We’ve all heard of Peak Oil (even if there’s some doubt about whether we’ve heard the truth over when it’s going to actually kick in), but there’s no need to worry – nuclear power will step in to fill the gap, right? [image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]
Well, not for long, perhaps, at least according to Dr Michael Dittmar and his new analysis of the global nuclear industry:
… the most worrying problem is the misconception that uranium is plentiful. The world’s nuclear plants today eat through some 65,000 tons of uranium each year. Of this, the mining industry supplies about 40,000 tons. The rest comes from secondary sources such as civilian and military stockpiles, reprocessed fuel and re-enriched uranium. “But without access to the military stocks, the civilian western uranium stocks will be exhausted by 2013, concludes Dittmar.
It’s not clear how the shortfall can be made up since nobody seems to know where the mining industry can look for more.
That means countries that rely on uranium imports such as Japan and many western countries will face uranium shortages, possibly as soon as 2013. Far from being the secure source of energy that many governments are basing their future energy needs on, nuclear power looks decidedly rickety.
But what of new technologies such as fission breeder reactors which generate fuel and nuclear fusion? Dittmar is pessimistic about fission breeders. “Their huge construction costs, their poor safety records and their inefficient performance give little reason to believe that they will ever become commercially significant,” he says.
The upswing of Dittmar’s research is that it provides a good reason for the nuclear powers of the world to continue using their military weapons-grade stock for civilian purposes… I can’t find the link, but I read somewhere recently that something like 10% of the US energy grid is powered by decommissioned warhead material already. Swords to ploughshares, indeed.
Of course, as with any matter pertaining to energy generation these days, there are disagreements as to the validity of Dittmar’s research; a commenter at the Technology review piece linked above points to this response in the Wall Street Journal:
Worries about long-term uranium supplies surface every so often; talk of a global nuclear revival fans the flames. So what’s the score?
The International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Energy Agency figure there’s enough uranium to power existing plants for 100 years. Granted, there are some supply-side issues. About 40% of current uranium supplies come from stockpiles and old weapons—not from uranium mines—so new sources need to be developed soon to avoid “uranium supply shortfalls,” they say.
Nuclear power’s growth will nearly double the world’s appetite for uranium by 2030, says the IAEA/NEA “Red Book,” but there should be enough in the ground to go around…
So, once again, the problem for a layman like myself (in the absence of access to the evidence, plus the time and expertise to do the research) is deciding whose version to believe. I rather suspect this issue will increase in visibility in the coming years, so I’m going to withhold any judgement for now… though I will note that both Peak Oil and Peak Uranium are being downplayed by those non-governmental organisations whose power and influence will wane and disappear in sympathy with the availability of the resource which they manage. Cui bono, and all that.