Oil’s Use in Electrical Power In the US Largely Replaced by Nuclear

  • Published on July 14th, 2008

Nuclear Replacing Oil in US Electrical ProductionOne of the frequently repeated canons in the anti-nuclear catechism is that nuclear fission is irrelevant to any discussion about oil supplies or oil prices. The offered reasons for that dismissal is that nuclear fission is generally thought to be limited to large scale electrical power production, and oil is generally used as vehicle fuel. The problem with that notion is that it misses a huge, historical trend, and it also ignores the market reality in several remaining locations.

The US Energy Information Agency does a fine job of keeping statistical records of energy sources – though its predictive arm has had some real miscues over the years. The graph associated with this article provides a picture illustrates that the use of oil for electricity in the US may be small now, but that is because it was replaced by nuclear fission during the growth years in the 1970s and 1980s.


Graphs with similar shapes could be produced for France, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. It is important to remember that once those countries had replaced a significant quantity of oil being burned in power plants with nuclear fission, the world entered into a long stretch of readily available oil at low prices. It took almost fifteen years for the demand to catch up with the available capacity. In the US, almost 2 million barrels of oil per day were being burned in power plants at the peak of consumption.

Today, there are still a number of markets where vast quantities of oil are burned in power plants instead of being available for conversion into products like diesel fuel, gasoline, and jet fuel.

In countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Bermuda and Jamaica, states like Alaska and Hawaii, and other areas like Guam, Saipan, Puerto Rico the continued use of oil in power plants is unnecessarily straining the world economy because it contributes to the overall imbalance between the available production capacity and the existing demand for oil.

It should be obvious, but it is worth remembering that no producer likes losing market share and readily accepts the entry of a new competitor. I expect that the idea of replacing oil combustion in power plants will be met with significant, well supported opposition.

As T. Boone Pickens has reminded the United States, there is also a large quantity of natural gas that could be used for vehicle fuel that is being consumed for electrical power. He tells us to move that gas from electricity to vehicles by replacing it with wind, but technically speaking, reliable nuclear power is a better one-for-one replacement for natural gas as an electrical power fuel than unreliable wind power.

Once again, I expect that there will be a market share battle where the contestants pretend to be more concerned with environmental or national security concerns.

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About the Author

loves and respects our common environment, but he has a fatal flaw in the eyes of many environmentalists -- he's a huge fan of atomic energy. Reduce, reuse, and recycle have been watchwords for Rod since his father taught him that raising rabbits is a great way to turn kitchen scraps into fertilizer for backyard fruit trees and vegetable gardens. They built a compost heap together in about 1967, when he was 8 and when Earth Day was a mere gleam in some people's eye. During his professional career, he has served in several assignments on nuclear submarines, including a 40-month tour as the Engineer Officer of the USS Von Steuben. In 1994, he was awarded US patent number 5309592 for the control system for a closed-cycle gas turbine. He founded Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. in 1993, started Atomic Insights in 1995, and began producing the Atomic Show Podcast in 2006. He is currently an active duty officer (O-5) in the US Navy. He looks forward to many interesting discussions.

4 comments

  • Rod

    What you said about Nukes directly replacing oil in the 19703 and early 1980s was probably true, but not today. For example, historically, both Denmark, and France were heavily dependent then on middle east petroleum for electricity production. Because of the oil shocks, they chose different routes to replace petroleum. As you probably know France choose the Nuke route (80 % electricity production), and Denmark chose the coal/wind (coal 80%, wind 20% production – coal 88% wind 12% consumption approach). The main reason for Denmark choosing coal is that they could cheaply import abundant coal from Poland, and they had excellent wind resources coupled with their history of generating electricity from wind–about 100 years). Today only a small fraction of world petroleum is devoted to electricity production. Petroleum is absolutely essential for the transportation industry, and the petrochemical industry, now, and in the near future–20+years. Natural Gas, Ethanol, BioDiesel, Hydrogen, Batteries, Compressed air, superconducting portable energy storage, etc, just doesn't cut it!! Until the American People, and the Politicians realize this fact, then there can be no real solution to this enormous problem facing the US and the World.

    For example, the media reported today that Russia is sending warships to the arctic, to military support their claim to the petroleum under the arctic.

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