Michiel Bron is a PhD-candidate in the project Managing Scarcity and Sustainability. His research focuses on the involvement of oil companies in the development of nuclear energy in the age of scarcity, focussing on the 1970s. During September-October 2022, Michiel is a Robert H.G. Helleman Memorial Graduate Research Fellow at the American Institute of Physics. In 2021, he received a research grant from the Comité d’Histoire de l’Électricité et de l’Énergie (EDF).
In his blog, Michiel discusses the relatively unknown shared history of the oil and nuclear industries.
Nuclear power is again increasingly considered a potential replacement for fossil fuels. For example, the Dutch government would like to build two new nuclear power plants as part of the ongoing energy transition away from a fossil fuelled economy. Less well known, however, is that the oil industry and nuclear power have an extensive shared history. Although more and more research, such as the recent article on #ExxonKnew by Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, shows how different oil companies ignored their knowledge on climate change and continued investments in unsustainable technologies. However, our historical studies show that technological spillovers from the oil sector provided an important boost to the development of alternative energy sources, such as nuclear energy. Especially in the exploration and extraction of uranium, the resource needed for most of the nuclear power plants, many technologies are used that originate from the oil sector. Currently, seventy percent of all uranium mining worldwide is done on the basis of in situ leaching (the method of using chemicals to already dissolve the uranium underground instead of mining solid rocks).
In situ leaching was originally developed in the oil industry where chemical waterflooding was used to increase oil recovery. The oil company Mobil in particular invested heavily in the development of this technique during the 1960s. Therefore, when Mobil got into uranium mining in 1968, their engineers got quickly ahead of the traditional mining companies in furthering the development of the leaching technique in the uranium sector. In the ten years following the entry of Mobil in the uranium market, the company spent $36 million dollars on the exploration on uranium and built up a resource base of some 50 million dollars located in south Texas and New Mexico. This is the equivalent of nearly two years’ supply for U.S. American consumption in 1978, most of it won by means of in situ leaching.
Mobil was far from the only oil company active in the uranium sector during the 1970s. A 1976 Federal Trade Commission report found that twelve of the top 25 uranium mining and milling companies in the United States that controlled 95% of all US uranium reserves were partly owned by oil firms. The ubiquitous presence of oil companies in uranium mining can be explained by the inherent properties of uranium. Although uranium compounds can be found in small concentrations in both rocks and water all over the planet, natural processes can generate a process forcing the small concentrations to combine in a single site. For instance, decaying organic matter such as trees or dead dinosaurs can collect the uranium from sandstone while decomposing and water streams can carry uranium and deposit it within beds of sedimentary rocks, creating specific spots where uranium ore can be mined.
Since the early twentieth century geophysicists like Richard Ambronn, Conrad Schlumberger, and the Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky used oil wells to search for radioactive minerals. At first, the scientists mainly used oil bore-holes because it did not require duplicate drilling costs. In 1944, geophysicist George Bain and former Shell geologist Paul Guarín concluded as part of their research for the Manhattan Project that uranium concentrated mainly in the same rocks as hydro-carbon bearing minerals, like gold and petroleum. This meant that uranium deposits could often be found in areas where oil was also present. This knowledge led various governments after the end of World War II to make frequent use of the knowledge and techniques available in the oil sector in their search for the strategic mineral uranium.
In the United States, the atomic energy authority Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was tasked from 1946 onward with finding uranium reserves for the production of new atomic weapons and later also nuclear energy production. To find new deposits, the AEC established an advisory committee including many prominent oil geophysicists, like Wallace E. Pratt and Everette L. DeGolyer. In addition, the AEC allowed private actors to do uranium exploration and mining and promised to buy all the uranium found, attracting various representatives from the oil sector during the first uranium booms in the 1950s. Many wildcatters involved in this first uranium boom, like Charlie Steen, Bob Adams and Stella Dysart, and companies, like Kerr McGee, Getty Oil and Philips Petroleum, had been involved in the oil industry before entering the new uranium market.
Outside the United States, governments interested in finding and accessing new uranium deposits made use of the available geographical knowledge in the oil sector too. In the Netherlands, a special advisory committee to the department of nuclear energy was established within the Ministry of Economic Affairs in 1956 to map the existence of uranium deposits in countries colonised by the Netherlands, like Suriname or Dutch New Guinea. Herman Schürmann was a former geologist at the Royal Dutch Shell Group where he was responsible for the training of recent physicist graduates as geophysicists. He was also the founder of the Dutch isotope-petrology institute in Amsterdam. Because of his experience at Shell, the Dutch government included him in their Advisory Committee in 1956. Shell too was regularly asked to join in new uranium exploration projects, for example by the French atomic authority Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (CEA). In 1970, the company in fact turned down several requests to start a uranium mining project in Niger.
This involvement of different oil actors in uranium exploration and mining from the very beginning of the worldwide search for uranium shows how an energy transition is not a matter of simply choosing between two distinct energy sources. The development of one energy source is often inextricably dependent on the knowledge and experience gained in already existing energy systems. Nuclear energy may then increasingly be portrayed as a potential replacement for fossil fuels, but the histories and technologies of oil and nuclear energy have always been intertwined and show that, even with the “green revolution” of in situ leaching in uranium mining, will stay so in the foreseeable future.