Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Running Out of Uranium

How much uranium is there in the world?

It’s a question I never thought much about, but now that nuclear power is being considered as an alternative to oil, it’s a question that has to be asked. Uranium is the power source for nuclear power, so the vision of dotting the world with nuclear power stations will work out only if we can dig up enough uranium to make them go.

And no one says we can. The fact is, uranium is just another limited resource, and from everything that geologists know now, it is even more limited than oil.

As it is, the current mines are not nearly enough to supply the reactors currently in operation. The nuclear power industry is unsustainable and will only become more out of balance as reactor capacity expands while mines are depleted. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) called attention to this problem in a report released last week. As World Nuclear News explained it:

Production of uranium from mines — primary production — has been far below the amount required to fuel the western world’s power reactors since the mid-[1980]s, with so-called secondary supplies — inventories, stockpile drawdowns and use of recycled materials including uranium from decommissioned nuclear weapons — making up the shortfall.

The WNA graph shows 2004–2005 as the last period in which mines produced even half of the uranium used by the world’s nuclear reactors.

There is plenty of uranium now only because of an extra supply that comes from decommissioned weapons. That is a temporary situation that might continue only until 2013. Russia has said it will stop uranium exports soon. Within 25 years, Russia will have to import uranium for its own power stations, and it is wise to do what it can to postpone that day.

As a nuclear power trade group, WNA can only call for more mines to be opened to produce more uranium ore. It will not be the one to tell us that we are running out of places to find uranium under the ground. Others, though, are more free to sound the alarm.

People in the industry have been following this all along, and trends are not encouraging. The recent spot price of uranium has been as low as $44 a pound, but nuclear power operators are eagerly lining up 2- and 3-year supply commitments at prices more like $65. Prices are expected to go up sharply as supply falls short of demand. At least 300 new nuclear power stations are expected to open worldwide in the next 10 years, and the current mines will not be able to supply them. No one is sure where the new mines will be, but Labrador and Greenland seem like promising sources, and there could still be some uranium left in the Rocky Mountains. Still, uranium from these sources will come at a higher price, and may not be enough to fully supply all the nuclear power stations that are already in operation, let alone the many more that are being built in places like India and China.

Some believe the uranium supply has already passed its peaked or will do so in the next five years; other say the peak will come only after the first mines open in Greenland. At the other end of the spectrum, the most optimistic projections are that there may be enough uranium to supply the power stations currently operating or under construction for 150 years. But if a lot more power stations are built, the way some people are proposing, the supply could be exhausted in 50 to 60 years.

In the 1960s and into the 1970s, the nuclear power industry was promoting the idea of providing electricity to the entire world as a public service. This month, I couldn’t find any expert who thought there was enough uranium on Earth to supply everyone with electricity; if uranium could be mined that fast, it would be exhausted in just a few years.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2001 issued a report projecting three scenarios for uranium demand over the next half-century. The smallest scenario envisions “medium economic growth, ecologically driven energy policies and phase-out of nuclear power worldwide by 2100.” For this scenario, mining output would have to increase by a factor of 3 in the next 14 years, according to the projections. The other scenarios required a much greater increase in uranium production. In 2001, a tripling of uranium production seemed believable. The experience in uranium mining since then, however, has not borne that out, with some mines operating at a loss in the last two years because expenses were higher than expected and yields were disappointing.

A nuclear power station is amazingly expensive to build. It works out only if there is fuel to operate continuously for half a century. Based on this, new nuclear power stations will fail financially if they cannot go online by about 2014. That means it doesn’t really make any sense to be planning any additional nuclear facilities at this point; it will take everything we’ve got to power the ones that are already under construction, and no one can say how long that will last.

The bottom line is that nuclear power, the way the world does it today, is a risky and expensive source of electricity, and one that won’t help us much in the long run. Like oil, it is no more than a stopgap, a way to buy time while we come up with something else. If we can believe the optimists, it might supply 10 percent of the world’s electric needs over the next 50 to 100 years; to plan on more nuclear power than this is probably unrealistic.