4 Uranium reserves

Published by WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor
February, 2005

Just as with fossil fuel, the use of uranium as fuel is limited by its availability. Uranium is a finite resource. Although we are often told by the nuclear industry that uranium is a "plentiful commodity" (Ritch III, 2002), an examination of the data reveals that this is not the case.

How large are the planet's uranium reserves?

According to the most recent figures of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on global uranium reserves, the total known recoverable reserves amount to 3,5 million tonnes: this refers to reasonably assured reserves and estimated additional reserves which can be extracted at a cost of less than $80/kg (NEA & IAEA, 2004). Given that the current use of uranium is in the order of 67,000 tonnes per year, this would give us enough uranium for about 50 years (WISE, 2003; NEA-IAEA, 2004; WNA, 2004c). Of course, the total reserves of uranium are much greater than this; NEA and IAEA estimate the total of all conventional reserves to be in the order of 14,4 million tonnes. But not only are these reserves very expensive to mine, and therefore not economically viable, the grades of usable uranium are too low for net electricity production. Many uranium mines are therefore out of use already. This is the case in Namibia, South Africa, Kazakhstan and with the Olympic Dam mine in Australia.

As pointed out by advocates of nuclear power, there are also vast amounts uranium in unconventional sources. For example uranium is found in ocean water, but at a concentration of 0.0000002% (Storm van Leeuwen & Smith, 2004). The costs of extracting this uranium for use in nuclear power generation would be huge. Furthermore, the extraction and enrichment of this uranium would require more energy than could be produced with it.

If we would decide to replace all electricity generated by burning fossil fuel with electricity from nuclear power today, there would be enough economically viable uranium to fuel the reactors for between 3 and 4 years (O'Rourke, 2004; Storm van Leeuwen & Smith, 2004). Even if we were to double world usage of nuclear energy, the life span of uranium reserves would be just 25 years. Therefore any potential benefits to the climate are extremely temporary.

Fast breeder reactors

For many years the nuclear industry has claimed that fast breeder reactors will vastly extend the life span of nuclear power. Fast breeder reactors use plutonium from spent fuel as a fuel source. Plutonium is one of the most poisonous elements known by mankind; it is not found in nature and can only be produced artificially. With the use and 'breeding' of plutonium, a closed cycle could be reached that would end the dependency on limited uranium resources. But despite huge investments and research over the last decades, breeder reactors have been a technological and economic failure. Breeders in the UK, and the French Super Phoenix, have been permanently closed down due to safety concerns and a serious 1995 accident at the Monju Fast Breeder plant in Japan led to its permanent closure (FOE, 1998). Currently there are no commercial fast breeder reactors in operation in the world and hopes of developing a successful fast breeder programme are fading quickly.

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