The oil and gas industry is a pretty amazing scene these days:
- Crude oil prices may retreat one day only to come back up to hit a new high the next.
- Companies are darting all over the place to find and produce increasingly-elusive new natural gas deposits to meet growing demand.
- LNG terminals are in vogue.
- There are wait-lists for drilling rigs in some locales -- both land and water.
Given this scenario, it's no surprise that rhetoric abounds about the need for the United States to move away from a fossil fuel-based economy.
Plenty of folks envision cars powered by fuel cells to be the solution, even though current fuel cell technology depends on hydrogen derived from natural gas. And even with adequate supplies, the nature of hydrogen itself presents other hindrances to its use as a replacement for oil and gas.
Alternative power sources such as solar systems and wind turbines have their champions, too, although others suggest their application would be successful only on a small regional scale. These sources also depend on substantial amounts of fossil fuel-based energy, e.g., to manufacture the equipment.
There's a growing number of experts and others who think nuclear energy is the only real solution to the much-talked-about coming power squeeze.
"For the overall plan to keep the lights burning brightly, it's clearly nuclear," said Michael Campbell, who heads up his own environmental and mining consultancy and also serves as chairman of the [PFItemLinkShortcode|id:26353|type:standard|anchorText:Uranium Committee|cssClass:asshref|title:|PFItemLinkShortcode] for the AAPG's Energy Minerals Division (EMD). "It's not frontier technology anymore; it's been used over and over, and it works."
The Uranium Committee members recently completed a comprehensive report focused on nuclear power, "Recent Uranium Industry Developments, Exploration, Mining and Environmental Programs in the U.S. and Overseas." The report is posted on the EMD section of the AAPG Web site.
Campbell explained the concept behind this effort:
"When you talk about a resurgence of nuclear power, you have to deal with all those people who are still scared," he said, "so we went into detail to write a piece aimed at those people who might likely come out of the woodwork in opposition.
"But it's also for people like ourselves -- the industry in general -- to get a good heads up on what's happening now," he said.
"The nice thing is I think the 'liberals' are coming around, saying things like 'nuclear power is a helluva lot better than coal' with respect to the environment," Campbell added. "I get the feeling more people are concerned about drilling sensitive areas than about nuclear plants."
A firm believer that the country is headed toward a hydrogen economy in the automotive area, Campbell pointed out that nuclear plants with certain special design features offer the added benefit of producing "incredible" amounts of hydrogen -- and producing it cheaply.
The mention of nuclear power often conjures up thoughts of the Chernobyl disaster. Yet the international community had warned the Soviet nuclear industry the reactors were poorly designed and accidents were likely, according to the EMD report.
In the United States, failure occurred at the Three Mile Island plant despite the superior design. However, even given the technology at that time, the incident was brought under control with no casualties and no harmful radiation exposure to the population.
Today, more knowledgeable, highly trained personnel are in place in the industry to take on the level of professional responsibility appropriate to manage and operate the technology.
There are adequate domestic supplies of uranium in both known and frontier areas to accommodate a resurgence of nuclear power in the United States, according to Campbell.
"We spent a lot of money getting after it in the late '70s, and all the new techniques to find additional ore were put into place," he said. "We were finding ore bodies hand over fist.
"When Three Mile Island went down, everything in the entire field froze," Campbell said. "Everyone committed to uranium exploration had no life. Things are sitting there now, ready to start up again."
In-situ leaching (ISL) is the method-of-choice to mine the uranium versus open pit mining.
"In-situ mining procedures have little environmental footprint," Campbell said, "and a lot of controls to prevent groundwater contamination."
While the jury's still out regarding the hoped-for impact the committee's report might have on the general populace, Campbell noted it's getting a good reception thus far.
He thinks it's imperative to come together to support nuclear power.
"If we don't bring these people in by encouraging them to look at this a little differently this time," he said, "the lights will go out."