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Look who's talking: ExxonMobil says world has to double nuclear

Posting in Energy

Nuclear nights. Nuclear power will increasingly help keep the lights on even in areas known for fossil fuels and sun, such as the Middle East. Above, Dubai in the UAE, which is building up nuclear.

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It was the type of warning you'd expect to hear from the CEO of a large nuclear company: The world will have to double its nuclear power by 2040 if it is going to meet its surging electricity demand.

But it wasn't the head of Westinghouse, Areva or GE Hitachi making those remarks. Rather, it was a strategic planning executive from the world's largest oil and gas company, ExxonMobil, who was speaking to the annual conference of the World Nuclear Association (WNA) in London last week, as reported by World Nuclear News.

ExxonMobil's David Khemakhem also told the conference that nuclear will be cheaper than renewables as a form of low-CO2 energy, because intermittent solar and wind will entail significant grid-related costs.

You might be thinking that Khemakhem was simply preaching to the choir in front of the WNA, a global nuclear trade group.

But his views echoed ExxonMobile's in-depth analysis, The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040, in which the oil giant notes that nuclear will double by 2040 "mainly due to rising electricity demand and a desire to reduce CO2 emissions."

The report predicts that coal will peak by 2025 and slip from its current position as the world's second leading energy source to third, replaced by natural gas. Oil will remain the number one source (all energy, not just electricity) even as it becomes more difficult to extract, the report notes.

Although wind, solar and biofuels will grow more than five-fold by 2040, "they will only make up 3 to 4 percent of total world energy, as greater advances in technology are needed to increase the commercial viability and associated economics of developing these resources," the report states.

Why is ExxonMobil talking up nuclear? Perhaps, as an energy provider, it is maneuvering for a place at the nuclear table? It's not unheard of for oil companies to be interested in hot neutrons. Exxon itself has a history in the uranium business, and has dabbled in fusion research.

But it could also be interested as a user.

Oil companies are mulling the deployment of unconventional nuclear reactors to help them extract and process fossil fuels. Canadian oil sands company Cenovus has invested in a small Vancouver fusion company called General Fusion. Canada's Northern Nuclear Industries is talking to oil sands companies about using its "pebble bed reactor" as a source of industrial heat. Shell Oil Company earlier this year helped select Transatomic Power's novel molten salt reactor as the winner in an energy innovation contest backed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

And don't forget that ExxonMobil's largest shareholder is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates is so much a believer in nuclear power that he started his own reactor company, TerraPower, which is developing an unconventional machine that it calls a traveling wave reactor. Could ExxonMobil be getting ready to ride the nuclear surf?

Photo is from Imre Solt via Wikimedia

More fossil fuel, nuclear (and Gates) connections on SmartPlanet:

All sorts of alternative nuclear stories here, including thorium, molten salt, pebble beds, fast reactors, modular reactors, fusion and more.

— By on September 16, 2013, 8:56 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure