

It had previously been assumed that, over these last ~20 years, the remaining uranium at the site (in the ground) would “flush out” via natural groundwater flow across the sites, but this hasn’t turned out to be true.

SLAC uranium contamination

“Uranium dissolved in groundwater flows slowly into nearby rivers, where it becomes diluted below the uranium concentrations naturally present in river water,” stated John Bargar, SLAC’s project lead and researcher at the lab’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), a DOE Office of Science User Facility. “However, studies have shown that the groundwater contamination is unexpectedly long-lived.”

(Author’s note: Well, unexpectedly to some perhaps, not to everyone.)

As part of new work being done by the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, though, researchers are looking to now uncover the mechanisms behind the longer-than-expected contamination — in cooperation with the DOE Office of Legacy Management.

“Our collaboration is motivated by the need to better understand the geochemical and biological factors influencing uranium mobility and transport,” stated William Dam, a hydrologist and site manager at the Office of Legacy Management. “We want to understand the way uranium gets from the ground into the groundwater, creating a plume of contamination in which uranium concentrations stay above regulatory safety requirements.”


A bit of background via the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory:

The contaminated sites, on floodplains in the upper Colorado River basin, operated from the 1940s to the 1970s to produce “yellowcake,” a precursor of uranium fuel used in nuclear power plants and weapons.

Previous field research by Bargar’s team and collaborators at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) at the site of a former uranium mill in Rifle, Colorado, has provided a possible explanation for the longevity of the uranium contamination. It revealed that up to 95% of the subsurface uranium is concentrated in zones of organic-rich sediment — the buried remains of plants and other organisms along former Colorado River stream banks — generally located 10 to 30 feet underground. These organic substances appear to store large amounts of uranium, restricting its mobility and releasing it very slowly into the surrounding water over many years. Current estimates predict that the contamination will not flush away for at least another 100 years at several sites.

“Our model for Rifle predicts that organic-rich zones may generally influence uranium mobility throughout the upper Colorado River basin and therefore could also play an important role at other sites,” stated Bargar.


The new work will include 5 other sites in Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico — with field work having begun last fall, and continuing again this spring.

Commenting on the partnership with the Office of Legacy Management, Bargar noted: “Access to those sites is regulated, and some of them are in very remote locations. Our partners from the Office of Legacy Management, as well as LBNL, provide us with site access and logistical support. They also carry out the drilling operations required to take sediment and water samples.”

These samples are then sent to SSRL, where the researchers are analyzing them with a variety of X-ray techniques. Via this approach, the researchers will be able to ascertain the specific chemical form of uranium in various samples taken from various depths.

The study can reveal how the presence of particular chemical forms in organic-rich zones affects overall uranium mobility at the contaminated sites. The study will also investigate the types of organic carbon present in the ground to help understand how it influences uranium behavior. The researchers will combine the X-ray data with studies of how bacteria affect uranium chemistry.

“We know that microbes strongly influence the chemical form of uranium and, hence, its mobility,” Bargar noted. “By collecting information about microbial populations present in the sediments, we hope to gain information about how and when bacteria do that, and how bacteria couple subsurface carbon chemistry to uranium behavior.”

This research could possibly lead to better remediation practices — something potentially of great use considering the large number of contaminated sites around the world.

That’s what always comes into my mind when listening to the proponents of nuclear energy as they go over their talking points — if the relatively limited deployment of nuclear energy seen over the last century resulted in so much contamination, then can you imagine what a full-scale buildout would look like?

Image Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; John Bargar

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

James Ayre has 4830 posts and counting. See all posts by James Ayre

94 thoughts on “Uranium Contamination Persisting At Old Processing Sites Despite Remediation

  • Nuclear power isn’t a zero impact solution. But its impact so many times less than coal, which had its lifespan extended by at least 50 years due to nuclear opposition.

    Even when uranium ore is only 1%, you need over 100x as much coal mining to generate the same energy. Mining issues are miniscule compared to the problem they displace.

    • Thankfully we have to choose neither.

      Time to quit making messes and clean up our act.

      • It’s easy to say that now. I agree that current nuclear doesn’t cut it, but the colossal mess we’ve already made of the atmosphere isn’t going to go away for a long, long time.

        The point of my post is that’s myopic to be thankful for limited nuclear deployment in the past, as the article does at the end.

    • We have other solutions now, namely wind and solar.

      • Sorry for not making it clear in the post. I wasn’t talking about now, but rather the closing comment in the article referring to the last century.

        It was a big mistake to ignore the nuclear alternative to coal in the last 40 years, just like it’s a mistake to ignore wind now.

        • “It was a big mistake to ignore the nuclear alternative to coal in the last 40 years”

          I agree. It would have been much better if nuclear plants were built instead of coal.

          But that ship has sailed. In our current situation, wind and solar hold more promise.

          • Agreed.

            But I still think small modular nuclear holds promise for industrial heat. It’s a lower priority than getting rid of coal, but industry still uses almost as much natural gas as the electricity sector.

            There’s no economical renewable alternative there anywhere in sight.

          • If there’s no alternative and it’s properly regulated then I wouldn’t mind.

            It would have to compete with natural gas, though, and that’s quite a challenge. A price on carbon would help.

          • Of course. It’s just a hope right now.

          • It’s 11:20 in the morning here in South Australia and the wholesale electricity price is about 1.5 Australian cents a kilowatt-hour and it was negative one cent early this morning. It’s not predicted to go higher than 1.5 cents all day. The low price is a result of the large amount of wind and solar capacity on the grid. The more wind and solar there is on the grid the lower wholesale prices tend to go. Large industrial users of pay based on the electricity spot price, we’re likely to see increasing amounts of electricity used for process heat here in Australia, particularly now that coal seam gas and fracking have indirectly pushed the cost of natural gas so high and negative price events where they get paid for using electricity are becoming more common. It’s a lot cheaper than new nuclear.

          • Australia has some of the highest transmission costs in the world. Even if wholesale electricity was free, you wouldn’t see it used for process heat.

            You need generation *and* transmission costs to be 10x that for non-generation costs.

          • Large industrial users were being paid to consume electricity at around noon on the weekend and early Tuesday morning in South Australia. Being paid to consume electricity is less than 2 cents a kilowatt-hour.

          • With no grid or demand charges? Yeah right.

            You picking out select hours shows how useless this example is, anyway. Industrial processes need cheap average cost of heat.

          • Mint, if you think about it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to be applying charges for transmission etc. at a time when it is beneficial for the grid for customers to be consuming as much electricity as possible.

            And while industry will want a low average cost it doesn’t require a low average cost, as in the great scheme of things the capital cost of electrical resistance heating isn’t that much. (Though it does vary by application.) If electricity is cheap enough often enough it can pay for itself. And it is possible to store heat. For example the local soda plant could warm up the brine and limestone in storage very early in the morning or around midday. (Yes, our soda is tougher than that watery stuff Americans have.)

            Electricity is currently used for process heat in some situations for reasons of convenience or control or both. With lower electricity costs these purposes will expand. And my point is not that electricity is currently a great competitor with natural gas, but that it is competive with nuclear heat going by the cost of a thermal kilowatt-hour from new nuclear reactors in Europe and the United States.

          • Whether it makes sense to you or not, somebody has to pay for the transmission capacity to add this huge load you’re proposing to add to the grid. And the vast majority of industrial heat needs it 24/7, because they don’t want idling capacity, and they need precise temperature control which can’t wait for heat at the next cheap time of day. A soda plant can’t store heat without huge capital expenditure, because the processes are endothermic. If the plant is producing product, then its ovens/baths would be cooling without heat input.

            We’re not talking about current reactors. They won’t even work for industrial heat because they’re way too big. We’re talking about a future possibility.

            I’m not gonna talk about this anymore because it’s a waste of my time. Only a fool thinks any substantial portion of industrial heat will be done with electricity.

          • Do you know any of these “fools” who think a substantial portion of industrial heat will be shifted to electricity, Mint? Or do you only know people who think it won’t be switched to nuclear? These distinctions are important.

      • “We have other solutions now, namely wind and solar.”

        Those are only solutions if we (humanity) are all willing to de-industrialize. Which we are not.

        • Wind and solar will not enable infinite growth. But they will enable that all of human population can live a decent standard of living as in middle class western societies and not damage the environment.

          • Growth will not be limited by the amount of energy we can extract from the wind and sunshine.

        • “Those are only solutions if we (humanity) are all willing to de-industrialize.”

          Are you kidding me? Do you have that miniscule an understanding of how much wind and solar energy is available?

          • Well, there are various meanings of “available”. The amount of solar energy streaming through the rest of the solar system dwarfs the tiny amount we get, and it’s “available” in the sense that we have the technical capability to go up and harvest it, but that’s precluded by the economics and practical realities. The same applies for most of the solar energy which falls on Earth. Most of it is uneconomic to harvest. And even if we wanted to disregard that, there are other limiting factors, like rare earth and copper production.

            But we aren’t going to disregard cost, and under the present system, the global growth in wind and solar is not expected to even keep up with the growth in fossil carbon for many years to come. Some people say the present system has to change then. Which is fine. But I have yet to see the plausible plan for how that can happen.

          • Sorry, there are only a few places on Earth (such as foggy Seattle) where solar may not make sense.

            And there are no rare earth mineral problems for solar.

            Solar is on its way to 4 cents in the sunny parts of the world. The difference in cost between the sunny SW and the not so sunny NE of the US is a couple of cents/kWh.

            You are correct when you say that we will not disregard cost. That is why nuclear is doomed. We have much cheaper ways to generate electricity. The economics of energy have drastically changed over the last few years. The market will go with what is cheapest and nuclear is priced off the table.

          • “The same applies for most of the solar energy which falls on Earth. Most of it is uneconomic to harvest.”

            We know that in the us solar is pretty much tied with NG as the second place cheapest way to bring new capacity on line. Solar is almost certainly destined to continue to fall in price and could well end up tied with wind for the least expensive.

            It’s not like it would take an enormous amount of space to collect major amounts of solar energy. Let’s take look at what it would take to generate 100% of US power from solar….

            2013 Total US Demand = 4,045,855 million kWh

            Average Daily Demand = 11,084,534,247 kwh

            Add 20% for Storage and Transmission Loss = 13,301,441,096 kWh

            Total Number 1 kW Panels (64 sq.ft. each) = 2,955,875,799 (Assuming 4.5 avg solar hours per day)

            Total Area for Panels = 189,176,051,142 Sq. Ft.

            Total Area for Panels = 4,342,884.5 Acres

            Total Area for Panels (Square Miles) = 6,786 Sq. Miles

            Add 20% Area between rows of Panels = 8,143 Sq. Miles

            Square Miles in Lower 48 States = 2,959,064

            Percentage of Lower 48 to Gen 100% for all 50 States = 0.3%

            Let’s see where we could find those 8,143 square miles…

            It’s estimated that there are three nonresidential parking spaces for every car in the United States. That adds up to almost 800 million parking spaces, covering about 4,360 square miles. That’s 54% of what we’d need.


            According to the EPA we’ve got 23,400 square miles of brownfields. That’s 287% of what we’d need.

            Oh, did I forget rooftops? Played out farm land? Low value desert land?

            Trina Solar just announced a 24.4% efficient panel. If/when those panels come to market we could cut the land usage by 40%.

            Cost is not an issue. Space is not an issue. Take a look at this map that shows how much land would be required to get 100% of the world’s electricity from solar.

            (BTW, no one is suggesting a 100% solar grid. A mix of renewable makes far more sense.)

          • “Cost is not an issue.”

            Isn’t that something like $3 trillion for the solar cells alone, and then there’s installation, plus inverters, tie-in, and any necessary support structures, and then there’s that matter of storage. Plus, a lot of those parking spaces are inside parking structures, or curbside, or under trees, or between tall buildings.

            I readily grant that existing nuclear is too expensive, but it looks like it should be possible to get the cost well under $2 billion per gigawatt capacity. (Martingale is targeting less than $800 million / Gw.) So if we wanted, say, 700 gigawatts capacity, that might be attainable for less than $1.4 trillion. Plus you wouldn’t have to replace inverters on a regular basis, or the whole solar field every 25 years or so (and dealing with the waste of some 3.5 billion solar panels) plus storage ongoing costs, and cleaning-maintenance-repair costs.

            So, if cost is not an issue for solar, it seems like it could be even less of an issue for nuclear.

          • You are comparing an exaggerated cost for solar with a speculative cost for nuclear.

            If we ever get to under $2 billion per Gw, then you’ll have something to talk about. But we’ve had 60 years of projections of nuclear ‘too cheap to meter’, and none of that has happened. So don’t be surprised if we don’t hold our breath.

          • The solar cost is only exaggerated in the sense that we aren’t going to use solar for all electric generation. But we aren’t going to use nuclear for all generation either, so I chose a similarly exaggerated amount there. I don’t know how many decades I’ve been hearing how wind and sun are “free” energy, and that hasn’t worked out as advertised either. The fact some people overhype a technology doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit. It just means we need to pay more attention to the realists.

            The Martingale projections come with caveats and margins of error, but they have the credibility of expertise with large scale manufacturing, and while you might be safe to ignore them, I suspect energy planners will be looking at possible implications for their plans.

          • Except that prices of solar PV panels have declined by something like 80% in the last 5 or so years, while the price of new nuclear has gone up. PV has a proven track record of reducing costs, something we haven’t seen from nuclear.

            My “exaggerated cost” content was in response to your $1/watt just for the panels. I’ve read that total cost for utility scale solar is under $2/watt. Experience should gradually bring that cost down further, even if component costs stagnate, and component costs are also falling.

            So if we were to install 3 trillion watts of solar over the next 15 years say, the average total cost would be considerably below $6 trillion. New nuclear is free to try to undercut the cost, but it can’t now, and history doesn’t give us any reason to think it ever can.

          • Fossil power plants 70%, nuclear 20%, almost 7% hydro, the rest geothermal, wind and solar. How soon will we come up with $10 trillion for wind, solar, storage and transmission just for the U.S.?

            We can decommission light water reactors over time, then replace them with fast neutron reactors that use the waste for fuel. 100 reactors at $5 billion each seems like a good down payment on CO2 emissions reductions.

          • I’m sorry, I just don’t find your numbers believable. First, you’re using overnight costs not installed costs for nuclear. Installed can more than double overnight costs. Plus overnight costs are generally low-balled. And I have no idea where you got $10 trillion for wind, solar and storage.

            Take a look at what is happening in the world. Wind and solar installations are soaring. New reactors are being built at a rate lower than old reactors are being shut. Renewables are going up, nuclear is going down.

          • The problem with your 100 reactors at $5 billion each is that a crash program would take at least 10 years to build them, from permitting, design, and construction. And if they were built in a crash program, it would take more like $20 billion each. I’ve seen how costs spiral out of sight with crash programs. If you ramp up on a schedule that will build them at $5 billion each, it would take at least 15 to 20 years to get the 100 reactors.

            By the time we come up with that down-payment using nukes, wind and solar will have become dominant at a much lower cost. Nuclear is the electricity source of the past. Wind and solar is the future.

            Now about your $10 trillion, it’s much too high. I’d expect $5 trillion or less. And where is that coming from you ask? It’s the same money that’s going to be spent anyway for new capacity and replacing old generation.

  • Even the nastiest organic compounds are eventually broken down by bacteria and natural chemical processes in soil and water. Toxic metals – uranium, plutonium, lead, mercury, cadmium – are for ever. The radioactivity of the first two is a comparatively trivial risk.

  • The big kahuna DOE facility is Hanford, WA.

    “An estimated $113.6 billion is the new price tag for completing the remaining Hanford nuclear reservation environmental cleanup, plus some post-cleanup oversight.”

    Read more here: http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2014/02/19/2837564/new-hanford-cleanup-pricetag-is.html#storylink=cpy

    Rocky Flats north of Golden, CO made plutonium triggers. Then there’s Paducah, KY and of course the big one east of the Mississippi River is Oak Ridge, TN.

    Chicagoland just went through a $10 plus billion cleanup of an old thorium processing facility. That thorium thing seems to be rearing its head again in pro nuke circles.

    Another major contaminant at these facilities are the solvents used in the processing. This includes carbon tetrachloride and things like TCE. Much of the problem stemmed from starting operations pre 1970s National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the go-go mentality of nothing matters but the Soviets.

    And this is the processing end. The waste disposal of high level nuclear hasn’t been figured out. New Mexico WIP is for low level waste.

    Here’s the problem. As we’re moving from fossil fuel and nuclear to renewables – there needs to be funding to clean up all the messes. This could be nuclear waste or contaminated land and water from the industrial revolution to the present. It all takes money. And nobody wants to pay for it, including republicans and eco-minded think tank libertarians. And don’t forget, metals go into renewables. Metals mines are well represented on the Superfund list. Butte, Montana is a good place to start. That’s about a billion or more clean up – depending how “clean” is defined.

      • Thanks for that. As a public service announcement, make sure not to live directly down from a tailings dam. According to Google, there’s 3500 mine tailings dams scattered throughout the world.

        • Its difficult to assess the true impacts. There are very few independent studies; – there is little money for epidemiological studies, which are difficult and time consuming. A case in point, the plight of Navajo mine workers and families in the SouthWest.

          “What we’re beginning to see in terms of public health impacts is lung cancer caused by radon gas, and they [former miners and current communities in proximity to mine and mill sites] are seeing breast and kidney cancers.”

          “It’s becoming clear that living in proximity to a uranium mine results in a range of health issues from cancer to kidney disease to hypertension, heart disease and auto-immune dysfunction,”

          Consider how often uranium mining and its health effects are discussed here. Thanks for your attention.

          The EPA is being used to clean up the thousands of abandoned uranium mines across the US, a duty it was never intended to perform. 3 to 4 billion has been spent, and no one knows how big the problem is yet.


      • Yes. The plant processed ore for thorium lanterns, if I’m not mistaken. It’s been a Chicago news issue for almost 30 years. I don’t believe it was part of the war effort, may have been. Supposedly KM purchased the company that operated the facility. I read the St. Louis link you supplied. That was very interesting. That all happened during the go-go push during WWII and the cold war. We’re running out of “back 40s” as a country.

        An interesting news item from Obama’s trip to India was the liability issue between India and nuclear plant technology suppliers. India has required plant technology and operating companies, foreign mostly, to assume liability. Apparently our nuclear plant technology companies don’t want to assume all that much.

        • Michael – According to the article, KM switched to materials to make weapons during the cold war.

          In 2010 Indian legislators passed a law assigning liability to nuclear operators and builders. The US manufacturers want out of this. Not Sure how Modi can promise this. IMO, he can’t on his own. IMO, there is sensitivity to liability after Bhopal.

          Glad someone is paying attention to the nuclear contamination issue.

          There seems to be little attention to it. Surprisingly, there is a wealth available on Wikipedia, but you need to know where to look. Khyshtym release was very high.


  • A full scale buildout of molten salt reactors wouldn’t require much additional uranium mining, and AFAIK not as much processing as existing solid oxide fuel rods. Much of the fuel would come from existing stock-piled “waste”.

      • Ft. St. Vrain was not a molten salt reactor. And molten salt reactors don’t have to use thorium. The TransAtomic reactor, for example, is designed to burn primarily spent fuel from current reactors. Even for molten salt reactors that can utilize thorium, they don’t have to be of the configuration that Makhijani was talking about. The Martingale Thorcon reactor, for example, is designed not to have any on-site fuel processing, so there would be none of the protactinium separation that Makhijani was so concerned about (needlessly, in my view–the main reason nobody makes U-233 bombs is that Pu-239 is just a vastly superior bomb-making material).

        • I did not mean to say that Fort St. Vrain was molten salt. Only that many different reactor types have been tried besides BWR and PWR. And thorium can be burned up in other reactors besides MSRs. Since those reactors can burn thorium, and some like CANDU, also have safe features like MSRs, whats the urgency to do MSR?

          As for TA reactor. And the power unit? That has to be designed too. Off site fuel reprocessing? Reprocessing is not free of problems because its off site. Part of the difficulty lies in how much effort and energy is involved in reprocessing, not just proliferation.

          All these must be solved, not theoretically, but commercially, and be profitable.

          Fundamentally, the biggest competition for MSRs is existing reactors of all types, including ones like Fort St. Vrain that were attempted unsuccessfully before.

          The industry and financiers seem to prefer existing PWRs.

          • The principal advantages of MSR are low pressure and the cost savings and modular manufacturing possibilities that go with that, higher operating temperatures and the greater efficiencies and new applications that go with that, continuous removal of a few neutron poison fission products, making high burnup rates possible–drastically shrinking the heavy actinide output profile, a strongly negative thermal coefficient of reactivity–making them well suited to load following (which also makes them more compatible with variable power sources), and of course the safety aspect of having a core fluid which cannot melt down and which chemically binds cesium and strontium and locks radionuclides into an chemically inert and water-insoluble solid in the event of some disastrous vessel breach. The urgency has to do with impending ocean acidification and climate change catastrophes. Current reactors cannot be made cheap enough nor deployed fast enough to take on even the growth margin in fossil carbon, much less the whole enterprise.

            And it doesn’t have to be thorium, but finding a use for thorium would be a boon for rare earth mining, which in turn would benefit wind and solar power, electric cars, various battery technologies, etc.

            The fact that aspects of the TransAtomic (and other) reactors have to be designed is not an argument against doing so.

            No option is going to be free of problems, but we can still try to anticipate and minimize problems. Makhijani was concerned about the oversight difficulty of having on-site processing scattered to many locations. Whether that concern has any real world validity or not, central processing addresses that concern. I think on-site processing will ultimately prove more efficient, but the Thorcon approach simplifies manufacturing and lowers unit cost, and seems a sensible strategy for rapid deployment. (Their target is manufacturing rollout within seven years.) On-site processing technology development can then proceed at its own pace. There will be more transportation energy involved going this route, but that would minimally detract from the enormous carbon savings the reactors themselves could provide, especially if some of the reactors could be tasked to producing synthetic liquid fuels.

            The existing nuclear industry and its financiers have no incentive or desire to change. They built the nuclear status quo and that is the basis of their business model, and doing anything new would disrupt that. So it will fall to new companies to design and introduce new kinds of reactors. Martingale is focusing its sights on only one competitor: coal. Every aspect of their operation is compared against the analogous operation in coal production, transportation, and consumption, and their objective is to outcompete coal better than anyone else. Whether that leaves the door open for gas and oil, or what effect their approach may have on legacy nuclear appears to be of no consequence to them. And I think there is a lot of merit to that strategy, though I also think we will need other strategies as well.

          • Maybe the nuclear industry has one bias or another, but financiers are pretty glued to profit. If MSRs work, they will finance them. So far, there seems to be no big move.

            The lack of financing seems to have more to do with the high price of entry, to certify and license a new design from scratch, and the attendant high risks.

            Any competitor must compete with the whole market on its merits. MSRs have to compete with other reactors, and natural gas.

            I don’t see a compelling economic argument for MSRs. As far as reducing coal is concerned, conservation, natural gas, wind, solar, existing reactors, are doing the most. Conservation reduced CO2 more than natural gas. Its the main reason why large central power plants are in jeopardy.

            Wind and solar PV are taking off. CSP and geothermal are being pushed out by PV inroads and those are proved, existing tech. Coal and nuclear are losing money due to conservation and competition from cheaper sources like natural gas.

            Do the most bang for the buck with whats working now. We don’t really need breakthroughs. We already have working technologies. We need to implement them.

          • There are large advantages to MSR’s over existing energy systems, but that does not automatically make them attractive to investors–even if the investors understand the advantages (and most investors don’t have that level of understanding). The first problem is that there are multiple MSR development projects underway, and if you bet on the wrong one, you could still lose your shirt even if MSR’s turn out to be a success. How many people lost money betting on internet business ventures, even though internet business has enjoyed pretty spectacular and continuous growth?

            The second problem is that it isn’t just a question of existing technology vs. MSR’s. It is MSR’s vs. everything else that could be developed. Lockheed is talking about having a compact fusion reactor prototype operational in 2017. LPP is going to try to fire up the core of a focus fusion reactor this year. If I were an investor, I’d sure want to wait and see how that turns out, at least. And some companies, like Tri-Alpha, operate in a shroud of secrecy, which introduces a lot of risk uncertainty. When some company designs, tests, develops, and starts manufacturing MSR’s, and when hard sales figures start rolling in, it’s only at that point that most investors will seriously consider jumping on.

            It remains to be seen whether Martingale has the resources to do this, but in terms of manufacturing logistics, this would actually be scaling down for them. And I don’t see why they’d need to compete with the total energy market. They could have a perfectly viable business without ever touching oil. And while existing reactors have the price advantage due to their manufacturing costs having already been paid, they are geographically locked in with very limited growth potential (basically just power uprates). That leaves any growth market almost anywhere on the planet wide open for development. All Martingale needs is a niche, and the niche they are trying for is the one currently held by coal.

            There isn’t a certain economic argument for MSR’s at this time. There will only be a compelling economic argument for them if they come onto the market at a sufficiently competitive price. We can make educated guesses about that possibility, but there are always unforeseeable variables, so the only way to find out if a business plan will work is to actually do it.

            Conservation, natural gas, wind, solar, and existing reactors may be what is doing the most to reduce coal at this time, but it’s clearly not enough because global coal production continues to climb and climb. And there’s no law that says we can’t develop something better than the best that we have right now. Martingale thinks they can crank out 100 gigawatts of nuclear capacity per year from a single manufacturing site. Something like that would be a huge game-changer. And what they propose would probably be very competitive in today’s market, but the market they have to worry about is seven years from now. But if some even-better nuclear option is developed by then, that would still be great news in the fight against coal.

            “We don’t really need breakthroughs. We already have working technologies. We need to implement them.”

            I see two paths to implementation of better options on the scale that we need to avert ocean and climate disaster. One is market driven using the global economic system we have. On that path implementation of better options will depend on their costs, and as matters stand, we’ve got nothing that represents any serious threat to coal, oil, or gas. The other path requires the supersession or outright overthrow of our global economic system, and I know a lot of people advocate for that option and say it is long past due. But it’s not happening, nobody foresees it happening, and nobody has any credible plan that I’ve seen as to how it can happen. The logistics of developing better reactors looks like a cakewalk by comparison.

          • Jag_Levak – Some general agreement, but IMO coal is not a good investment future right now. Oil is out of the electricity game IMO, for good.

            Take a look at Jeremy Rifkin for some changes in economic system that are already happening spontaneously, like Uber, Lyft, other collaborative systems.


          • As matters stand, global coal use is expected to rise for quite some time. I mentioned oil because I think that’s one of the carbon culprits which we will ultimately have to replace, for which synthetic fuels may be important, and for which nuclear process heat could prove very useful, but Martingale doesn’t seem to be looking at that at all.

            And would that be the same Rifkin who predicted in 77 that we’d run out of oil in 20 years?

          • Venturebeat News – “the sharing economy appears to have consumers on its side. In a recent poll of participants, Ipsos Public Affairs found that more had joined the sharing economy for philosophical reasons than financial (36% vs. 31%). With a rabid fan base of consumers and employees, the sharing economy appears to have a future of nothing but growth — for now.”

            50% of solar in Germany is community owned. Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, these are all collaborative. Its happening underneath our noses.

            Utility execs know they are headed for it. They are facing a situation like Kodak did. Kodak knew it was coming. They just didn’t change fast enough.



          • Okay, well, I think sharing is great, and I would put that under the category of conservation and efficiency measures, but I really don’t see that posing any threat to the fossil fuel industries.

          • Jag_Levak – Sorry if I was not clear. It was a reply to your comment on the subject of alternate economic systems. The collaborative economy is different from the status quo, I think.

          • The subject of alternate economic systems comes up because many greens (and watermelons) see that as the nuclear-free pathway to defeat fossil fuels. Basically, they say capitalism must go. Which is fine if they can pull it off, but I don’t see anything to suggest that approach has any realistic chance at all.

          • You might wish to take a look at what those predictions of coal growth are based on.

            Germany is not going to increase coal use. Neither is the US nor will Australia. All are cutting. China seems to be somewhere very close to peak coal and has stated an intent to reduce coal use. Even India is going soft on coal. Japan is not likely to burn as much going forward because they are bringing renewables on line and may bring couple reactors on line.

            Every prediction I’ve seen for continued coal consumption seems to have been made by putting a ruler on the historical growth slope and continuing the line. I’ve seen no data on massive coal plant construction programs in any country.

            There may be some coal plant construction in one African country which has coal resources, but in general Africa is installing wind, solar, hydro and geothermal.

          • “China seems to be somewhere very close to peak coal and has stated an intent to reduce coal use.”

            I think they stated that intent quite some time ago. And they have managed to slow down the rate of growth, but even so, they approved large expansions in coal mining last year, and last summer announced plans for 50 new coal gasification plants.

            Last month, the IEA projection was “Global coal demand to reach 9 billion tonnes per year by 2019” And maybe you think they don’t know what they are talking about, but their previous coal growth projections turned out to be too conservative.

          • That would be good, but something will replace it. China had lots of hydro output last year, thanks to all the rains, and they cut down coal exports, so domestic production slacked, but it seems too early to say that either of those will help much with the long term global coal trends.

          • China first stated that they thought they would hit peak coal in 2015. Then they said it might be 2017. And they’ve said that it might be 2020.

            It’s too early to say if China has or has not hit peak coal. Use may plateau for a while with some small up/down bumps before things head down enough to declare that peak use has passed.

            A few years back the rate increase in coal consumption broke lose from the rate of GDP growth which was an indication that they had managed some change. The curve is definitely flattening. And with their economy slowing the need for new capacity is going to decrease. That means that new wind, solar, hydro and nuclear will be replacing coal and not just meeting new needs.

            I suspect China will continue to build new coal plants for some time. But as long as those are efficient supercritical plants which replace less efficient plants it means that China can reduce coal use.

            China has a big need to replace coal fired burners for building heat and for cooking. That probably means bringing in more natural gas. Like with other countries NG is a transitional step China will need to take as it lowers its CO2 output levels.

            I don’t know about the EIA’s previous too low coal projections. Did they miss because of the Fukushima meltdown causing a coal uptake as well as the spike caused by Germany’s decision to speed up nuclear shutdowns? I’m not aware of any other significant increases in coal use over recent years.

          • Take an objective look at the price of electricity from a new nuclear reactor. Citigroup calculates the LCOE from the Vogtle reactors to be 11 cents/kWh. If there are no further cost/timeline overruns. And they say that it will be impossible to build near future reactors as cheaply. Vogtle greatly benefitted from extremely low financing rates created by the recession.

            Hinkley Point won’t be built unless the UK agrees to pay 15 cents/kWh along with guaranteed sales for 35 years, inflation increases in price, and other subsidies.

            Compare that to onshore wind a four cents and falling. To PV solar at 6.5 cents and falling. Both non-subsidized prices.

            Storage prices are falling rapidly. And while they fall NG at 6 cents/kWh is a very affordable fill-in for wind and solar.

            This is what nuclear has to compete against. The non-subsidized cost of new nuclear is above 15 cents. A mixture of wind, solar, and NG/storage is around 6 cents. It’s not enough to shave a couple of pennies off the cost of nuclear. It has to be cut by two thirds in order to play in an open market.

            Two thirds.

          • I’m pretty sure Citigroup was only looking at current generation reactors. And if your point is that current reactors are expensive in the U.S., I agree. But there are several enterprises who think alternate forms of nuclear power could be much cheaper, and I hope they get the chance to show whether that’s the case.

            Interesting about those unsubsidized wind and solar prices. That sounds a lot better than what we’ve been getting here in Texas. Where are those?

          • Yes, Citigroup did a LCOE on the two Vogtle reactors now under construction. After they produced their 11 cent price Vogtle stated that they would make no more financial information public until the reactors were completed. My guess is that we’ll see an upwards creep.

            Very often we see people who think there’s a way to make electricity cheaply with nuclear. But that rubber never seems to hit the road.

            If some company had a way to make nuclear competitive (about 5c/kWh) don’t you think they would have jumped into the UK or Turkey process and offered to build at better prices than what France, China and Russia have offered?

            Turkey was quoted 20 cents and the UK 15 cents (plus subsidies and sweetheart contract). Don’t you think if someone knew how to build at a better price they would have bid a dime and made a fortune?

          • Wind and solar prices –

            Where, can’t exactly say. Some of the low solar prices come out of Texas (Austin PPA) but most contracts are held in confidence and only the amounts are listed in summary reports.

            I’m adding the wind and solar PPA histories at the bottom.

            Those are subsidized prices. To get an estimate of the unsubsidized price add about 1.15 cents to what you see on the vertical axis. If wind and solar opt for the PTC they get 2.3 cents per kWh produced for the first ten years. As most PPAs run 20 to 25 years cutting that number in half gives a rough add in to remove subsidies from the cost.

            (I’m having image loading problems. If the solar chart doesn’t make it through on this comment I’ll add it to a new one.)

            BTW, I recently heard of a wind PPA for 1.5 cents/kWh. That would make for wind at under 3 cents without subsidies. Solar, unsubsidized, should drop under 6 cents this year.

          • OK, tricked Disqus into letting me post one.

            I think both graphs are from Berkeley Lawrence

          • Um, yeah, I think I’d rather see the actual unsubsidized prices. I know of a number of factors which can wildly distort PPA prices, so adding a fixed amount across all cases doesn’t sound very reliable. Here in Texas, the federal subsidies have covered as much as 2/3 the cost of wind installations, so so adding 1.15 cents to represent that subsidy would mean the unsubsidized price should be around 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour, and that doesn’t seem very likely.

            But if the actual costs have gotten as cheap as you say, that’s great news. That would mean we no longer need those highly contentious subsidies for wind and solar.

          • Testing, testing, testing.
            Is cleantechnica still blocking my posts?

          • At the moment I’m in an area of Sri Lanka that has incredibly slow wifi. It sometimes take 15 – 20 minutes to open a single comment. A bunch of stuff is stuck in moderation because I can’t get that file to open reliably.


          • Re Texas wind – from a recent article on utility-scale storage:
            “Details are scant on Oncor’s plan, but according to new research from the Brattle Group backed by Oncor, installing 3-5 GW of grid-integrated, distributed electricity storage would be the most cost-effective way for the Texas grid to solve issues with the integration of renewable power.​ Brattle economists estimated the battery storage could be installed at a cost of $350/kWh.”
            $350 per kilowatt hour installed? Sounds like a big number. Is it economic in Texas?

          • That capacity refers to a single discharge, so the missing piece of information is how many discharge cycles it is good for. If it can do 1000 discharges, that amortizes out to 35 cents per kWh, not counting efficiency losses. Pretty awful, but there are times wind cost actually goes negative, and it might reduce the cost of grid upgrades. But if it could do 10,000 discharges, that would drop it 3.5 cents per kWh which wouldn’t be bad. But 10,000 is a lot. The most I generally see claimed is more like 3,000.

            In Texas, gas is usually the cheapest backup, but West Texas wind has a problem with inadequate grid buildout. So as much as they need something to fill in the troughs, they also need some place to dump the peaks when production exceeds what they can dispatch.

          • Thanks, that makes sense from the other stuff I’ve read about battery costs.
            The rest of the story is on utilitydive dot com.

          • Just a couple bits and pieces on battery cost and cycle life.

            EOS zinc-air batteries now being sold (2016 delivery) for $160/kWh. 10,000 cycles. (1.6 cents per cycle)

            Ambri liquid metal batteries, no selling price yet but materials used said to be “cheap as dirt”. 300 year lifespan with unlimited cycling. Assume the Oncor price of $350/kWh and 109,500 cycles (one a day for 300 years) and that’s 0.3 cents per cycle. At $160/kWh the cost would be 0.1 cents per kWh.

            Have to add something in for inefficiency, financing, real estate where they are parked, owner profit. Overall it looks like we may be close to storage not being an issue.

            If you’re inputting 4 cent wind or solar and have an 85% efficient system then you’ll have a 0.7 cent inefficiency cost.

          • “EOS zinc-air batteries … 10,000 cycles.”

            I gather that is still a projection. In 2012 they were saying it had been lab tested to 6000 cycles, and last year they said “Most cycles ever realized by metal-air battery – 5000+ battery cycles demonstrated to date”. Still, it looks promising.

            “Ambri liquid metal batteries… materials used said to be “cheap as dirt”. 300 year lifespan with unlimited cycling.”

            Another with interesting potential, but the price is the challenge. If the up-front cost is high, that projected life span won’t mean anything because everyone will be expecting cheaper and better options in just a few more years.

            But coupled with wind power, the input cost can be ignored in cases of oversupply. The generators were going to be spinning anyway, but without the battery, it would just be zero or negative value electricity–an unwanted burden on the grid.

          • EOS is taking orders. The sort of companies that would make this sort of purchase have large tech staffs. Those people would know how to look at the cycle data. If EOS can’t prove 10k in their testing then no one will purchase.

            300 years. Even if the cost was $300/kWh the long life would make it a very attactive purchase. Imagine a pension fund financing a pretty much guaranteed income stream that would last for more than 100 years.

            Once we get ampl storage in place there will (essentially) be no low value “oversupply”. The storage market will purchase whatever is available at a price a bit lower than average. Between storage and EVs doing dispatchable charging there will be a market.

          • Get rid of the subsidies for coal, oil, and nuclear first.

          • Bob – Heres an actual price. 5.98c/kwhr.

            On the same project, the next highest bidder was 6.13c/kwhr.


            Incidentally, they developed alternate bids, with 1000MW coming in at 5.4c/kwhr.

            ACWA and Solar Reserve teamed up on a CSP project in South Africa. That looks good, too.

            ““Redstone is now the cheapest in terms of tariff for solar thermal in South Africa at a cost of $124 a megawatt-hour and the overall project cost is also on the low side at $715 million,” Campbell said.”


          • Citigroup’s LCOE of 11 cents/kWh is no longer operable. An 18 month delay is going to push the cost up.

            I suspect Georgia power customers should expect another rate increase or two, allowing them to “donate” more money to the building fund.

          • ” Southern Co. said each month of a delay would cost $40 million in new capital and financing charges. If the project stretched an additional 18 months, that total could grow to $720 million.The cost could be higher.Regulators at Georgia’s Public Service Commission previously estimated a one-month delay would cost Southern Co. roughly $60 million. Using that estimate from regulators, an 18-month delay could cost Southern Co. more than $1 billion. That estimate is larger because it includes Southern Co.’s cost for buying replacement energy if its nuclear reactors cannot produce power.

            By law, customers of Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power will pay for the firm’s share of building costs unless regulators intervene.”


            As of August the Summer reactors being built in South Carolina were two years over timeline. At a reported $2 million dollars per day cost.

            This article also claims that a day’s delay will cost Vogtle $2 million per day and not the $1.something million in the ABC article.


            Vogtle was the industry’s answer to high prices. This time they had a (yet another) plan to bring inexpensive electricity to the market. It’s a 60 year history of promise low but deliver high that makes many of us extremely skeptical about the viability of nuclear energy. But others seem unable to learn from history….

          • It bears repeating. It is questionable if Vogtle will continue even at this stage of development. The costs are increasing and the chances of payback are decreasing as solar is making inroads in GA, FLA. BY the time they are built, about 2020, there could be less demand, and power from solar cheaper.

            In the background, those with financial interests must be busy recalculating their losses.

          • Georgia already has too much capacity. They were overbuilt before Vogtle was started. Again, those looking forward weren’t looking at what was happening in the real world.

            Further efficiency and end-user solar are going to make Vogtle even more unneeded.

            There has already been at least one public meeting to discuss halting construction.


          • “The existing nuclear industry and its financiers have no incentive or desire to change.”

            Are you not aware of all the planned nuclear projects which have been cancelled or “postponed” due to cost? Nuclear is dying due to its cost. If nuclear has any future the industry needs to create massive cost cuts and do it quickly.

            Look at reactors per year. Nuclear basically plateaued in 1989 and is now falling. Even with China’s construction program the total number will fall as reactors built 40 years ago age out. Both France and the US are going to see falling numbers that should well exceed what China will build. If they do continue their program.

            We’ll likely see a new build here and there because some knuckleheads in some governments won’t do their homework and will buy into the idea that the next reactor will be affordable. I’d say we might see as many as ten new “had to learn the hard way” reactors built around the world.

            Nuclear is losing market share. It’s falling into a niche generator. If one or more of the emerging storage technologies work as cheaply as claimed there will be no room for expensive nuclear energy anywhere.

          • The existing nuclear business is centered on supplying proprietary fuel rods. And many of the companies involved would not suffer if their nuclear divisions shrank, because it would just mean growth in other divisions.

            So the development of cheaper nuclear technologies is most likely to come from new nuclear ventures. Martingale is taking a full-service approach, where they both build and run the plants, and their revenue will come from the electricity or process heat. They think early gigawatt plants will cost them up to $2.5 billion, but they think they can get that down to under $800 million. That’s way cheaper than existing nuclear, but their model has higher support costs, including swapping out, transporting and refurbishing reactor cans every few years. That might still not be good enough to go against heavily subsidized alternatives, but Martingale is thinking global, and there are a lot of markets where that would not be a problem. If the Dynomak reactor works out, they think a gigawatt scale plant would be around $2.7 billion, but it’s hard to determine the ultimate longevity at this point. Lockheed says they’ll have a new compact reactor prototype before 2018, and they haven’t revealed cost, but presumably they wouldn’t be sinking huge sums of money into that project if they didn’t think it would be competitive. And if Eric Lerner’s pinch plasma reactor successfully fires up this year (which most think is a long shot) that could drop generation costs to fractions of a cent per kilowatt hour.

        • FYI – re processing of used nuclear fuel, the World Nuclear Association reports,
          “So far, almost 90,000 tonnes (of 290,000 t discharged) of used fuel from commercial power reactors has been reprocessed. Annual reprocessing capacity is now some 4000 tonnes per year for normal oxide fuels, but not all of it is operational.
          “Between now and 2030 some 400,000 tonnes of used fuel is expected to be generated worldwide, including 60,000 t in North America and 69,000 t in Europe.”

          • And one ounce of fissile material can generate roughly a quarter million kilowatt hours of electricity. That is quite a stockpile of potential electricity–if we develop the technology to tap into it.

          • The U.S. has 700,000 tons of depleted uranium and more than 100 tons of plutonium. That is enough to power 100 one gigawatt fast neutron reactors for more than 300 years. No reprocessing, no mining, no importing.

  • uranium is the rarest known material in the universe. as an engineer, i know we’re only beginning to understand its unique properties and uses. that we destroy it forever and poison our planet in the process for some short term energy is a dire insult to the future potential of humankind

    • In terms of occurrence uranium is 51st out of 118 elements.

      That said, let’s leave it in the ground where it is relatively harmless.

      • I’m talking long-term Bob. Fact is, the heavier the element the harder it is to fuse. One asteroid could throw off the concentrations on our own planet, and some elements are intrinsically more stable than others, but across the universe it’s virtually guaranteed that uranium is among the rarest, since only an abnormally large star could create it in the first place. (The average sun, larger than our own, is expected to max out around iron, explaining it’s relative abundance for a heavy element).
        With companies already planning extra-terrestrial mining ventures, I think it’s important we acknowledge resource scarcity not only at the planetary level but universally

  • GE S-Prism fast neutron reactors would use plutonium and depleted uranium for fuel, so no more mining is needed. We import more than 80% of our uranium into the U.S. at present.

    • And those supplies are not finite?

      Actually they may be functionally infinite. It’s pretty unlikely that many more reactors of any flavor will be built. Makes no financial sense.

      • Ultimately every thing is finite, but there is enough depleted uranium to power the U.S. for hundreds of years.

      • I would say the Chinese have got a pretty fair handle on energy economics, considering how they are leading the world in wind and solar production. But even though they could sell their wind and solar technology to themselves even cheaper than they sell it to the rest of the world, they are putting a huge research and development effort behind nuclear power. They apparently think it makes financial sense, or they would not be doing that.

        • China started a large nuclear program several years ago when wind and solar were much more expensive than they now are. It takes many years to plan and construct reactors, even for China.

          The price of wind and solar have plummeted very recently. Watch what happens to China’s nuclear plans over the next five years. What we’re seeing right now is activity that was put in motion when wind and solar were more expensive.

          China is run by people who are good at planning and know to do math. What we may well see is China rethinking its energy future and tapering off reactor construction but some will continue for a while simply due to institutional momentum.

          • It was not even a year ago that China intensified its liquid fuel thorium reactor development effort and made it a high national priority.

            And I would tend to agree they are good at math and planning.

  • Mike – Have transmissions lines and demand management would been fully utilized? How about wider geographic wind dispersal? How about solar to complement wind? There are many things that can be done. Storage is part of it to be sure.

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