New York Times
May 09, 2005


By Matthew L. Wald

WASHINGTON, May 8 -- President Bush has proposed reducing oil imports
by increasing the use of nuclear power, which he said in a recent
speech was "one of the most promising sources of energy."

There is a problem, though: reactors make electricity, not oil. And
oil does not make much electricity.

Nuclear reactors produce about 20 percent of the electricity used in
the United States and about 8 percent of the total energy consumed.
Oil accounts for 41 percent of energy consumption.

Could a few dozen more reactors, in addition to the 103 running now,
cut into oil's share of the energy market?

"Indirectly, but very indirectly," said Lawrence J. Goldstein,
president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, a nonprofit
group that studies the economics of oil. People who think nuclear
power is a way to reduce oil imports are "confusing several issues,"
he said.

Peter A. Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission, added, "No one knowledgeable about energy policy would
link nuclear power and gasoline prices."

In the puzzle of energy consumption and production, however, experts
point to three intersections of oil and nuclear power that would offer
opportunities to cut demand for oil, pushing down its price and
strategic significance. But all are limited, clumsy, expensive or
dependent on new technologies whose success is not guaranteed, the
experts say.

The first option is to replace the oil used to make electricity with
new nuclear reactors. But most of the oil in the electric sector has
already been replaced, by coal.

According to the Energy Department, last year the electric utilities
used about 207 million barrels of oil, or less than 600,000 barrels a
day. (Total American consumption of oil is about 20.5 million barrels
a day.)

Even the 600,000-barrel figure is higher than what nuclear reactors
could replace, because some of that oil is used in generators that run
only a few hundred hours a year. Reactors must run continuously, so
they could not replace the oil-fired plants that are used only

The electric system consumes another fuel that nuclear power could
replace: natural gas. Last year, American utilities burned just under
5.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, out of total consumption of
22.3 trillion cubic feet.

"You can get a scenario where nuclear would free the gas to go to
other things," replacing oil and gasoline, said Thomas Capps, the
chairman of Dominion, one of several electric companies that have
expressed interest in building new nuclear reactors. "You can run cars
on natural gas," he said.

The technology for that is available, but not many people use it.
According to the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, a lobbying group,
about 130,000 such vehicles are on American roads today, out of more
than 200 million. After decades of promoting natural gas, federal and
state governments have made some headway in persuading commercial
fleets to switch. But they have essentially given up on selling
natural gas to ordinary consumers, who have been unwilling to convert
their vehicles to use it.

There is also little economic incentive behind using natural gas. Mr.
Goldstein noted that the current wholesale price of gas, about $7 per
million B.T.U. (the standard unit by which gas is sold), is the
equivalent of $42 per barrel for oil. But oil now sells for about $50
a barrel, which means the price difference is not enough to induce a

Gas must also be pressurized for a car to hold enough to travel more
than a few miles; pressurizing it and distributing it to service
stations would add expense.

But there is another way that nuclear reactors could influence the oil
supply, one that bypasses electricity completely. Nuclear engineers
are working on designs and materials for a new class of reactors -
which could be ready in about 20 years -- whose main product would be

The Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, which is owned by the
Department of Energy, is working on ways to take very hot steam from a
nuclear reactor, then run a small electric current through it to
separate the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. If that can be
done more cheaply than the current method of producing hydrogen, which
uses natural gas, the hydrogen could be used at refineries to make
components of gasoline.

Gasoline is made of molecules with a certain ratio of carbon to
hydrogen. Part of each barrel of oil consists of molecules with too
much carbon to be useful in gasoline; instead, those molecules are
used only in low-value products like asphalt and tar.

The technology exists for refineries to break up those molecules and
add hydrogen, until the hydrogen-carbon ratio is suitable for making
gasoline or diesel.

David Lifschultz, chief executive of Genoil, a company that makes
systems for using hydrogen at refineries, says the oil supply being
exhausted first is light oil, which has many components that can be
used in gasoline. Heavy oil, with components high in carbon, is far
more abundant and often sells at a discount of $20 or $25 a barrel, he

Available technology could convert 16 million barrels a day of heavy
oil, about a sixth of the world supply, into gasoline components, Mr.
Lifschultz said, driving down the price of light oil.

J. Stephen Herring, a consulting engineer at the Idaho lab, explained
two other ways for reactors to make motor fuel.

Canada has vast reserves of shale oil, now being converted to
ingredients of motor fuel by using natural gas. The gas is used to
heat the shale to make its oil flow more easily, and hydrogen, also
obtained from the natural gas, is incorporated into the oil to make it
suitable for use in gasoline. But a nuclear reactor could do those
jobs, delivering both hydrogen and steam for cooking the oil out of
the rock, Mr. Herring said.

Another strategy, he said, would be to break down coal, shale oil or
other hydrogen fuels into a gas comprising hydrogen and carbon
monoxide. At high pressure, these materials could form molecules
suitable for making gasoline or diesel. A reactor could provide the
energy required.

But using a reactor to make the ingredients of gasoline is many years
away; the new reactors being considered by utilities are similar to
the ones running now. The experts say that only after several of those
have been built and have run for a few years is a private company
likely to try something more adventurous.

Mr. Herring did not fault that strategy. "If I were responsible for
spending the billion dollars," he said, "I'd be conservative, too."

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