Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Peaks, Nukes, and Iran

Let's take a meander.

Let's put aside for a moment the question of whether Iran wants nuclear weapons. Instead, let's return to the fact they've built a nuclear reactor - or rather, more nuclear reactors - and their original stated purpose. That is, to provide power.

Now first I see the need for a digression. The Bushehr reactors are PWRs (Pressurized Water Reactors) - thermal reactors. Avoiding all the technicalities, a critical point to make is what these reactors are NOT. They are not so-called breeder reactors. A broad breakdown of reactors is whether they're fast-spectrum or thermal-spectrum reactors. The former CAN but do not have to be breeders. The latter cannot. Which means that the Iranians did not make the Bushehr reactors for the purpose of making nuclear weapons.

umm, a digression from the digression. Iran has a breeder in Esfahan - the IR-40. That's tiny and would take (as I understand) a long time to make enough plutonium for a bomb -- and again allegedly is inspected frequently and still isn't making it. And Iran is building another breeder, this one at Arak, which could make plutonium a lot faster. But Bushehr isn't a breeder even though it's the one that's got all the noise and focus, and so I return to the main path.

A question that came up frequently was, "Why would Iran - an oil-heavy nation - want a nuclear power plant?" That was usually the reasoning behind claiming it was weapon related, but I've alread chased that digression. Instead I'd like to examine two reasons in a bit of depth.

The first reason is simply economic. There are four big powerplant systems in the world: Natural gas, Coal, Hydro-electric, and Nuclear. (Yes, there's diesel as well, but it's not as efficient.) As a rule, Natural gas is last choice - its clean, but it's far less efficient. Which probably isn't that big a deal for a nation that is one of the world's largest exporters of natural gas, except every cubic foot used at home is a unit not sold abroad. And more significantly, Iran has a LOT of coal powerplants.

Why is that significant? Iran imports coal, mostly to power the plants. Oh, it produces its own, but it produces about half of what it uses. A nuclear powerplant in operation means a coal plant can be shut down - or at worst another coal plant doesn't need built - which reduces (or doesn't increase) the coal import requirement. So building a nuclear plant means Iran saves money - big money. And it reduces need to rely on external providers for its energy requirements. (Ironic, isn't it?)

I think it extremely likely that Iran was being 100% truthful when they said they needed the power the plant would be providing. I'm not certain that was ALL the reason for building it, but the statement itself wasn't false.

But I wonder, while I'm at it, if there isn't another reason besides replacing coal and gaining practical experience in nuclear technology. I wonder about peak oil - yes, that bugaboo again. It's time for speculation, really, though I think it worthy of thought.

Consider that about two years ago sweet light crude production appeared to peak. Consider how vague the OPEC nations - especially the middle eastern members - were about what was available. Consider the possibility (speculation) that the owners of the fields knew that the downturn of production was a lot closer than they were telling anyone.

Now let's assume you are one of these nations - Iran most likely, but there are others. You know -- KNOW -- that within the next decade the supply of petroleum is going to decline. Not go away, just quit being as cheap and plentiful as it is now. What do you do for your nation's benefit? There are a couple of things for which "build a nuclear powerplant" is an answer. As already mentioned, reducing the need to import energy sources is a good thing. Equally important is at least maintaining money from exports - and the less you're using at home the more you can export. If the grand total production is declining, this extends how long exports can be maintained. Please remember that I said natural gas was not a good choice for powerplants. But it's frequently used for other things - things like household heat and cooking - that electricity from a powerplant can replace.

I wonder, then, if Iran was thinking that peak oil is closer than we know, and that's why it's building (built) a nuclear powerplant - preparing for crisis/opportunity?

By the way... Saudi Arabia has spent BIG bucks for offshore drilling capabilities just in the last year. And Kuwait has been discovered to be investigating both offshore platforms and alternative powerplants (though nuclear doesn't seem to be one of those alternatives). I wonder...


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