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Peak uranium is the point in time that the maximum global uranium production rate is reached. After that peak, the rate of production enters a terminal decline. While uranium is used in nuclear weapons, its primary use is for energy generation via nuclear fission of uranium-235 isotope in a nuclear power reactor.[1] Uranium is a finite resource, and therefore considered non-renewable.[1][2]

M. King Hubbert created his peak theory in 1956 for a variety of finite resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas.[3] He and others since have argued that if the nuclear fuel cycle can be closed, uranium could become equivalent to other renewables.[4] Breeding and nuclear reprocessing potentially would allow the extraction of the largest amount of energy from natural uranium. However, only a small amount of uranium is being bred into plutonium and only a small amount of fissile uranium and plutonium is being recovered from nuclear waste worldwide. Furthermore, the technologies to completely eliminate the waste in the nuclear fuel cycle do not yet exist.[5] Since the nuclear fuel cycle is effectively not closed, Hubbert peak theory applies. The rate of discovery and the rate of production which initially increase must reach a maximum and decline. The rate at which uranium can be bred and the rate at which fuel can be reprocessed is not enough to meet the growing gap between the rate that uranium can be mined and the demand for uranium.

Pessimistic predictions of future high-grade uranium production operate on the thesis that either the peak has already occurred in the 1980s or that a second peak may occur sometime around 2035.

Optimistic predictions claim that the supply is far more than demand and do not predict peak uranium. Also, they do not report changes in the production rate of uranium. Peak uranium is not about running out of uranium, but the peaking and subsequent decline of the production rate of uranium.

Contents

Hubbert's Peak and Uranium

The peak uranium concept follows from M. King Hubbert's peak theory, most commonly associated with Peak oil. Hubbert saw oil as a resource which would soon run out, and believed uranium had much more promise as an energy source.[3] Hubbert believed that breeder reactors and nuclear reprocessing, which were new technologies at the time, would allow uranium to be a power source for a very long time. The technologies Hubbert envisioned are not economically feasible or widely deployed to date.[6] As a result, the vast majority of uranium is now used in a "once-through" cycle. As for any finite resource, the Hubbert peak theory still applies.

According to the Hubbert Peak Theory, Hubbert's peaks are the points where production of a resource, has reached its maximum, and from then on, the rate of resource production enters a terminal decline. After a Hubbert's peak, the rate of supply of a resource no longer fulfills the previous demand rate.[7] As a result of the law of supply and demand, at this point the market shifts from a buyer's market [8] to a seller's market.[9]

Many countries have hit peak uranium and are not able to supply their own uranium demands any longer and have to import uranium from other countries or abandon nuclear power. Thirteen countries have hit peak and exhausted their uranium resources.[10][11]

Uranium demand

World consumption of primary energy by energy type in terawatts (TW), 1965-2005.
(Green-Oil; Black-Coal; Red-Gas; Purple- Nuclear; Blue-Hydro) [12]

The world demand for uranium in 1996 was over 68 kilotonnes (150×10^6 lb) per year,[13] and that number is expected to increase to 80 kilotonnes (180×10^6 lb) to 100 kilotonnes (220×10^6 lb) per year by 2025 due to the number of new nuclear power plants coming on line.[14]

According to Cameco Corporation, the demand for uranium is directly linked to the amount of electricity generated by nuclear power plants. Reactor capacity is growing slowly, reactors are being run more productively, with higher capacity factors, and reactor power levels. Improved reactor performance translates into greater uranium consumption.[15]

Nuclear power stations of 1000 megawatt electrical generation capacity (1000 MWe or 1 gigawatt electrical = 1GWe) require around 200 tonnes (440×10^3 lb) of uranium per year. For example, the United States has 103 operating reactors with an average generation capacity of 950 MWe demanded over 22 kilotonnes (49×10^6 lb) of uranium in 2005.[16] As population and industrialization increases, more nuclear power plants will be built. As the number of nuclear power plants increase, so does the demand for uranium.

United Nations' population projections by location.
Note the vertical axis is logarithmic & is millions of people.

Another factor to consider is population growth. Electricity consumption is determined in part by economic and population growth. According to data from the CIA's 2007 World Factbook, the world human population currently is more than 6.6 Billion (July 2007 est.) and it is increasing by 1.167% per year. This means a growth of about 211,000 persons every day.[17] According to the UN, by 2050 it is estimated that the Earth's human population will be 9.07 billion.[18] That's 37% increase from today. 62% of the people will live in Africa, Southern Asia and Eastern Asia.[19] The largest energy-consuming class in the history of earth is being produced in world’s most populated countries, China and India. Both plan massive nuclear energy expansion programs. China intends to build 32 nuclear plants with 40,000 MWe capacity by 2020.[20] By 2050, will deploy 300 or more additional plants.[21] India plans on bringing 20,000 MWe nuclear capacity on line by 2020. By 2050, India will supply 25% of electricity from nuclear power.[22] This is being repeated in dozens of lesser developed countries to meet the needs of their burgeoning middle classes.[23]

As countries get more industrialized and their economy grows, so does the demand for electricity. Nearly 2 billion people across the planet have no electricity. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) believes nuclear energy could reduce the fossil fuel burden of generating the new demand for electricity. The WNA forecasts a 40-percent jump in worldwide electricity demand over the next five years.[24] As countries get more industrialized, the higher their Human Development Index (HDI). The higher the HDI, the higher the electric consumption.[25]

As more fossil fuels are used to supply the growing energy needs of an increasing population, the more greenhouse gases are produced. Some proponents of nuclear power believe that building more nuclear power plants can reduce greenhouse emissions.[26] For example, the Swedish utility Vattenfall studied the full life cycle emissions of different ways to produce electricity, and concluded that nuclear power produced 3.3 g/kWh of carbon dioxide, compared to 400.0 for natural gas and 700.0 for coal.[27] However, more recent studies have shown amounts in the range of 60 [28] to 65g/kWh.[29]

As world oil is expected to peak early this century, alternatives for gasoline and diesel for powering transportation are being sought. One of the promising solutions are hybrid and electric vehicles. Some experts believe that these vehicles will require 160 new power plants.[30] Others believe none. The true figure lies somewhere between.[31]

As countries are not able to supply their own needs economically from their own mines have resorted to importing better grades of uranium from elsewhere. For example, owners of U.S. nuclear power reactors bought 67 million pounds (30 kt) of uranium in 2006. Out of that 84%, or 56 million pounds (25 kt), were imported from foreign suppliers, according to the Energy Department.[32]

Uranium supply

Uranium occurs naturally in many rocks, and even in seawater. However, like other metals, it is seldom sufficiently concentrated to be economically recoverable.[33] Like any resource, uranium cannot be mined at any desired concentration. No matter the technology, at some point it is too costly to mine lower grade ores. One life cycle study argues that below 0.01–0.02% (100-200 ppm) in ore, the energy required to extract and process the ore to supply the fuel, operate reactors and dispose properly comes close to the energy gained by burning the uranium in the reactor.[10] Mining companies consider concentrations greater than 0.075% (750 ppm) as ore, or rock economical to mine.[34]

Uranium Grades[35]
Source Concentration
Very high-grade ore - 20% U 200,000 ppm U
High-grade ore - 2% U 20,000 ppm U
Low-grade ore - 0.1% U 1,000 ppm U
Very low-grade ore - 0.01% U 100 ppm U
Granite 4-5 ppm U
Sedimentary rock 2 ppm U
Earth's continental crust (av) 2.8 ppm U
Seawater 0.003 ppm U

According to the OECD redbook, the world consumed 67 kilotonnes (150×10^6 lb) of uranium in 2002. Of that 36 kilotonnes (79×10^6 lb) of was produced from primary sources, with the balance coming from secondary sources, in particular stockpiles of natural and enriched uranium, decommissioned nuclear weapons, the reprocessing of natural and enriched uranium and the re-enrichment of depleted uranium tails.[36]

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Production

10 countries are responsible for 94 % of the global uranium extraction.
World production of uranium 1995-2006[37]

Peak uranium refers to the peak of the entire planet's uranium production. Like other Hubbert peaks, the rate of uranium production on Earth will enter a terminal decline. According to Robert Vance of the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency, the world production rate of uranium has already reached its peak in 1980, amounting to 69,683 tonnes (153.62×10^6 lb) of U3O8 from 22 countries. However, this is not due to lack of production capacity. Historically, uranium mines and mills around the world have operated at about 76% of total production capacity, varying within a range of 57% and 89%. The fact that production has never matched capacity is largely attributable to the uranium industry having to lower output to match demand for primary supply. Slower growth of nuclear power and competition from secondary supply significantly reduced demand for freshly mined uranium, until very recently. Secondary supplies include military and commercial inventories, enriched uranium tails, reprocessed uranium and mixed oxide fuel.[38]

The world's top uranium producers are Canada (28% of world production) and Australia (23%). Other major producers include Kazakhstan, Russia, Namibia and Niger.[39] In 1996, the world produced 39 kilotonnes (86×10^6 lb) of Uranium.[40] In 2005, the world produced a peak of 41,720 tonnes (92.0×10^6 lb) of uranium,[37] although the production continues not to meet demand. Only 62% of the requirements of power utilities are supplied by mines. The balance comes from inventories held by utilities and other fuel cycle companies, inventories held by governments, used reactor fuel that has been reprocessed, recycled materials from military nuclear programs and uranium in depleted uranium stockpiles.[41] The plutonium from dismantled Cold War nuclear weapon stockpiles is drying up and will end by 2013. The industry is trying to find and develop new uranium mines, mainly in Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan. However, those under development will fill only half the current gap.[42]

Of the ten largest uranium mines in the world (Mc Arthur River, Ranger, Rossing, Kraznokamensk, Olympic Dam, Rabbit Lake, Akouta, Arlit, Beverly, and McClean Lake), by 2020, six will be depleted, two will be in their final stages, one will be upgrading and one will be producing.[43]

World primary mining production fell 5% in 2006 over that in 2005. The biggest producers, Canada and Australia saw falls of 15% and 20%, with only Kazakhstan showing an increase of 21%.[44] This can be explained by two major events that have slowed world uranium production. Canada's Cameco mine at Cigar Lake is the largest, highest-grade uranium mine in the world. In 2006 it flooded, and then flooded again in 2008 (after Cameco had spent $43 million—most of the money set aside—to correct the problem), causing Cameco to push back its earliest start-up date for Cigar Lake to 2011.[45] Also, in March 2007, the market endured another blow when a cyclone struck the Ranger mine in Australia, which produces 5,500 tonnes (12×10^6 lb) of uranium a year. The mine's owner, Energy Resources of Australia, declared force majeure on deliveries and said production would be impacted into the second half of 2007.[46] This caused some to speculate that peak uranium has arrived.[47]

Reserves

Reserves are the most readily available resources. Resources that are known to exist and easy to mine are called "Known conventional resources". Resources that are thought to exist but have not been mined are classified under "Undiscovered conventional resources".[48]

The known uranium resources represent a higher level of assured resources than is normal for most minerals. Further exploration and higher prices will certainly, on the basis of present geological knowledge, yield further resources as present ones are used up. There was very little uranium exploration between 1985 and 2005, so the significant increase in exploration effort that we are now seeing could readily double the known economic resources. On the basis of analogies with other metal minerals, a doubling of price from price levels in 2007 could be expected to create about a tenfold increase in measured resources, over time.[49]

Known conventional resources

Known conventional resources are "Reasonably Assured Resources" and "Estimated Additional Resources-I".[48]

In 2006, about 4 million tons of conventional resources were thought to be sufficient at current consumption rates for about six decades (4.06 million tonnes at 65,000 tones per year).[50]

About 96% of the global uranium reserves are found in these ten countries: Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Brazil, Namibia, Uzbekistan, USA, Niger, and Russia[51] Out of these countries, Australia, Kazakhstan and Canada have the world's largest deposits of uranium. Australia's resources has just under 30% of the world's reasonably assured resources and inferred resources of uranium - about 1.142 megatonnes (2.52×10^9 lb).[33] Kazakhstan has about 17% of the world's reserves, or about 817 kilotonnes (1.80×10^9 lb) [52] And Canada has 444 kilotonnes (980×10^6 lb) of uranium, representing about 12%.[33] On the other hand several countries no longer mine uranium.[11]

Undiscovered conventional resources

Undiscovered conventional resources can be broken up into two classifications "Estimated Additional Resources-II" and "Speculative Resources".[48]

It will take a significant exploration and development effort to locate the remaining deposits and begin mining them. However, since the entire earth's geography has not been explored for uranium at this time, there is still the potential to discover exploitable resources.[53] The OECD redbook cites quite a few areas still open to exploration throughout the world. Many countries are conducting complete aeromagnetic gradiometer radiometric surveys to get an estimate the size of their undiscovered mineral resources. When combined with a gamma-ray survey it can locate undiscovered uranium and thorium deposits.[54] The U.S. Department of Energy conducted the first and only national uranium assessment in 1980 - the National Uranium Resource Evaluation (NURE) program.[55]

Secondary resources

Secondary resources are essentially recovered uranium from other sources such as nuclear weapons, inventories, reprocessing and re-enrichment. Since secondary resources have exceedingly low discovery costs and very low production costs, they may have displaced a significant portion of primary production. Secondary uranium was and is available essentially instantly. However, new primary production will not be. Essentially, secondary supply is a "one-time" finite supply.[56]

Inventories

Inventories are kept by a variety of organizations - government, commercial and others.[57][58]

Government Inventories

The US DOE keeps inventories for security of supply in order to cover for emergencies where uranium is not available at any price. And should such an emergency arise, DOE will obtain the highest value to the benefit of the taxpayers.[59] In the event of a major supply disruption, the Department may not have sufficient uranium to meet a severe uranium shortage in the United States.

Decommissioning nuclear weapons

Both the US and Russia have committed to recycle their nuclear weapons into fuel for electricity production. This program is known as the Megatons to Megawatts Program. [60] Down blending 500 tonnes (1,100×10^3 lb) of Russian weapons High Enriched Uranium (HEU) will result in about 15 kilotonnes (33,000×10^3 lb) of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) over 20 years. This is equivalent to about 152 kilotonnes (340×10^6 lb) of natural U, or just over twice annual world demand. Since 2000, 30 tonnes (66×10^3 lb) of military HEU is displacing about 10.6 kilotonnes (23×10^6 lb) of uranium oxide mine production per year which represents some 13% of world reactor requirements.[61]

Plutonium recovered from nuclear weapons or other sources can be blended with uranium fuel to produce a mixed-oxide fuel. In June 2000, the USA and Russia agreed to dispose of 34 kilotonnes (75×10^6 lb) each of weapons-grade plutonium by 2014. The US undertook to pursue sel-funded dual track program (immobilization and MOX). The G-7 nations provided US$ 1 billion to set up Russia's program. The latter was initially MOX specifically designed for VVER reactors, the Russian version of the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR), the high cost being because this was not part of Russia's fuel cycle policy. This MOX fuel for both countries is equivalent to about 12 kilotonnes (26×10^6 lb) of natural uranium.[62] The U.S. also has commitments to dispose of 151 tonnes (330×10^3 lb) of non-waste HEU.[63]

The Megatons to Megawatts program will come to an end in 2013.[60]

Reprocessing and Recycling

Nuclear reprocessing, sometimes called recycling, is one method of mitigating the eventual peak of Uranium production. It involves the recovery of fissile material from spent fuel. Although reprocessing of nuclear fuel is done in few countries (France, United Kingdom, and Japan) the United States President banned reprocessing in the late 1970s due to the high costs and the proliferation of plutonium. In 2005, U.S. legislators proposed a program to reprocess the spent fuel that has accumulated at power plants. At present prices, such a program is significantly more expensive than disposing spent fuel and mining fresh uranium.[6]

There are only two large-scale commercial reprocessing plants: in La Hague, France and Sellafield, England—together capable of reprocessing 2,800 tonnes of uranium waste annually.[64]

Most of the spent fuel components can be recovered and recycled. About two-thirds of the U.S. spent fuel inventory is uranium. This includes residual fissile uranium-235 that can be recycled directly as fuel for heavy water reactors or enriched again for use as fuel in light water reactors.[65]

Plutonium and uranium can be chemically separated from spent fuel. When used nuclear fuel is reprocessed using the de facto standard PUREX method, both plutonium and uranium are recovered separately. The spent fuel contains about 1% Plutonium. Plutonium extracted using PUREX contains Pu-240 which has a high rate of spontaneous fission, making it an undesirable contaminant in producing safe nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, nuclear weapons can be made with reactor grade plutonium.[66]

The spent fuel is primarily composed of uranium, the vast majority of which has not been consumed or transmuted in the nuclear reactor. At a typical concentration of around 96% by mass in the used nuclear fuel, uranium is the largest component of used nuclear fuel.[67] The composition of reprocessed uranium depends on the time the fuel has been in the reactor, but it is mostly U-238. Typically it will have about 1% U-235 and small amounts of U-232 and U-236. However, reprocessed uranium is also a waste product because it is contaminated and undesirable for reuse in reactors.[68] During its irradiation in a reactor, uranium is profoundly modified. The uranium that leaves the reprocessing plant contains all the isotopes of uranium between uranium-232 and uranium-238 except uranium-237, which is rapidly transformed into neptunium-237. The undesirable isotopic contaminants are:

  • Uranium-232 (whose decay products emit strong gamma radiation making handling more difficult), and
  • Uranium-234 (which is fertile material but can affect reactivity differently than uranium-238).
  • Uranium-236 (which absorbs neutrons without fissioning and becomes neptunium-237 which is one of the most difficult isotopes for long-term disposal in a deep geological repository)
  • Daughter products of uranium-232: bismuth-212, thallium-208.[69]

At present, reprocessing and the use of plutonium as reactor fuel is far more expensive than using uranium fuel and disposing of the spent fuel directly—even if the fuel is only reprocessed once.[68] However, nuclear reprocessing becomes more economically attractive, compared to mining more uranium, as uranium prices continue to increase.

Currently, there are eleven operating reprocessing plants operating in the world. Out of those, there are only two large-scale commercially operated plants for the reprocessing of spent fuel elements from light water reactors with throughputs of more than 1 kilotonne (2.2×10^6 lb) of uranium per year. These are La Hague, France with a capacity of 1.6 kilotonnes (3.5×10^6 lb) per year and Sellafield, England at 1.2 kilotonnes (2.6×10^6 lb) uranium per year. The rest are small experimental plants.[70]

The total recovery rate 5 kilotonnes (11×10^6 lb)/yr from reprocessing currently is only a small fraction compared to the growing gap between the rate demanded 46.403 kilotonnes (102.30×10^6 lb)/yr and the rate at which the primary uranium supply is providing uranium 64.615 kilotonnes (142.45×10^6 lb)/yr.

Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) on uranium reprocessing is highly positive, though not as positive as the mining and enrichment of uranium, and the process can be repeated hundreds of times. Assuming the price of uranium rose making reprocessing economically viable, plants would be built. Additional reprocessing plants may bring some economies of scale.

The main problems with uranium reprocessing are the cost of mined uranium compared to the cost of reprocessing [6][71], the nuclear industry not wanting to shoulder the costs of reprocessing, nuclear proliferation risks, the risk of major policy change, the risk of incurring large cleanup costs, stringent regulations for reprocessing plants, and the anti-nuclear movement. Assuming the peak theory holds in other non-renewable commodities, such as oil, coal, or gas, civilization will soon face a choice between collapse, increasing reliance on renewables and/or uranium reprocessing.

Unconventional resources

Unconventional resources are occurrences that require novel technologies for their exploitation and/or use. Often unconventional resources occur in low-concentration. The exploitation of unconventional uranium requires additional research and development efforts for which there is no imminent economic need, given the large conventional resource base and the option of reprocessing spent fuel.[72] Phosphates, seawater, uraniferous coal ash, and some type of oil shales are examples of unconventional uranium resources.

Phosphates

The soaring price of uranium may cause long-dormant operations to extract uranium from phosphate.[73] The technology for recovering uranium from phosphate mines is mature.[72]

Worldwide, there were approximately 400 wet-process phosphoric acid plants in operation. Assuming an average recoverable content of 100 ppm of uranium, and that uranium prices do not increase so that the main use of the phosphates are for fertilizers, this scenario would result in a maximum theoretical annual output of 3.7 kilotonnes (8.2×10^6 lb) U3O8.[74]

Historical operating costs for the uranium recovery from phosphoric acid range from $48–119/kg U3O8.[75] These operating costs are by far higher than uranium market prices, and most uranium recovery plants have been closed.

There are 22 million tons of U in phosphate deposits. The technology to recover the uranium from phosphates is mature; it has been utilized in Belgium and the United States, but high recovery costs limit the utilization of these resources, with estimated producation costs according to a 2003 OECD report for a new 100 tU/year project, would be in the range of USD 60–100 kg/ U including capital investment.[36]

Seawater

Unconventional uranium resources include up to 4,000 megatonnes (8,800×10^9 lb) of uranium contained in sea water. The technology to extract uranium from sea water has only been demonstrated at the laboratory scale, and extraction costs were estimated in the mid-1990s at US$ 260/kgU (Nobukawa, et al., 1994) but scaling up laboratory-level production to thousands of tonnes is unproven and may encounter unforeseen difficulties.[76]

One method of extracting uranium from seawater is using a uranium-specific nonwoven fabric as an absorbent. The total amount of uranium recovered in an experiment in 2003 from three collection boxes containing 350 kg of fabric was >1 kg of yellow cake after 240 days of submersion in the ocean.[77] According to the OECD, uranium may be extracted from seawater using this method for about $300/KgU [36]

In 2006 the same research group stated: "If 2g-U/kg-adsorbent is submerged for 60 days at a time and used 6 times, the uranium cost is calculated to be 88,000 yen/kg-U, including the cost of adsorbent production, uranium collection, and uranium purification. When 6g-U/kg-adsorbent and 20 repetitions or more becomes possible, the uranium cost reduces to 15,000 yen. This price level is equivalent to that of the highest cost of the minable uranium. The lowest cost attainable now is 25,000 yen with 4g-U/kg-adsorbent used in the sea area of Okinawa, with 18 repetitionuses. In this case, the initial investment to collect the uranium from seawater is 107.7 billion yen, which is 1/3 of the construction cost of a one million-kilowatt class nuclear power plant."[78]

Among the other methods to recover uranium from sea water, two seem promising: algae bloom to concentrate Uranium[79] and nanomembrane filtering.[80]

So far, no more than a very small amount of uranium has been recovered from sea water in a laboratory.[72]

Uraniferous coal ash

An international consortium has set out to explore the commercial extraction of uranium from uraniferous coal ash from coal power stations located in Yunnan province, China.[72] The first laboratory scale amount of yellowcake uranium recovered from uraniferous coal ash was announced in 2007.[81] The three coal power stations at Xiaolongtang, Dalongtang and Kaiyuan have piled up their waste ash. Initial tests from the Xiaolongtang ash pile indicate that the material contains (160-180 parts per million uranium), suggesting a total of some 2.085 kilotonnes (4.60×10^6 lb) U3O8 could be recovered from that ash pile alone.[81]

Oil shales

Some oil shales contain uranium as a byproduct. Between 1946 and 1952, a marine type of Dictyonema shale was used for uranium production in Sillamäe, Estonia, and between 1950 and 1989 alum shale was used in Sweden for the same purpose.[82]

Breeding

A breeder reactor produces more nuclear fuel than it consumes and thus can extend the uranium supply. It typically turns the dominant isotope in natural uranium, uranium-238, into plutonium-239, another nuclear fuel that can also be used in nuclear weapons. This does not allow an infinite supply but allows a hundredfold increase in the amount of energy to be produced per mass unit of uranium. This is because U-238, which constitute 99.3 of natural uranium, is not used in conventional reactors which instead use U-235 which only represent 0.7% of natural uranium.[83]

There are two types of breeders: Fast breeders and thermal breeders.

Fast breeder

Fast breeder reactors are expensive to build and operate, including the reprocessing, and could only be justified economically if uranium prices were to rise to pre-1980 values in real terms. About 20 fast-neutron reactors have already been operating, some since the 1950s, and one supplies electricity commercially. Over 300 reactor-years of operating experience have been accumulated. Such reactors have an advantage in that they produce less long-lived transuranic wastes. Several countries have research and development programs for improving these reactors. For instance, one scenario in France is for half of the present nuclear capacity to be replaced by fast breeder reactors by 2050. China, India, and Japan plan large scale utilization of breeder reactors during the coming decades.[84]

The breeding of plutonium fuel in Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR), known as the plutonium economy, was for a time believed to be the future of nuclear power. The few commercial breeder reactors that have been built have been riddled with technical and budgetary problems. Some sources critical of breeder reactors have gone so far to call them the SST of the 80's.[85]

A fast breeder, in addition to consuming U-235, converts fertile U-238 into Pu-239, a fissile fuel. Breeders may be technically feasible, but they are complex, costly and plagued with problems. Uranium turned out to be far more plentiful than anticipated, and the price of uranium declined rapidly (with an upward blip in the 1970s). This is why the US halted their use in 1977[86] and the UK abandoned the idea in 1994.[87]

Fast Breeder Reactors, which use plutonium, are so-called because they have no moderator (light water, heavy water or graphite) and breed more fuel than they consume. The word 'fast' in fast breeder refers to the speed of the neutrons in the reactor's core. The higher the energy the neutrons have, the higher the breeding ratio or the more uranium that is changed into plutonium.

Significant technical and materials problems were encountered with FBRs. Geological exploration showed that scarcity was not going to be a concern for some time. By the 1980s, due to both factors, it was clear that FBRs would not be commercially competitive with existing light water reactors. The economics of FBRs still depend on the value of the plutonium fuel which is bred, relative to the cost of fresh uranium.[88] Despite massive research efforts, attempts to increase the uranium reserves with fast breeder reactors have failed worldwide. We do not yet have the know-how to technically and commercially exploit fast breeder reactors on a large scale.[89] Research continues in several countries with working prototypes Phénix in France, the BN-600 reactor in Russia, and the Monju scheduled to be restarted in 2009.[90]

On February 16, 2006 the U.S., France and Japan signed an arrangement to research and develop sodium-cooled fast breeder reactors in support of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.[91] Breeder reactors are also being studied under the Generation IV reactor program.

Early prototypes have been plagued with problems. The liquid sodium coolant is highly flammable, bursting into flames if it comes into contact with air and exploding if it comes into contact with water. Japan's fast breeder Monju Nuclear Power Plant has been scheduled to re-open in 2008, 13 years after a serious accident and fire involving a sodium leak. In 1997 France shut down its Superphenix reactor, while the Phenix, built earlier, is scheduled to close in 2009.[92]

At higher uranium prices breeder reactors may be economically justified since uranium is bred into plutonium, another fissile fuel. Many nations have ongoing breeder research programs. China, India, and Japan plan large scale utilization of breeder reactors during the coming decades. 300 reactor-years experience has been gained in operating them.[84]

As of June 2008 there are only two running commercial breeders and the rate of reactor-grade plutonium production is very small (20 tonnes/yr). The reactor grade plutonium is being processed into MOX fuel. However, next to the rate at which uranium is being mined (46,403 tonnes/yr), this is not enough to stave off Peak uranium.

Thermal breeder

Thorium is an alternate fuel cycle to uranium. Thorium is three times more plentiful than uranium. Thorium-232 is in itself not fissile, but fertile. It can be made into fissile uranium-233 in a breeder reactor. In turn, the uranium-233 can be fissioned like uranium-235 with the advantage that the fission products are less radioactive than the ones from uranium 235. Thorium is also a finite resource and shares many of the concerns of the public regarding nuclear power or uranium fuel cycles.

Despite the thorium fuel cycle having a number of attractive features, development on a large scale can run into difficulties:[93]

  • The resulting U-233 fuel is expensive to fabricate.
  • The U-233 chemically separated from the irradiated thorium fuel is highly radioactive.
  • Separated U-233 is always contaminated with traces of U-232
  • Thorium is difficult to recycle due to highly radioactive Th-228
  • If the U-233 can be separated on its own, it becomes a weapons proliferation risk
  • And, there are technical problems in reprocessing.

The first successful commercial reactor at the Indian Point power station in Buchanan, New York (Indian Point Unit 1) ran on Thorium. The first core did not live up to expectations.[94]

Indian interest in thorium is motivated by their substantial reserves. Almost a third of the world's thorium reserves are in India[95] India's Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) says that it will construct a 500 MWe prototype reactor in Kalpakkam. There are plans for four breeder reactors of 500 MWe each - two in Kalpakkam and two more in a yet undecided location.[96]

Supply-demand gap

Current global uranium production meets only 58 per cent of demand, with the shortfall made up largely from rapidly shrinking stockpiles. The shortfall is expected to run at 51 million pounds a year on average from next year to 2020.[97] During the last 15 years, the shortfall between production and requirements was made up by excess commercial inventories, uranium released from military use and other secondary sources. These are now in decline, and the shortfall will increasingly need to be made up by primary production.[98]

Uranium demand, mining production and deficit[16]
Country Uranium required 2006-08[99]  % of world demand Indigenous mining production 2006[100] Deficit (-surplus)
 USA 18,918 tonnes (41.71×10^6 lb) 29.3% 2,000 tonnes (4.4×10^6 lb) 16,918 tonnes (37.30×10^6 lb)
 France 10,527 tonnes (23.21×10^6 lb) 16.3% 0 10,527 tonnes (23.21×10^6 lb)
 Japan 7,659 tonnes (16.89×10^6 lb) 11.8% 0 7,659 tonnes (16.89×10^6 lb)
 Russia 3,365 tonnes (7.42×10^6 lb) 5.2% 4,009 tonnes (8.84×10^6 lb) -644 tonnes (−1.420×10^6 lb)
 Germany 3,332 tonnes (7.35×10^6 lb) 5.2% 68.03 tonnes (0.1500×10^6 lb) 3,264 tonnes (7.20×10^6 lb)
 South Korea 3,109 tonnes (6.85×10^6 lb) 4.8% 0 3,109 tonnes (6.85×10^6 lb)
 UK 2,199 tonnes (4.85×10^6 lb) 3.4% 0 2,199 tonnes (4.85×10^6 lb)
Rest of world 15,506 tonnes (34.18×10^6 lb) 24.0% 40,327 tonnes (88.91×10^6 lb) -24,821 tonnes (−54.721×10^6 lb)
Total 64,615 tonnes (142.45×10^6 lb) 100.0% 46,403 tonnes (102.30×10^6 lb) 18,211 tonnes (40.15×10^6 lb)

Peak uranium for individual nations

Eleven countries, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, DR Congo, Gabon, Bulgaria, Tajikistan, Hungary, Romania, Spain, Portugal and Argentina, have already peaked their uranium production and exhausted their uranium resources and must rely on imports for their nuclear programs or abandon them.[10][11] Other countries have reached their peak production of Uranium and are currently on a decline.

  • Germany—Between 1946 and 1990, Wismut, the former East German uranium mining company, produced a total of around 220 kilotonnes (490×10^6 lb) of uranium. During its peak, production exceeded 7 kilotonnes (15×10^6 lb) per year. In 1990, uranium mining was discontinued as a consequence of the German unification.[10] The company could not compete on the world market. The production cost of its uranium was three times the world price.[101]
  • IndiaIndia, having already hit its production peak, is finding itself in making a tough choice between using its modest and dwindling uranium resources as a source to keep its weapons programs rolling or it can use them to produce electricity.[102] Since India has abundant thorium reserves, it is switching to nuclear reactors powered by the thorium fuel cycle.
  • 'Sweden - 1969—Sweden started uranium production in 1965 but was never profitable. They stopped mining uranium in 1969.[103] Sweden then embarked on a massive project based on American light water reactors. Nowadays, Sweden imports its uranium mostly from Canada, Australia and the former Soviet Union.
  • UK - 1981The U.K.'s uranium production peaked in 1981 and the supply is running out. Yet the UK still plans to build more nuclear power plants.[42]
  • France - 1988—In France uranium production attained a peak of 3,394 tonnes (7.48×10^6 lb) in 1988. At the time, this was enough for France to meet the half of its reactor demand from domestic sources.[104] By 1997, production was 1/5 of the 1991 levels. France markedly reduced its market share since 1997.[105] In 2002, France ran out of uranium.[100]
  • U.S. - 1980—The United States was the world's leading producer of uranium from 1953 until 1980, when annual US production peaked at 16,810 tonnes (37.1×10^6 lb) (U3O8) according to the OECD redbook.[106] According to the CRB yearbook, US production the peak was at 19,822 tonnes (43.70×10^6 lb).[107] The U.S. production hit another maximum in 1996 at 6.3 million pounds (2.9 kt) of uranium oxide (U3O8), then dipped in production for a few years.[108] Between 2003 and 2007, there has been a 125% increase in production as demand for uranium has increased. However, as of 2008, production levels have not come back to 1980 levels.
Uranium mining production in the United States[109]
Year 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007
U3O8 (Mil lb) 3.1 3.4 6.0 6.3 5.6 4.7 4.6 4.0 2.6 2.3 2.0 2.3 2.7 4.1 4.5
U3O8 (tonnes) 1,410 1,540 2,700 2,860 2,540 2,130 2,090 1,800 1,180 1,040 910 1,040 1,220 1,860 2,040

Uranium mining declined with the last open pit mine shutting down in 1992 (Shirley Basin, Wyoming). United States production occurred in the following states (in descending order): New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Washington, and South Dakota. The collapse of uranium prices caused all conventional mining to cease by 1992. "In-situ" recovery or ISR has continued primarily in Wyoming and adjacent Nebraska as well has recently restarted in Texas.

  • Canada 1959, 2001?—The first phase of Canadian uranium production peaked at more than 12 kilotonnes (26×10^6 lb) in 1959.[110] The 1970s saw renewed interest in exploration and resulted in major discoveries in northern Saskatchewan's Athabasca Basin. Production peaked its uranium production a second time at 12,522 tonnes (27.61×10^6 lb) in 2001. Experts believe that it will take more than ten years to open new mines.[111]

World peak uranium

Pessimistic predictions for peak uranium

All the following sources predict peak uranium:

  • 1980 Robert Vance

Robert Vance[112], while looking back at 40 years of Uranium production through all of the Red Books, found that peak global production was achieved in 1980 at 69,683 tonnes (153.62×10^6 lb) from 22 countries.[38] In 2003, uranium production totaled 35,600 tonnes (78×10^6 lb) from 19 countries.

  • 1981 Michael Meacher

Michael Meacher, the former environment minister of the UK 1997-2003, and UK Member of Parliament, reports that peak uranium happened in 1981. He also predicts a major shortage of uranium sooner than 2013 accompanied with hoarding and its value pushed up to the levels of precious metals.[113]

  • 1991 European Nuclear Society

The European Nuclear Society maintains that "global uranium mining has decreased since 1991, but development in the individual countries varies considerably."[114]

  • 2009 Rohit Ogra and Edward Moore

Lehman Brothers Holdings analysts Rohit Ogra and Edward Moore predict uranium will hit a peak in 2009. However, they see it as a temporary peak because supplies of uranium won't exceed demand until 2012.[115]

According to the WNA in 2005, the uranium primary production will expand for 10 years. Then many existing mines will close due to resource depletion. This is expected to result in a leveling and downward trend in production capability. The WNA projects that global primary production will peak in 2015 at 71,512 tonnes (157.66×10^6 lb) of uranium per year, before declining to 70,474 tonnes (155.37×10^6 lb) per year by 2019.[116]

  • 2034 van Leeuwen

Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, an independent analyst with Ceedata Consulting, contends that supplies of the high-grade uranium ore required to fuel nuclear power generation will, at current levels of consumption, last to about 2034.[117] Afterwards, the cost of energy to extract the uranium will exceed the price the electric power provided.

  • 2035 Energy Watch Group

The Energy Watch Group has calculated that, even with steep uranium prices, uranium production will have reached its peak by 2035 and that it will only be possible to satisfy the fuel demand of nuclear plants until then.[118]

Optimistic predictions for peak uranium

All the following references claim that the supply is far more than demand. Therefore, they do not predict peak uranium.

  • M. King Hubbert

In his 1956 landmark paper, M. King Hubbert wrote "There is promise, however, provided mankind can solve its international problems and not destroy itself with nuclear weapons, and provided world population (which is now expanding at such a rate as to double in less than a century) can somehow be brought under control, that we may at last have found an energy supply adequate for our needs for at least the next few centuries of the "foreseeable future.""[3] Hubbert's study assumed that breeder reactors would replace light water reactors and that uranium would be bred into plutonium (and possibly thorium would be bred into uranium). He also assumed that economic means of reprocessing would be discovered. For political, economic and nuclear proliferation reasons, the plutonium economy never materialized. Without it, uranium is used up in a once-through process and will peak and run out much sooner.[119] However, at present, it is generally found to be cheaper to mine new uranium out of the ground than to use reprocessed uranium, and therefore the use of reprocessed uranium is limited to only a few nations.

  • OECD

The OECD estimates that with 2002 world nuclear electricity generating rates, with LWR, once-through fuel cycle, there are enough conventional resources to last 85 years using known resources and 270 years using known and as of yet undiscovered resources. With breeders, this is extended to 8,500 years.[120]

If one is willing to pay $300/KgU uranium, there is a vast quantity available in the ocean.[121]

  • Huber and Mills

Huber and Mills believe the energy supply is infinite and the problem is merely how we go about extracting the energy.[122] Huber and Mills do not provide an estimate when uranium demand will exceed the supply.

  • Bernard Cohen

In 1983, physicist Bernard Cohen proposed that uranium is effectively inexhaustible, and could therefore be considered a renewable source of energy.[4] He claims that fast breeder reactors, fueled by naturally replenished uranium extracted from seawater, could supply energy at least as long as the sun's expected remaining lifespan of five billion years.[4] - whilst uranium is a finite resource mineral resource within the earth, the hydrogen in the sun is finite too - thus, if the resource of nuclear fuel can last over such time scales, as Cohen contents, then nuclear energy is every bit as sustainable as solar power or any other source of energy, in terms of sustainability over the finite realistic time scale of life surviving on this planet.

We thus conclude that all the world’s energy requirements for the remaining 5×109 yr of existence of life on Earth could be provided by breeder reactors without the cost of electricity rising by as much as 1% due to fuel costs. This is consistent with the definition of a “renewable” energy source in the sense in which that term is generally used.

His paper assumes extraction of uranium from seawater at the rate of 16 kilotonnes (35×10^6 lb) per year of uranium and that the cost of electricity will rise no more than 1% due to fuel costs.[4] The current demand for uranium is already near 70 kilotonnes (150×10^6 lb) per year. Cohen's paper does not give a date when demand of uranium exceeds the supply of uranium. However, since he calculates using breeder technology uranium would be used at least 60 times more efficiently than today.

Possible effects and consequences of Peak uranium

As uranium production declines, uranium prices would be expected to increase. However, the price of uranium makes up only 9% of the cost of running a nuclear power plant, much lower than the cost of coal in a coal-fired power plant (77%), or the cost of natural gas in a gas-fired power plant (93%).[123]

Uranium price

Monthly uranium spot price in US$, 1998-2007.[124]

The uranium spot price has ramped up from a low in Jan 2001 at $6.40 came to a peak in June 2007 at $135 per pound of U3O8. The uranium prices have dropped since.[124] Currently (April 2008) the uranium spot is in the mid $60 range.[125]

In 2007, shrinking weapons stockpiles and a flood at the Cigar Lake Mine, coupled with expected rises in demand due to more reactors coming online, created an uranium price bubble. Miners and Utilities are bitterly divided on uranium prices.[126]

As prices go up, production responds from existing mines, and production from newer, harder to develop or lower quality uranium ores begins. Currently, much of the new production is coming from Kazakhstan. Production expansion is expected in Canada and in the United States. However, the number of projects waiting in the wings to be brought online now are far less than there were in the 1970s. There have been some encouraging signs that production from existing or planned mines is responding or will respond to higher prices. The supply of uranium has recently become very inelastic. As the demand increases, the prices respond dramatically.

Number of Contracts

Unlike other metals such as gold, silver, copper or nickel, uranium is not widely traded on an organized commodity exchange such as the London Metal Exchange. It is traded on the NYMEX but on very low volume.[127] Instead, it is traded in most cases through contracts negotiated directly between a buyer and a seller.[128] The structure of uranium supply contracts varies widely. The prices are either fixed or base on referenced to economic indices such as GDP, inflation or currency exchange. Contracts traditionally are based on the uranium spot price and rules by which the price can escalate. Delivery quantities, schedules, and prices vary from contract to contract and often from delivery to delivery within the term of a contract.

Since the number of companies mining uranium is small, the number of available contracts is also small. Supplies are running short due to flooding of two of the world's largest mines and a dwindling amount of uranium salvaged from nuclear warheads being removed from service.[129] While demand for the metal has been steady for years, the price of uranium is expected to surge as a host of new nuclear plants come online.

Hedge Funds

Several hedge funds are investing in processed uranium, helping drive up the price. There are at least four hedge funds, including two publicly traded firms—Uranium Participation Corp. [ticker: U.TO] and Nufcor Uranium Ltd. [ticker: NUURF.PK] -- actively purchasing uranium.[130]

Mining

Rising uranium price entices draws investment into new uranium mining projects.[126] Mining companies are returning to abandoned uranium mines with new promises of hundreds of jobs and millions in royalties. Some locals want them back. Others say the risk is too great, and will try to stop those companies "until there's a cure for cancer."[131]

Uranium occurs at concentrations of 50 to 200 parts per million in phosphate-laden earth or phosphate rock. As uranium prices increase, there has been interest in some countries in extraction of uranium from phosphate rock, which is normally used as the basis of phosphate fertilizers.[73]

Electric Utilities

Since many utilities have extensive stockpiles and can plan many months in advance, they take a wait-and-see approach on higher uranium costs. In the past year, this strategy has backfired due to the number of planned reactors or new reactors coming online.[132] Those trying to find uranium in a rising cost climate are forced to face the reality of a seller’s market. Sellers remain reluctant to sell significant quantities. By waiting longer, sellers expect to get a higher price for the material they hold. Utilities on the other hand, are very eager to lock up long-term uranium contracts.[126]

According to the NEA, the nature of nuclear generating costs allows for significant increases in the costs of uranium before the costs of generating electricity significantly increase. A 100% increase in uranium costs would only result in a 5% increase in electric cost.[48] This is because uranium has to be converted to gas, enriched, converted back to yellow cake and fabricated into fuel elements. The cost of the finished fuel assemblies are dominated by the processing costs, not the cost of the raw materials.[133] Furthermore, the cost of electricity from a nuclear power plant is dominated by the high capital and operating costs, not the cost of the fuel. Nevertheless, any increase in the price of uranium is eventually passed on to the consumer either directly or through a fuel surcharge.

Substitutes

An alternative to uranium is thorium which is three times more common than uranium. Fast breeder reactors are not needed. Compared to conventional uranium reactors, thorium reactors using the thorium fuel cycle may produce some 40 times the amount of energy per unit of mass.[134]

If nuclear power prices rise too quickly, or too high, power companies are likely to look for substitutes in non-renewable energy: Coal, oil, and gas:

  • Gas consumption is relatively clean, but does produce more CO2 emissions.
  • Oil consumption would adversely affect the air quality, increase oil imports and CO2 emissions.
  • Coal consumption will result in decreased air quality, increase in water consumption near coal-fired plants and CO2 emissions.

Also renewable energy, such as hydro, bio-energy, solar thermal electricity, geothermal, wind, tidal may be considered as substitutes:

  • Renewables can make a clean, safe substitute for electricity made from the nuclear fission of uranium although some would argue that renewables cannot provide a sufficient baseload.[135] However, there are reliable and refutable sources that say that the baseload argument is a myth.[136][137][138]
  • Some renewable electricity sources (e.g. hydro, bioenergy, solar thermal electricity and geothermal ) have identical variability to coal-fired power stations and so they are base-load. They can be integrated without any additional back-up, as can efficient energy use.

Historical understanding of world uranium supply limits

  • 1789 - The German scientist Martin Heinrich Klaproth isolated uranium in a sample of pitchblende.
  • 1896 - Antoine Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium underwent radioactive decay.
  • 1939 - Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discover nuclear fission.
  • 1943 - Alvin M. Weinberg et al. were aware of the serious limitations on nuclear energy if only U-235 were used as a nuclear power plant fuel.[139] They understood that breeding was required to usher in the age of nearly endless energy.
  • 1956 - M. King Hubbert declares world fissionable reserves adequate for at least the next few centuries assuming breeding and reprocessing will be developed into economical processes.[3]
  • 1975 - The US Department of the Interior, Geological Survey, distributed the press release "Known US Uranium Reserves Won't Meet Demand". It was recommended that the US not depend on foreign imports of uranium.[139]

See also

Prediction

Economics

Technology

Others

References

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Further reading

Books
  • Herring, J.: Uranium and thorium resource assessment, Encyclopedia of Energy, Boston University, Boston, USA, 2004, ISBN 0-12-176480-X.
Articles
  • Deffeyes, Kenneth S., MacGregor, Ian D. "Uranium Distribution in Mined Deposits and in the Earth’s Crust" Final Report, GJBX—1(79), Dept of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.
  • Deffeyes, K., MacGregor, I.: "World Uranium resources" Scientific American, Vol 242, No 1, January 1980, pp. 66–76.

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