Peak Uranium - And Other Threats To Nuclear PowerCommodities / Uranium Apr 14, 2011 - 10:18 AM GMT
We have nearly all heard about Peak Oil despite doubts on very basic elements like how we define “oil” compared with oil condensed from natural gas, but the possibility of there simply not being enough uranium to keep present and planned reactor fleets going is new.
The case for Peak Uranium is made by several nuclear experts, such as Dr Michael Dittmar of CERN http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/24414/
In brief, Dittmar argues that the most worrying problem is the belief that uranium is plentiful. It is in fact quite a rare mineral, with a crustal abundance about 4 parts per million, ranking it far less abundant than many minerals and metals we consume in large quantities. The world’s 440-odd nuclear plants (Japan having lost several, making it difficult to give an exact number in operation) ate through about 68,000 tons of uranium in 2010, but uranium mining industry supplied only 55,000 tons. The rest came from secondary sources including mining stocks, reactor building company stocks, reprocessed “spent” fuel, recycled atomic warheads, and military uranium sources, among others.
As Dittmar says:
“....without access to military stocks, the civilian western uranium stocks will be exhausted by 2013”, writing before the late 2010 agreement by Obama and Medvedev to further extend the “Megatons to Megawatts” programme.
Dismantling mainly Russian surplus atomic warheads will therefore continue, but with considerable and calculated lack of clarity on how long bomb stocks and security considerations will allow this, and the exact tonnages that will be made available.
This lack of clarity has many reasons including the technical details of what types of highly enriched uranium and other materials, including plutonium, recovered from the atomic weapons and supplied by Russia's TENEX http://www.tenex.ru/en/press/events/?id=311 , then “down blended” with weakly enriched uranium, and other materials. The reactor fuel priduced is similar to MOX fuel, also produced by “down blending”, of spent reactor fuel contaminated by highly active and very dangerous long-lived radionuclides, especially plutonium, and notably used in one of the stricken Fukushima reactors.
NOT ENOUGH FUEL
In fact this source of “cut down” fuel, produced from atom bomb warheads is completely unable to cover more than around 9 percent of current total civil reactor fuel needs (about 68 000 tons in 2010), despite brave claims that it covers “at least 15 percent” of world needs and “45 percent of US needs”. Through simple scarcity, and shown every day by uranium sector buy-outs and financial operations, the world's reactor operating companies are forced to look absolutely everywhere for more uranium.
In addition they are also forced to think of ways how they might no longer depend on uranium as the main fuel for nuclear reactors in a rapidly approaching future.
Obviously this would require the design, development, financing and building of an entirely “new generation” of electricity generating reactors and the extremely expensive replacement of the world's exisiting reactors.
What we find is that countries relying on imported uranium such as Japan, the UK, Germany, France and in fact the bulk of other “old nuclear” countries, and the emerging economy giants China and India, already face recurring uranium shortages.
This shortage is already acute, and may become very large by as soon as 2013.
RUBE GOLDBERG AND HEATH ROBINSON SOLUTIONS
The simple and basic shortage of uranium of course immediately challenges the supposed “silver bullet” image of nuclear power ensuring high levels of energy security in a troubled world, that is claimed by the nuclear lobby and promoted by many governments. What in reality we find is that the fundamentals of uranium supply and demand are decidedly not “nuclear friendly”.
The Achilles heel of uranium shortage has mothered a host of imaginative, but unworkable solutions, or claimed solutions to the problem. New technologies such as fast-fission breeder reactors generating more plutonium fuel than they consume, nuclear fusion machines (also heavily criticized by Michael Dittmar), thorium reactors which are particularly promoted by India, and underground 'build and forget' reactors are among the many quick fix solutions on offer.
A large number of nuclear experts are pessimistic about fast breeders. In the words of Dittmar: “Their huge construction costs, their poor safety records and their inefficient performance give little reason to believe that they will ever become commercially significant,”. To this we can add that the environmental, human health, and weapons proliferation implications of building up massive national stockpiles of plutonium would be extreme, in the event of the so-called “plutonium economy” ever coming about.
To be sure the USA and Russia have good reason to continue “recycling” atomic weapons and recovering reactor fuel from them. According to the USA's specially created and tightly controlled entity charged with “recycling warheads” from Russia to feed US civil reactors – the USEC – this nuclear material replaced 'about 45 percent' of US uranium fuel needs in 2009, but many independent observers doubt this claim. http://www.marketoracle.co.uk/Article24378.html
SWORDS TO PLOUGSHARES
Megatons to Megawatts is periodically given large media attention because of the nice image of old and surplus atom bomb warheads of Russia and the USA, dating from the Cold War are being turned into fuel, but this immediately underlines one especially dangerous fact.
The difference between “nuclear civil” and “nuclear military” is very slight, and always has been.
Well may the UN's IAEA atomic agency proclaim that it seeks to increase and enhance the use of peaceful nuclear power, while also acting as the “nuclear proliferation cop”, but nuclear electricity inevitably produces the basic materials for making nuclear weapons. As we are painfully reminded today with the Fukushima disaster, categorized at 7 on the IAEA's INES scale of nuclear accidents – the same as Chernobyl – civil nuclear power is above all dangerous and polluting when accidents occur, as they inevitably do.
By mid-April the Fukushima disaster has been estimated as spewing about 15 times more radiation into the environment than the total from the Hiroshima atom bomb of 1945, that is about one-tenth as much as the final and total radiation release from the Chernobyl disaster, which probably killed more than 150 000 pesons.
The consequences of the Fukushima disaster for human health, farm animals, fish, and food crops in the affected areas will of course be disastrous, as they were at Chernobyl.
The vaunted promise of atomic energy's promoters – that it turns swords to ploughshares – is once again refuted by the real world, as civil nuclear power turns atom bombs into a vast defragmented array of cancerous radiation products.
Together with the Achilles heel of not enough fuel, even for the world's present reactor fleet, this underscores the very strong case for abandoning nuclear power, seeking alternatives, and using less electricity
By Andrew McKillop
Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights
Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.
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