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.

3 thoughts on “Nuclear Energy and the Question of Uranium Supply

  1. Peter Clarke

    Oh dear, somebody else sleep walking into the future. Unfortunately the ‘something will turn up’ method of solving world problems is wearing a bit thin. While the production of oil is starting to tail off the demand continues to rise. Recent price moves have reduced demand but not enough for there to be anything like 50 yrs supply left. As for population, 20% of us consume 80% of the resources and the other 80% of people aspire to join us. The world’s carrying capacity was exceeded many decades ago. There is every reason to think that these chickens and many others are about to come home to roost. I will make a note in my diary to remind you of this discussion in 5 – 10 yrs time.

  2. Ben Post author

    and I’m sure in 5-10 years we’ll still have 50 years left of oil, just as we’ve had for the last 50 years. What evidence is there of oil production tailing off? More oil is being produced now than ever. Now, maybe SUPPLIES are dwindling–that’s different.

    In any case, this article doesn’t have anything to do with oil supplies–it’s about uranium.

  3. Tanner

    Have you watched the “crude awakening: life after the oil crash” documentary?

    If so, you might ask “how do you mine uranium without oil?” Is there any other substance you are aware of that has the energy density necessary for such an energy intensive operation such as uranium mining? What about transportation and refinement of the ore? And what about transportation for disposal of nuclear waste?

    Next, from your related post, how exactly has the problem of nuclear waste storage “largely been solved?” When it comes to toxic radioactive waste, don’t you want the problem of storage completely solved before you push for more nuclear energy? Any discussion of the merits of nuclear energy should be presented with a discussion of the problems with nuclear waste disposal.

    I read both of your “musings” on nuclear power. In your first post, you say you’ll comment on the drawbacks of nuclear energy. A year later, doesn’t look like you ever did. Perhaps you’re seeing only what you want to see. You say you’re an optimist. Try being a realist. Oil and uranium are non-renewable resources and we’re going to run out of both sooner or later, probably sooner based on our current rate of consumption.

    The problem is serious. We’ve built a society dependent on oil to not only function but survive. Optimistically, “human ingenuity” will prevail. However in the meantime, we need clean water, food, and and most of all, abundant, cheap energy to make clean water and food readily available to all 6 billion of us. Oil is that abundant, cheap energy, and nuclear energy can’t replace it. In terms of energetics, it’s simply impossible. This is why people are telling you that there’s only a 10-20 year supply of uranium if we expect nuclear energy to supplant the energy we get from oil at our current consumption rate.

    So, we need to look at other renewable-energy technologies, especially solar, a technology proven to work for MILLIONS of years. Yes… millions. We get more energy from the sun in one day than we use in one year. Our only limitations are problems of conversion and storage. Why not apply your optimism to those problems? I’m perplexed why you’re for nuclear power when it’s a finite resource, produces life-threatening waste that remains toxic for generations, and relies on non-renewable fossil fuels for the entire life-cycle from mining to disposal.

    Most perplexing: You know nuclear waste is dangerous and knowledgeable people, experts in their fields are telling you at the current rate of consumption we’ll run out of oil soon; you’re optimistically saying “don’t worry about it.” Ever hear of erring on the side of caution?

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