What price will we pay for nuclear power? The price of uranium has now risen beyond $40 per pound after spending many years at around a quarter of that. One is reminded of the recent surge in oil prices, and it does enmesh into a prognosis that energy is going to become increasingly expensive, and probably rare. Although many other metals, notably copper, have also experienced a huge rise in their cost on the open market mainly from a massive demand for them in China, uranium has attracted interest from people who previously had paid no attention to it or indeed to nuclear power at all. This is a boon to the industry, but any benefits might prove purely short term gains, as speculators, who may well leave as quickly as they came, are thought to have caused some of the escalation in the price of uranium. There are now around 300 different companies who supply uranium, and it is generally believed that the world will need increasing quantities of it as a "primary" source (i.e. as dug out of the ground) in order to decrease its reliance on "secondary" uranium (i.e. as recovered from used nuclear fuel rods by reprocessing, or as fabricated from dismantled nuclear weapons). I was recently told by someone from a well known British nuclear energy company that the U.K. had sufficient uranium reserves in the form of nuclear warheads to provide the nation's 20% share of its electricity production for 100 years. That, I presume would mean using fast breeder reactors. In any event, the rising demand for nuclear power in China, Russia, India, the U.S. and the U.K. will necessitate the increased mining of uranium, although India is fortunate in having substantial reserves of thorium (232) which can be converted into the fissile nuclear fuel, uranium-233 by irradiation with neutrons, so this country may be less dependent on the flexings of the world uranium market.
However, as with "Peak Oil" there are few indicators that more uranium is in the pipeline. In both the years 2004 and 2005, world production of uranium was around 40,000 tonnes, and 2006 looks about the same. It is interesting to compare this figure with the approximately 75,000 tonnes of uranium that is actually "burnt" by the global nuclear powered electricity industry, and so nearly half of it must come from "secondary" sources, according to simple arithmetic, as has been the case for the past twenty years. There is considerable disagreement as to exactly how much uranium exists on Earth. It is true that along with other metals such as tin, tungsten and molybdenum, uranium is not geologically rare. However, it is the quality of the ore that is at issue, and there are only available reserves of high-grade uranium ore estimated at around 3-4 million tonnes, which is just sufficient to empower the world's static nuclear power industry for about 50 years. Any envisaged expansion must secure more uranium, or the current proposal, emphatically spoken of by the U.K. Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is at most a hugely costly short-term measure, and probably best avoided. Fast breeder reactors were heralded as "the future" in the 1970's, but little development of this technology has in fact materialised since then, mainly due to the perceived risks of handling plutonium as the reactor fuel, and the necessity to use liquid sodium metal or the liquid alloy of sodium and potassium, which explodes on contact with water, as the "coolant" (heat exchange medium). Neither ordinary (light, H2O) water nor heavy water (deuterium oxide, D2O) can be used to cool a fast breeder reactor since these materials moderate (slow down) the fast neutrons that are most effective in "breeding" uranium-238 into plutonium-239 as the fissile nuclear fuel.
Ultimately, the stage is realised at which more energy must be expended in extracting the uranium fuel than is actually recovered by its use in a nuclear power plant - a clearly self-defeating exercise, particularly if it is true that we need to employ nuclear in order to reduce our carbon emissions; obviously we would in this case be producing more CO2 by using nuclear than without it. The issue of security of supply remains a thorny matter, as Europe (which includes us in the U.K.) buys all its uranium from Russia, who get much of that from Kazakhstan, and one can only speculate upon the political situation that might prevail in 10, 20 or more years in this rapidly changing world, upon which we witness the shift in economic and political clout, which seems mainly to follow available resources and their implications. Perhaps the current "suppliers" of the various fuels we all depend upon (oil, gas, uranium and coal) will find it more expedient to simply hang on to them for their own use, rather than selling them on for cash.