Daily Archives: July 3, 2008

Nuclear Energy and the Question of Uranium Supply

In the replies to my article about nuclear power, there were statements about the supply of uranium the world can provide and that in the end, nuclear power may not be the panacea we hope it would be.

I respectfully disagree.

First, let me state my bias: I am an optimist. I almost never buy into doom and gloom scenarios in any domain. I am cynical about a few things (the ability of politicians to do what’s best for us, for example), but by and large I think things generally work out.

That said, I don’t believe we’ll run out of uranium anytime soon.

It is easy to find reports out there on the availability of uranium. For example, this one by the World Nuclear Association, or another by the European Commission. Those both limit the supply to less than the next 100 years on the outside, and just a couple of decades worst-case.

However, this is by no means the whole story. All of these studies make assumptions that I think are a bit weak, such as the amount of known reserves, current exploration, research, funding, scientific breakthroughs, etc.

Once nuclear energy is a more fundamental part of our energy and economic infrastructure, technology will improve, efficiency will improve, uranium harvesting will improve. It’s cliche, but I’m still going to point out the silly estimates of oil reserves (we’ve had 50 years of oil left for the last 100 years), or food reserves, or overpopulation, or [pick fad]. The reality is that humans are amazing at developing technology to increase our efficiency to amazing levels. We make huge leaps that completely negate all previous predictions. There is no reason to think this will end.

One idea that came up a few times in my research is the idea of mining uranium versus reusing it. Currently, most nuclear plants can only use uranium once before discarding. By using different processes, breeder reactors, including plutonium in the process, the efficiency and life span of uranium can be dramatically increased. Unfortunately, it looks like politics gets in the way of some of these ideas (such as the usage of plutonium).

Politics is tricky. On the one hand, we don’t want bad guys to get a supply of high-grade, volatile nuclear material. On the other hand, we need to learn to take advantage of it for the advancement of all mankind.

A report by the IECD and IAEA estimate uranium supplies lasting from 270 to 8,500 years, depending on our technology and process. There is also an interesting essay by James Hopf, a nuclear engineer, at American Energy Independence. It may be a little biased, but it’s worth reading.

Read the references at the bottom of the Wikipedia article on uranium depletion. There is also a good summary of some of the main studies and ideas on the subject in the article itself.


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