Peak Uranium? Our nuclear future might be shorter than we thought

Paul Raven @ 18-11-2009

Billet of highly-enriched uraniumWe’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.

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19 Responses to “Peak Uranium? Our nuclear future might be shorter than we thought”

  1. Chad says:

    It really doesn’t matter which side is right, as both sides end up with the same result…a shortage. If there really is not enough uranium there will be a shortage. If there is enough in the ground, but no one is mining it…there will be a shortage.

    But, won’t they build new mines if there is enough uranium? Eventually…maybe. However, any mine or mines of significant size to impact a global market for most natural resources, let alone a radioactive one, takes at least 10 years to be built. This costs a lot of money. Do we really think any companies, who would make more money because of price spikes, are going to invest massive amounts of money during the worst downturn in 80 years? No. Thus, a shortage.

  2. jb says:

    The guy who’s trying to argue that there’s plenty of uranium says flat out that new sources need to be developed soon to avoid “uranium supply shortfalls.” And by “new sources” he means “massive radioactive mines in the middle of increasingly suburban Virginia.”

    If that’s the argument *against* a shortage, it sure sounds like there’s going to be a shortage.

  3. Evil Rocks says:

    Interestingly enough, I’ve been following along with the metals industry through http://miningweekly.com (how often do our interests converge like this, Mr. Raven?) and not only are mining companies actually finding new funding, they’re from time to time getting money for capital upgrades as well. As far as uranium goes, prices aren’t high enough right now (due to stockpiles) to make new mines particularly feasible. Pressed for time this morn’, but I’ll try and run the uranium link down (although miningweekly has a good search function if anybody wants to do my research for me).

  4. Evil Rocks says:

    http://www.miningweekly.com/article/impact-says-large-uranium-area-identified-at-botswana-prospect-2009-11-18

    Big new uranium find. Much of the remaining mineral ores of any quality on the continental plates of our fragile little planet are now in Africa. Europe, Russia and China are all exhausting their reserves quickly and hippies like to chain themselves to American reserves (which, hey, cleaner biomes around here, I ain’t complainin’) which somewhat limits our in-bounds exploration potential.

    Luckily for industrialized civilization, the end of colonialism also meant a significant draw-down in extraction from Africa as companies that worry about things like security and capital investment protection divested and gangsters and slave-using turf-warriors took the business over.

  5. Chad says:

    Which all adds up to a shortage and an increase in price.

  6. meika says:

    also the known reserves tend to be of higher quality as this makes them easier to find, lower quality ores require more processing, generating more CO2making their global warming reductions less attractive, however thorium based reactors might be the go as there is a lot of Thorium around (in India and Australia). And Indians are investing in researching the technology, but it’s still a pipe dream, if not as bad a castle in the air like fusion power

  7. Evil Rocks says:

    The best ore is at the bottom of the ocean (and developing nations), not suburban anywhere in my backyard.

  8. Edward WIllett says:

    Actually, the richest ore in the world is right here in my home province of Saskatchewan, which currently supplies about 30 percent of the world’s supply. Read all about it starting here: http://www.ir.gov.sk.ca/Default.aspx?DN=3564,3541,3538,3385,2936,Documents. Current reserves are good for 20 to 30 years at present extraction rates; more continues to be found.

  9. Evil Rocks says:

    inside joke, apologies. can has u ore?

  10. hooha says:

    Research thorium. if we implement thorium reactors fossil fuel and uranium shortages will be a mute point. current thorium reactors being researched are the LFTRs, liquid fluoride thorium reactors.

  11. Jarkko Nieminen says:

    Uranium really isn’t running out. People worried about uranium running out are forgetting that nuclear plant only use very small amount of uranium and thus the price of uranium ore does not affect that much on the price of nuclear power. Even if price of uranium ore would be ten times that it is today, the price of nuclear power would still be competive. Amount of uranium which would be avalaible at that price would last thousands of years not to mention that at that price it would even be feasible to extract uranium from seawater.

  12. Jimmy says:

    Currently, the U.S. has enough uranium to power the nation (on fission power alone) for roughly 100 years. However, if we were to implement Fast Breeder reactors into the cycle (like france), we could use the same supply to power the whole nation for a little over a thousand years. The only cog in the works is the Nuclear Proliferation acts, and sundries other political hurdles. Advocation of nuclear power is necessary, but burner reactors alone are not. such is the way of the world

  13. Zin says:

    Fusion isn’t even on the table at the moment, unfortunately, and while conventional fission reactors do, indeed, sip fuel, by relying on uranium supplies we’re really not doing ourselves a favor.

    Uranium is like oil- there is a limited supply that can reasonably be gathered up. Once that is gone, or more likely cannot be obtained due to the fuel cost of mining or drilling for it, all machinery based on that fuel source is now useless.

    With how much a nuclear power plant costs, and how astoundingly difficult they are to safely dismantle, even 100 years is a bad bet. Let alone 3 years.

  14. Joshua says:

    I doubt that we will be running out of Uranium by 2013. The majority of spent fuel is not being re-enriched as it is, and most estimates on the lifespan of your sources count for full scale re-enrichment. Also, there is plenty of Thorium for a long while as well, and Thorium reactors have less waste and are generally better than Uranium reactors. Even if Uranium runs out sooner than expected, we can simply most to the next fuel. Eventually we will need to move from fission to fusion, but not for a while.

  15. Steve says:

    There is plenty of uranium left we just don’t know if we can access it for cheap enough, the statistic of 100 years left is at the current price of mined uranium the price can go up and we can mine more or we could figure out how to extract it from sea water. Most of the cost of nuclear power is in the construction. Looking at the Canadian CANDU (CANadian Deuterium Uranium) reactor which is also around the world the cost of uranium is 10% of the money that is gained from the energy so it would still be economical if the price went up. The CANDU reactor can used unenriched uranium AS WELL AS thorium and plutonium. There is also 4-5 times more thorium than uranium so even in the worse case scenario we do reach a peak of uranium there are many nuclear power alternatives. Nuclear power has a bright future as long as politicians and nuclear philistines don’t get scared and make irrational decisions.

    source of “100 year of uranium left”
    http://www.nea.fr/html/general/press/2008/2008-02.html

  16. Uncle B says:

    It is too late now! Burgeoning Asian growth has placed a stress on all the world’s finite resources with demand by bidding with powerful Yuan against the weakened fiat Yankee sawbuck for everything in sight, Uranium included – and since they are paying top dollar they get the biggest share. China’s Tsinghua University has developed and has up and running, a higher efficiency reactor of superior design to any thing Americans have to offer! China alone (only part of Asia) initiates ten more reactors this year alone, U.S.,A. , zero! not a good score. America will go Nuclear out of necessity – to maintain status quo lifestyles, and soon! but only as a temporary stop-gap for the inevitable: a more sustainable, productive, life style for all Americans! All this will be driven by dwindling oil resources in the world and Asian demand for them – as it is, Americans by Nuclear power produced goods with foreign oil based dollars from Asia, and soon will go broke, as Asia turns those same dollars around to bid for oil on world markets – bigger lever in the hands of the Asians! Yankee Doodle gets his fiat dollar ass kicked both ways! China laughs ans sells him even more Nuclear Power generated goods. Time long over-due for America to stop its world-wide Military follies in WWII garb, and get real on the important battle-front -the economic one, before Asians win completely.

  17. Chris de Vidal says:

    “The International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Energy Agency figure there’s enough uranium to power existing plants for 100 years.”

    Key phrase: “existing plants.”

    The world population will double in 40 years, so (my math isn’t great) that’s about 50 years’ worth (someone check me).

    Then, you must recall that the problems begin at production peak, /not/ exhaustion. That’s 25 years’ worth.

    Then, you must recall that oil has almost certainly peaked, which means we’ll lean on nuclear much more heavily.

    Thus, I give it approximately 15 years to peak.

    How encouraging.

  18. Just a Reader says:

    Nuclear energy usage is 16 percent of total worldwide. If the world went totally nuclear, that would be only 16 years of energy production. Take into account Chris de Vidal’s point of population growth – at 3% per year as a proxy for energy use growth and we’re done in 13.3 years. I do remember reading somewhere that peak has already happened if you take into account the energy in the ground (lower quality uranium) versus what’s already been taken out.

  19. Stephan B. Feibish says:

    I’ve invested in many small uranium miners. And I’m wondering how many will survive to see $70 uranium again.

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