Thursday, June 16, 2005

Looking at the Uranium Supply

Some have expressed concern over a perceived shortage of uranium fuel to supply the world's existing and expanding fleet of nuclear power reactors. This fear is unjustified and simply perpetuates the now fully discredited Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth" argument that was popular in the early 1970s.

Of course, known resources of economically and technologically recoverable uranium have expanded significantly since the 1970s and will continue to do so into the future. The world'’s uranium resources will increase due to improved knowledge of geology, enhanced extraction and reactor technology and the higher uranium prices spurred by demand growth.

Uranium is a ubiquitous element in the earth'’s crust and oceans, as is thorium, another important, naturally-occurring metal that can support nuclear fission. The world's 440 reactors use approximately 180 million pounds of U3O8 annually, of which 56 million pounds are consumed by America'’s 103 operating reactors.

World demand is principally met from primary production (mining), liquidation of utility inventories, ever-improving fuel manufacturing and fabrication techniques and decommissioning nuclear weapons. Nearly half of the fuel used in U.S. nuclear energy plants is now derived from blended down uranium from decommissioned Russian nuclear weapons.

In what is the most successful nonproliferation program in history, the "Megatons-to-Megawatts" initiative, Russia has converted the highly enriched uranium (HEU) equivalent of nearly 10,000 warheads to low enriched uranium (LEU) for commercial fuel.

Forecasts of new nuclear generation expect approximately 40-60 new reactors worldwide by 2020. This will increase uranium demand to approximately 195 million pounds in 2010 and 240 million pounds by 2020. For an assumed price of $30/lb U3O8, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimated world uranium resources in 2003 to be 3,537,000 metric tons, an amount adequate to fuel conventional reactors for approximately 50 years. The IAEA further estimated all conventional uranium resources to be 14.4 million metric tons, an amount which would cover over 200 years'’ supply at current rates of consumption.

Importantly, these forecasts do not include non-conventional sources of uranium, such as those contained in phosphates or in seawater, which are currently not economic to extract but represent a near limitless supply of uranium to meet increased demand. Clearly, there are very adequate uranium (and thorium) resources to fuel the world's expanding nuclear fleet.

Of greater concern, however, is a general failure to recognize how applications of human ingenuity and technology have enhanced the world'’s supply of uranium. Higher capacity factors and reactor power levels, higher operating efficiencies, reprocessing of used nuclear fuel and development of new reactor designs are just a few examples of technological and operating improvements.

Many European countries (e.g. Belgium, France, and Switzerland) and Japan now reprocess used nuclear fuel to produce new, mixed-oxide fuel (MOX), thereby reducing the need for new primary uranium supplies. Moreover, advanced breeder reactors that produce as much, or more, fuel than they consume, will be commercially available within the next two decades. In fact, these reactors use the uranium 238 isotope as fuel which is one of the more abundant elements in the earth's crust.

Nuclear power has a very important role to play in providing the world with reliable, inexpensive and emissions-free power. There are now very adequate supplies of uranium that can be technologically exploited as the demand and economics of the uranium market improve. But above all else, we should not dismiss human ingenuity in developing new fuel sources and new reactor designs that will extend indefinitely the earth's supply of fissionable materials for generating electricity from nuclear energy.

POSTSCRIPT FROM THE EDITOR: One of the leading intellectual lights who helped debunk the Club of Rome's report was the late Julian Simon. To read more about his work and legacy, click here.

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Tim said...

"The Limits of Growth" was debunked only by those who never actually read it. You might want to check Bush advisor Matt Simmons' The Limits of Growth Revisited.


Rob said...

"I am not a Malthusian, I'm not, I'm not, I'm not!" protesteth Mr. Simmons. Unfortunately for him, he is.

Rob said...

Oh, and from the executive summary:

The model we have constructed is, like every model, imperfect, oversimplified, and unfinished.

Yes, we know.

Tim said...

Malthus has been right--repeatedly. Read up on Easter Island if you don't think it can happen. Growth can't go on forever in a finite world. It's such a simple idea, it's amazing so many people can't understand it.

Ilya said...

Do you have any sources for your assertion "advanced breeder reactors that produce as much, or more, fuel than they consume, will be commercially available within the next two decades"? I thought the French Superphoenix program is over with, the Japanese Monju experimental reactor will be reopened in 2008, there is a Russian fast neutron reactor coming on line in the 2010s, and a couple more experimental ones in Asia.

Anonymous said...
Here's the U.S. fast reactor strategy.