One of the best ways the world can promote peace and stability is to expand commercial nuclear power based on the extraction of uranium from the ocean, contends Frank Parker, an internationally recognized expert in remediation of radioactively contaminated soil and water. At a meeting held at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican last fall, Parker explained how some of the estimated 4.5 billion tons of uranium dissolved in the world’s oceans might be extracted to provide a virtually inexhaustible supply of fuel for nuclear reactors.
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. Control of resources such as water and oil is widely recognized as a major cause of war.
Nuclear power is one of the few technologies capable of providing the amount of electricity that will be required at a reasonable cost, says Parker, who is Distinguished Professor of Environmental and Water Resources Engineering.
According to the World Nuclear Association, commercial nuclear reactors in the United States 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 doing so 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.
Parker offers straightforward solutions to two major issues surrounding nuclear power: proliferation potential and waste disposal.
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, favoring disposal in deep-seabed sediments. “A major international study about 25 years ago 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 says. Recent advances in deep-drilling technology in the oil industry means that the injection of immobilized wastes under thousands of feet of seawater and hundreds of feet of sediment several miles underground is a promising alternative.
Modeling, research and pilot-plant testing are needed to determine if commercial-scale extraction of uranium from seawater is feasible.