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.

Charlie Stross on the future of nuclear power

Tom James @ 19-08-2009

power_plantCharles Stross has made an interesting point on the view that there is only a very short supply of useable nuclear fuel:

firstly, the supply of known uranium deposits will only last 80-100 years if we don’t recycle it and start burning MOX. I’d like to note that today’s light water reactors are horribly inefficient — they only extract 3% of the available energy from their fuel before it is considered “spent” and reclassified as waste. If we use high burn-up reactors such as the EPR, we can get a whole load more energy out of the same amount of fuel. And if we use fast breeders and run a plutonium cycle we can convert U238 into Pu239 and burn that instead of U235: there’s 500 times as much U238 lying around.

Secondly, we haven’t even tried to build a thorium reactor yet, although we’ve got good reason to believe it would work — and thorium is considerably more abundant than uranium.

As I have mentioned before, nuclear really should be part of the future energy mix of any industrialised country. Renewables can provide a large chunk (depending on local availability) of our energy needs but that still leaves a gap that needs to be plugged with something reliable and non-carbon-dioxide emitting.

David JC MacKay has more on nuclear power in his excellent free online textbook Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air.

[image from christian.senger on flickr]

Man investigated by feds for making nuclear reaction in bedroom

Tomas Martin @ 14-01-2008

The FBI swooped into a house in Rockwall, Texas when it emerged a gamer and physicist enthusiast was trying to create a small nuclear reaction in his house using Uranium.

“People do it in universities all the time,” the man said. “It’s just not usual that somebody does it outside of a university. These things are in your tap water, you know, in the dirt. You could hold a Geiger counter up to a banana and get a count off of it.”

It just goes to show how the internet helps to spread information – the man learnt how to make the mini nuclear reactor using online resources and then the FBI learned he was doing it via his online blog posts about his house doubling in radioactivity.

EDIT: In a similar ‘normal guy gives governments a scare’ vein, it looks like the recent confrontation between US patrol boats and Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Straits of Hormuz may in fact have been a hoax by a local radio ham who regularly pranks passing ships.

[via Gamespot News]