Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Thursday 10 January 2008

Power generation and uranium reserves

The government has just announced today the formal go-ahead for new nuclear power generation capacity in the UK. This is much as expected and I am happy that this, in my view inevitable, decision has at last been taken. Of course we know that the SNP Scottish Government (aka 'Scottish Executive') has said that they won't allow more nuclear capacity in Scotland - that's, I suppose, a side issue so far as the UK as a whole is concerned, but of interest specially to those of us who have to live in 'the best wee country in the world' (copyright © Scottish Labour Party).

However, I recall hearing on some television programme (probably BBC News 24) a couple of weeks ago when the run-up to this decision was engendering a lot of discussion in the media, that reserves of uranium were in any case only available for about 40 years - I think this was said on behalf of the 'anti'-brigade by someone described as an expert.

So I decided to look up Google to see what it could offer by way of guidance. My query string "World reserves of Uranium" produced a large number of responses and the first few are as follows:

American Energy Independence
- it appears to be a private website by an individual, so I have no idea of the accuracy of anything included there. Nevertheless the preamble includes the following seemingly-reasonable statements:

" ... In the same vein, we continually hear about how the “proven reserves” of uranium will only last ~50 years at current consumption levels. These estimates, however, have an even weaker basis than the oil/gas estimates of the 1970s, since the amount of effort and expenditure that has been put, as of today, into uranium exploration and development is far smaller than that put into gas and oil exploration, even as of the 1970s. Some have even said that the amount of uranium exploration is more equivalent to that which had been put into oil exploration as of the 1900s (when Western Pennsylvania surface oil was just about all anyone knew about). This is probably an exaggeration, but not to as great an extent as one may think. ...

... The “proven reserve” estimates are flawed for two primary reasons. First of all they do not consider the fact that very little effort, or money, has been put towards uranium exploration thus far. Second, they do not adequately account for the tiny effect that uranium ore price has on final nuclear power price, and the maximum allowable prices that they use to determine “economically recoverable” reserves are far too low. ..."

- there's a lot more, but this give the general gist.
- this is a website produced by physicists at the School of Physics, University of Melbourne, Australia. Australia has some of the more important reserves of uranium in the world:

"Uranium is present at an abundance 2 - 3 parts per million in the Earth's crust which is about 600 times greater than gold and about the same as tin. The amount of Uranium that is available is mostly a measure of the price that we're willing to pay for it. At present the cost of Natural Uranium ($100 per kg) is a small component in the price of electricity generated by Nuclear Power. At a price of $US50 per pound the known reserves amount to about 85 years supply at the current level of consumption with an expected further 500 years supply in additional or speculative reserves. The price of Uranium would have to increase by over a factor of 3 before it would have an impact of the cost of electricity generated from Nuclear Power. Such a price rise would stimulate a substantial increase in exploration activities with a consequent increase in the size of the resource (as has been the case with every other mineral of value). Currently the price of Uranium is increasing and this trend is projected to continue [1]. The world reserves of Uranium have increased by around 50% since the end of 2003.

However advanced technologies are being developed which are far more efficient in their use of Uranium or which utilize Thorium which is 3 times more abundant than Uranium. If perfected these technologies can make use of both the spent fuel from current nuclear reactors and the depleted Uranium stocks used for enrichment. Taken together these provide enough fuel for many centuries of energy production. This will mitigate the demand for newly mined Uranium. ...

... The substantial increase (almost 50%) from 2003 shows the results of the world-wide renewed exploration effort spurred by the increase in Uranium prices which commenced in 2004. This increase in activity has continued through to 2006. Thus, the provable uranium reserves amount to approximately 85 years supply at the current level of consumption with current technology, with another 500 years of additional reserves. Around 24% of the proven reserves are in Australia. ..."

- there's a great deal more in this website.

Industrias Nucleares do Brasil
- this is a Brazilian government website. The page linked to gives details of current world production estimated viable at prices upto USD130 a kilo; current world price here is shown as USD90 a pound, so no doubt this will be spurring greater exploration efforts to increases the proven reserves further.

International Atomic Energy Authority
- part of the United Nations. The linked report from June 2006 includes the following:

"Global uranium resources are more than adequate to meet projected requirements, according to the latest edition of a world reference guide on uranium resources published just recently.

Uranium 2005: Resources, Production and Demand - also called the "Red Book" - estimates the total identified amount of conventional uranium stock, which can be mined for less than USD 130 per kg, to be about 4.7 million tonnes. Based on the 2004 nuclear electricity generation rate of demand the amount is sufficient for 85 years, the study states. Fast reactor technology would lengthen this period to over 2500 years.

However, world uranium resources in total are considered to be much higher. Based on geological evidence and knowledge of uranium in phosphates the study considers more than 35 million tonnes is available for exploitation.

The spot price of uranium has also increased fivefold since 2001, fuelling major new initiatives and investment in exploration. Worldwide exploration expenditures in 2004 totalled over US$ 130 million, an increase of almost 40% compared to 2002, and close to US$ 200 million in 2005. This can be expected to lead to further additions to the uranium resource base. A significant number of new mining projects have also been announced that could substantially boost the world´s uranium production capacity.

In the longer term, continuing advances in nuclear technology will allow a substantially better utilisation of the uranium resources. Reactor designs are being developed and tested that are capable of extracting more than 30 times the energy from the uranium than today´s reactors.

By 2025, world nuclear energy capacity is expected to grow to between 450 GWe (+22%) and 530 GWe (+44%) from the present generating capacity of about 370 GWe. This will raise annual uranium requirements to between 80 000 tonnes and 100 000 tonnes. The currently identified resources are adequate to meet this expansion. ..."

I must admit to having been a little alarmed when I heard the comment a few weeks back at the apparent smallness of the world's uranium reserves and hence the viability of building massive new capacity which won't in any case start to generate power for another 10 or 15 years, even if we started to build them pretty quickly. However, it would seem that these fears are groundless and that people who seem to know what they are talking about think that there will be plenty of uranium available for a long time, provided we are prepared to pay what it costs to extract and refine it. But I never thought it was going to be cheap in the long-run anyway! In any case I think one can safely ignore the doom-mongers in the eco-movement who tell us that low uranium reserves make this method of power generation unviable, whatever other problems may be associated with it, depending on your point of view and whom you choose to believe.

Because of the inevitable time-lag before new nuclear power generation capacity can come on-stream our energy problems are by no means over and I suppose we will have to become accustomed to steadily increasing energy costs generally for the foreseeable future.

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