Thursday, 29 April 2010

Peak nuclear?

I am not a supporter of nuclear, but neither am I implacably opposed. I do have serious concerns over cost, safety and the disposal of waste. I am also concerned that nuclear will be a distraction from getting on with the job of building a renewable economy. Then again it is relatively low carbon, and we might need it.

One thing though which I had not given too much thought to though was availability of nuclear fuel – uranium and thorium. I had heard a few rumours that uranium might run out, but hadn’t really looked into.

Well in the last couple of days I have been doing a little research, and I have been surprised. According to some estimates, at current rates of usage uranium (including reprocessing and using what is in our nuclear weapons) could run out by 2035.1 The situation with thorium is little better. Not will this uranium be cheap. The 2035 figure assumes we use uranium up to a cost of $130 / kg, far more than the current price of $50 / kg.

These figures are on the ‘pessimistic’ side, but even according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (whose role is to increase and accelerate the role of civilian nuclear power) supplies will last for just 85 years at current usage. This caveat is crucial, since many of the supporters of nuclear advocate it as a substitute for coal and oil. Given that nuclear supplies only a small percentage of global power the level of expansion necessary would appear inconsistent with the available fuel.

Now as with oil and gas there are ‘unconventional’ sources of uranium fuel. It can be extracted from seawater for $300 / kg. Given the already high price of nuclear this seems to make it an even worse deal. Fast breeder reactors are an option as these create their own fuel, but so far there is little indication that these are being widely adopted.

The bottom line is that it seems nuclear fuel will be nowhere near as cheap and available in the future as many would have us believe. Coupled with the predicted peaking of cheap oil in 2020–2030 (IEA), the need for an energy revolution is more urgent that ever.

1. Schindler and Zittel (2007): Alternative world energy outlook 2006: a possible path towards a sustainable future published in Advances in Solar Energy, Vol. 17, 2007 (Earthscan Publishing.

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