As nuclear power is discussed more intensively in the mass media, we have begun to hear once again an old argument that anti-nuclear people used to employ. This is that uranium is a very scarce commodity and its lack of availability will seriously constrain any significant expansion of nuclear power in the future.
If we go back to the period when nuclear power was expanding rapidly in the 1970s, it was indeed believed that uranium availability would be a real constraint. Reactor plans then envisaged world nuclear generating capacity rapidly rising to over 1000GWe by the year 2000, at a time when proven Western uranium reserves had been heavily depleted by the uranium boom of the 1950s to fuel the nuclear weapons programmes. Back in the 1970s, fast breeder reactors were seen as the ultimate answer, but things never turn out as envisaged. Reactor programmes were cancelled to the extent that nuclear capacity by 2000 was only one third of what had been foreseen, while a renewed uranium exploration boom and some subsequent mine development greatly improved the prospective uranium supply picture. Then, secondary supplies of uranium, many originating from the earlier weapons programmes, became available on the market and MOX fuel, rather than fast breeder reactors, became the main user of separated plutonium.
This in itself should be a warning about the perils of making dire predictions of scarcity. There is a lesson in there somewhere about the ability of the market to sort things out one way or another . Yet the nuclear industry must now take seriously the claims that uranium availability will constrain its future, particularly as we’re now talking about 10-fold and more expansions of nuclear capacity being needed to fuel a hydrogen economy and other applications such as seawater desalination.
It is useful to split the scarcity argument into three time periods. The first covers the next ten years or so, when all industry analysts are agreed that primary uranium production needs to expand rapidly to satisfy demand for nuclear fuel, which is predictable with some certainty, at a time when secondary supplies are dwindling. The second period goes 20 or 30 years beyond this when we can foresee a serious expansion of nuclear power leading to a doubling or more of demand for nuclear fuel. The third period covers the very long term, the remainder of this century, when technologies will change appreciably and the question becomes one of the extent to which uranium fits in with sustainable development principles.
For the first period, everyone accepts that there is more than enough uranium in proven reserves to satisfy demand. The question is one of the supply industry’s ability to get the uranium out of the ground in a timely manner to satisfy steadily-rising market demand. World uranium production was just over 40,000t in 2004 and most analysts believe that this must rise by at least 50% over the next five to ten years as secondary supplies begin to dwindle. Anti-nuclear voices, unfortunately assisted by careless scare-mongering from some in the industry who should know better, assert that the uranium supply industry has been decimated by its past problems and now faces regulatory, financial and other challenges which will make it difficult to expand production to the extent required. Possible fuel shortages have even been mooted with reactors going short, with reloads and possible start-ups being delayed. This is all a mistaken fantasy.
The uranium price has already reacted sharply upwards (almost trebling over the past two years) and this is an incentive to producers to expand production from existing mines as far as they can and also accelerate the development of long-mooted mines from well-known deposits. It can certainly be argued that the uranium market has worked very imperfectly and that this price signal was delayed by several years from when it should have been sent, but it has come all the same. Producers certainly face challenges in obtaining regulatory approvals and mine developments are frequently delayed for a whole host of reasons, but it is reasonable to be optimistic that they will rise to the challenge over the next five to ten years. This is a lesson from the past – production is closely correlated with the uranium price. Why would one expect otherwise?
Some new producers are likely to appear in the next few years, stimulated by the market price increase, but most of the necessary expansion is likely to be led by today’s leading producers, such as Cameco, Cogema and BHP Billiton (the new owner of the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia, which itself has huge potential for expansion). The rising national star in world uranium production is Kazakhstan, where joint ventures with Western and Russian companies are likely to lead to a significant increase in output over the next ten years, perhaps even putting the country on a par with Canada and Australia in a ‘top three’ club of big producers.
Possible fuel shortages have even been mooted with reactors going short, with reloads and possible start-ups being delayed. This is all a mistaken fantasy
The period beyond this, stretching out into the 2020s and 2030s, where we hope for a significant expansion of nuclear power – and the doubling or even trebling of nuclear fuel requirements – will be dynamic and unpredictable. Critics take a very static view of uranium resource development. They take the proven uranium reserve level of today, at about 3.5 million tonnes, and claim that this will soon run out as gross annual reactor requirements are around 65,000t per annum, so there is only 50 years of supply at the current rate of use. Yet uranium is not scarce in any geological sense, as its abundance in the earth’s crust is similar to that of tin, tungsten and molybdenum. The exploration industry has already been greatly stimulated by the market price rise (up to 100 new junior companies have suddenly appeared) while exploration techniques are improving all the time. Mining technology is also improving, allowing access to deposits formerly judged too difficult to exploit and therefore uneconomic. For example, the development of in situ leaching (ISL) technology has allowed economic exploitation of some low-grade deposits. Finally, the doomsters have a bad understanding of mineral economics as a whole, where what is economic changes rapidly in line with market prices and technical advances.
The requirement for more uranium to fuel a nuclear ‘boom’ after 2015 is not going to come overnight. Indeed, the time horizons of the nuclear reactor constructors and uranium mine developers are identical. Both are long-term businesses and it should be possible to match up supply and demand very well, given appropriate price signals. Interest in uranium as a commodity was almost non-existent up to the start of the price rises two years ago, but now is intense and there is a reasonable expectation that the next period will see some valuable new discoveries. What is really needed, however, is a large number of new reactor orders in leading countries to confirm the nuclear renaissance and encourage potential producers to expand their interests further.
The nuclear industry can also point out that there are other possibilities in its favour. Secondary supplies are not yet gone and will remain an important part of the nuclear fuel market for many years to come. A higher enrichment element can save a certain amount of uranium (as discussed in NEI, July 2004). Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and subsequent recycling of reprocessed uranium and plutonium in MOX fuel now looks increasingly economic as uranium prices go higher. This is clearly subject to a lot of political and other issues, such as priorities in SNF management, but is attracting increased interest (even in the USA), as expectations of nuclear fuel requirements increase.
It is therefore highly unlikely that lack of uranium will be a constraint on nuclear expansion in the period up to 2050.
In the very long term, a whole range of new possibilities open up. In the earlier periods, the working assumption is that the reactor types in operation will be little different from those in operation today – essentially evolutionary light water reactors in the main. We can therefore be relatively certain on their fuelling requirements. Yet reactor technology is likely to change dramatically with the Generation-IV reactors and beyond. These are all set to be much more efficient in their use of nuclear fuel – not just to save the cost but also to make used fuel management so much easier. Breeder reactors may well then come in, much later than was originally envisaged – as it was found that they were not needed before. Fuel types may also change appreciably – thorium could conceivably be developed as an alternative nuclear fuel.
When discussing nuclear in the context of sustainable development, it is important to emphasise these likely technological shifts. Uranium (and even thorium) resources in the world are clearly finite and in the very long term it is inevitable that a major nuclear expansion on today’s technology would eventually begin to put them under pressure. So the industry must show that it can adapt in a way that shows it can, indeed, be sustainable and offer solutions for future generations. This is, of course, politically a very strongly charged area – we can certainly argue that wind turbines are not environmentally sustainable as they use relatively large quantities of metals and plastics in their construction. But nuclear faces particular challenges in being accepted – demonstrating that it is still a relatively youthful industry with many exciting technological possibilities would be a good start.
Examining the short history of nuclear, combined with careful thought and analysis, suggests that uranium shortage arguments just don’t add up. Future uranium discoveries and mine development of course have lots of uncertainties surrounding them, but to over-emphasise these would be foolish.
Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its membersRelated ArticlesIran responds to IAEA resolution Iran ups international pressure West calls for Isfahan suspension Iranian HEU enrichment programme found to be fallacy Iran enrichment row rumbles on Iran set to reject IAEA report Iran finally exhausts European patience Iran looks set for the security council