Friday, March 23, 2007

Not Enough Uranium for Nuclear Expansion?

This is the conclusion of Thomas Heff, a research affiliate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who believes that the proposed escalation in the world's nuclear power facilities will lead to a shortfall in the quantities of fuel (mainly enriched uranium) necessary to run the reactors. He thinks that uranium "inventories" (reserves) are dwindling fast, and that there is a slackening in investment in securing future supplies, certainly in the face of proposed numbers of new nuclear plants to be inaugurated across the world. He said, "Just as large numbers of new reactors are being planned, we are only starting to emerge from 20 years of underinvestment in the production capacity for the nuclear fuel to operate them. There has been a nuclear industry myopia; they didn't take a long-term view."

I feel that this appraisal is a little disingenuous, since it ignores the fact that there was no "long-term view" possible for the nuclear industry. Since the early 1970's (and before, but the anti-nuclear movement gathered strength then), public opposition to nuclear power had been almost palpable. The explosion of the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986 really seemed to ring-in the death-knell for this form of energy, and not only were there no plans (certainly in the West) to build more nuclear power stations, but a generalised opinion that the existing ones should be closed down. Although "Chernobyl" occurred within the reaches of the former USSR, Russia has to the best of my knowledge never been entirely anti-nuclear, probably because the communists were great fans of nuclear-power, and that resulting infrastructure based around nuclear would be extremely difficult to replace with alternative forms of power stations, especially in the lean economic times that have followed the collapse of communism at the end of the 1980's.

For example, in the Republic of Armenia, the controversial Metsamor nuclear power plant (NPP) has been subject to repeated and ongoing calls for its closure, and from countries as far afield as Austria. However, since the Armenian NPP produces close to half the country's electricity, to close it would impose considerable demands upon other resources. Much of the opposition to Metsamor is down to its location - on an earthquake fault line. When in 1988, much of northern Armenia was devastated by an earthquake, the NPP was closed over fears for its safety, but the result was an ecological calamity of such proportions that even some of the environmentalists called for its reopening, on the grounds that the devastation of the forests for firewood and the draining of the main freshwater lake Sevan for hydroelectric power were destroying the ecology of the region. Although the European Union has given various forms of aid to "encourage" Armenia to close Metsamor, and there are efforts to introduce a huge wind-farm and divert rivers for hydroelectric production, closing the NPP does not appear a reasonable option, at least not in the short term. I have a great affection for Armenia, and I have friends there, and I do fear for the future of this small land-locked country, which is entirely dependent on imported fuels - even uranium, flown-in from Russia to run the NPP - especially as world oil-supplies begin to dwindle. However, one might fear for many countries with limited indigenous reserves of natural oil and gas, which now includes the UK!

The final message from MIT is that if the world is to seriously expand its nuclear operations, then a huge injection of investment capital (and exploration and production engineering) will be necessary to garner the requisite nuclear fuels. In Russia, efforts to do precisely this appear to be already underway. It appears that Russia will shortly sign an agreement with Kazakhstan over an international uranium enrichment facility in East Siberia. Kazakhstan holds 15% of the world's known reserves of uranium, and so will be in a good position to supply the material for enrichment at the Angarsk plant, which is also intended to offer uranium enrichment services to other countries who wish to develop nuclear energy for civilian (i.e. non-military) purposes. I wonder if this will eventually include Iran, or will they instead persist in developing their own independent enrichment programme?

While there is undoubtedly a major issue of how quickly uranium might be brought into the enlarging marketplace that nuclear expansion will bring, this is surely underpinned by the matter of how much uranium there is in the world to be feasibly extracted, milled and fabricated into nuclear fuel rods. As a rough estimate, there are about 3 million tonnes of uranium as a known reserve. Assuming the world gets through 65,000 tonnes of it per year, that would equate to 3 x 10^6/65,000 = 46 years worth. However, this is a rather simplistic assumption, although it has been widely promulgated as evidence that nuclear has no future. Along these lines, if the current level of nuclear power were expanded to provide all the world's electricity the uranium would run out in under 10 years. However, reserves are not the same as resources, and as that existing uranium reserve becomes depleted, more of the resource will be mined and processed, even well below the 0.035% (350 parts per million) uranium concentration limit below which currently the resource is not considered economically worth including among the figures for the reserve. This is the uranium concentration found at the Rossing Mine in Namibia, which is regarded as low-grade ore. Since the energy cost of annually mining 3,000 tonnes of uranium from Rossing is 1 Petajoule of energy, and this much uranium can provide 15 Gigawatt-years of power (around 470 Petajoules) , the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) is close to 500.

The average concentration of uranium in the Earth's crust is around 2.7 parts per million, and soils associated with phosphate minerals can contain around 50 - 500 ppm of uranium. Some shales and phosphate rocks contain 10-20 ppm of uranium, and given their abundance, are estimated to contain a total quantity of uranium perhaps 8,000 times that of the rocks currently being explored. Even mining these very low-grade ores would allow the recovery of energy with an EROEI of 15-30. Hence, unlike conventional oil, it appears that a shortage of uranium per se, is not a problem. However, it may well be that the shortage of oil and gas used in the mining and processing of uranium is a problem, and that supplies of these other fuels will compete with the other purposes that society currently has for them, including electricity production, but mainly for transportation.

On a final note, the use of uranium in fission reactors is very wasteful, since it only uses about 0.5% of the total uranium (most of the uranium-238 and some of the uranium-235 is rejected by the uranium enrichment process). The majority of the material can be used in fast-breeder reactors but there are many objections to these on grounds of safely, whether real or perceived, and it is not helped that Dounreay with hardly the best of safety records, was a fast-breeder reactor. There was, as I recall, also a fire from the liquid sodium coolant in a fast breeder reactor in Japan. There are large reserves of thorium (about 1.2 million tonnes) known in minerals containing around 12% thorium; the mean abundance of thorium in the Earth's crust (around 8 ppm) is three times that of uranium, and since all the thorium can (must) be "bred" into uranium 233 as the fissile fuel, with many safety advantages over the uranium-238 to plutonium-239 "breeder" route, this could also be supplied in abundant amounts.

In principle, there is an abundance of nuclear fuel, but my fear is that we may run-out of the other resources needed to get hold of it first, e.g. gas and oil, unless some strategy is imposed that effectively makes the industry self-sustaining; for example if some of the electrical power produced from "nuclear" can be used to extract and process more of the uranium and thorium to feed the same purpose. Otherwise I don't see how there is "enough for thousands of years" if we end up without the means to tap into it. It takes resources to extract resources, and without an integrated plan, nuclear power may yet prove of only short-term benefit, however much uranium and thorium there is, and at whatever theoretical EROEI.


Eric McErlain said...

At NEI, one of our in-house experts disagreed with the MIT conclusion as well.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Thanks very much, Eric. It's reassuring to have some corroboration of my analysis.

As I say, the problem doesn't seem to be any shortage of nuclear fuel per se, but that the oil and gas used in its extraction and processing do look set to run-short, and this will impact on the nuclear industry just as it will on all other aspects of life that are underpinned by these resources.


Trinifar said...

Great post, Chris. I'd really appreciate it if you would link to your source material in your posts. It would save me some googling and enhance your work :-) .

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Sure, I can include references/links etc. in future. For information, the best source for this article is:

"Is Nuclear Power a Viable Option for our Energy Needs?" - you can get that by pasting this term into google! But I found it on the "Oil Drum" blog.