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Uranium depletion is the result of extracting and consuming uranium, a finite resource. However, uranium resources may never be fully depleted as the economically-recoverable reserves (including those in seawater) may be effectively inexhaustible.

Contents

Uranium production

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Primary sources

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[1] Out of those Canada (28% of world production) and Australia (23%) are the major producers.[2] In 1996, the world produced 39,000 tonnes of Uranium.[3] And in 2005, the world produced a peak of 41,720 tonnes of uranium,[4] although the production continues to not meet demand.

Various agencies have tried to estimate how long these primary resources will last, assuming a once-through cycle. The European Commission said in 2001 that at the current level of uranium consumption, known uranium resources would last 42 years. When added to military and secondary sources, the resources could be stretched to 72 years. Yet this rate of usage assumes that nuclear power continues to provide only a fraction of the world’s energy supply. If electric capacity were increased six-fold, then the 72-year supply would last just 12 years.[5] The world's present measured resources of uranium, economically recoverable at a price of 130 USD/kg according to the industry groups Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are enough to last for "at least a century" at current consumption rates.[6][7] According to the Australian Uranium Association, yet another industry group, assuming the world's current rate of consumption at 66,500 tonnes of Uranium per year and the world's present measured resources of uranium (4.7 Mt - 5.5 Mt[6]) are enough to last for some 70 - 80 years.[8]

Secondary resources

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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] Phosphates, seawater, uraniferous coal ash, and some type of oil shales are examples of unconventional resources being considered.

Phosphates

Monthly uranium spot price in US$ per pound of U3O8, 1998-2007.[12]

The soaring price of uranium may cause long-dormant operations to extract uranium from phosphate.[13] The technology for recovering uranium from phosphate mines is mature.[11]

Worldwide, there were approximately 400 wet-process phosphoric acid plants in operation. Assuming an average recoverable content of 100 ppm of uranium, this scenario would result in a maximum theoretical annual output of 3700 tonnes U3O8.[14] Historical operating costs for the uranium recovery from phosphoric acid range from $48–119/Kg U3O8.[15] These operating costs are by far higher than uranium market prices, and most uranium recovery plants have been closed.

Seawater

The uranium concentration of seawater is approximately 3.3 parts per billion but the quantity of contained uranium is vast. Researchers estimate there are some 4.5 billion tonnes - this amounts to approximately 1000 times more than known terrestrial resources. Japan's approximately 56 nuclear reactors currently require roughly 8,000 tons of unprocessed uranium yearly[16].

One method of extracting uranium from seawater is using a uranium-specific nonwoven fabric as an absorbent. The total amount of uranium recovered from three collection boxes containing 350 kg of fabric was >1 kg of yellow cake after 240 days of submersion in the ocean.[17] According to the OECD, uranium may be extracted from seawater using this method for about $300/KgU [18] The experiment by Seko et al. was repeated by Tamada et al. in 2006. They found that the cost varied from ¥15,000 to ¥88,000 (Yen) depending on assumptions and "The lowest cost attainable now is ¥25,000 with 4g-U/kg-adsorbent used in the sea area of Okinawa, with 18 repetitionuses [sic]." With the May, 2008 exchange rate, this was about $240/Kg U [19]

Among the other methods to recover uranium from sea water, two seem promising: algae bloom to concentrate uranium[20] and nanomembrane filtering.[21] Japan in 2009 proposes to use nearly 400 square miles of sponge farms to garner about 1300 tonnes of uranium yearly[16]

So far, no more than a very small amount of uranium has been recovered from sea water in a laboratory.[11]

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.[11]

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.[22]

Countries whose uranium has already depleted

Many countries are not able to supply their own uranium demands anymore. Eleven countries have already exhausted their uranium resources: Germany, the Czech Republic, France, DR Congo, Gabon, Bulgaria, Tajikistan, Hungary, Romania, Spain 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.[23][24]

Pessimistic uranium depletion outlook

Various agencies have tried to estimate how long these resources will last.

  • European Commission

The European Commission said in 2001 that at the current level of uranium consumption, known uranium resources would last 42 years. When added to military and secondary sources, the resources could be stretched to 72 years. Yet this rate of usage assumes that nuclear power continues to provide only a fraction of the world’s energy supply. If electric capacity were increased six-fold, then the 72-year supply would last just 12 years.[5]

  • OECD

The world's present measured resources of uranium, economically recoverable at a price of 130 USD/kg according to the industry groups OECD, NEA and IAEA, are enough to last at least for some 100 years at current consumption. However, with the deployment of advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies uranium resources are sufficient for thousands of years.[25]

  • Australian Uranium Association

According to the Australian Uranium Association, yet another industry group, assuming the world's current rate of consumption at 66,500 tonnes of Uranium per year and the world's present measured resources of uranium (4.7 Mt) are enough to last for some 70 years.[8]

Optimistic uranium depletion outlook

All the following references claim that the supply is far more than demand. Therefore, they believe that uranium will not deplete in the near future or ever.

  • 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.""[26] 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.[27] 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.

  • IAEA

The IAEA estimates that using only known reserves at the current rate of demand and assuming a once-through nuclear cycle that there is enough uranium for at least 100 years. However, if all primary known reserves, secondary reserves, undiscovered and unconventional sources of uranium are used, uranium will be depleted in 47,000 years. [25] [28]

  • 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 270 years. With breeders, this is extended to 8,500 years.[29]

If one is willing to pay $300/KgU uranium, there is a vast quantity available in the ocean.[30]

  • Kenneth S. Deffeyes

Deffeyes estimates that if one can accept ore one tenth as rich then the supply of available uranium increased 300 times.[31][32] His paper shows that uranium is log-normal distributed. There is relatively little high-grade uranium and a nearly inexhaustibly large supply of very low grade uranium.

  • Huber and Mills

Huber and Mills believe the energy supply is infinite and the problem is merely how we go about extracting the energy.[33]

  • Bernard Cohen

In 1983, physicist Bernard Cohen proposed that uranium is effectively inexhaustible, and could therefore be considered a renewable source of energy.[34] 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.[34] - 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 contends, 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.
  • Ernest Moniz

But the basic premise of reuse is open to question, said Ernest J. Moniz, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former deputy secretary of energy.

He told the group that most of the thinking on reusing the fuel dated from decades ago, when uranium was thought to be scarce. But now, “roughly speaking, we’ve got uranium coming out of our ears, for a long, long time,” Professor Moniz said.[35]

See also

References

  1. ^ "Uranium reserves". European Nuclear Society. http://www.euronuclear.org/info/encyclopedia/u/uranium-reserves.htm. Retrieved 2008-05-09.  
  2. ^ "World Uranium Production". UxC. 2007-11-27. http://www.uxc.com/fuelcycle/uranium/production-uranium.html. Retrieved 2008-03-15.  
  3. ^ "World Uranium Mining, Nuclear Issues Briefing Paper 41". Australian Uranium Association. 2007-07. http://www.uic.com.au/nip41.htm. Retrieved 2008-04-15.  
  4. ^ "UxC: World Uranium Production". UxC Consulting Company, LLC. 2007-11-27. http://www.uxc.com/fuelcycle/uranium/production-uranium.html. Retrieved 2008-05-01.  
  5. ^ a b Uranium shortage poses threat (2005-08=15). "Uranium shortage poses threat". The Times. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/industrials/article555314.ece. Retrieved 2008-04-25.  
  6. ^ a b ""Uranium resources sufficient to meet projected nuclear energy requirements long into the future"". Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). 3 June 2008. http://www.nea.fr/html/general/press/2008/2008-02.html. Retrieved 2008-06-16. "Uranium 2007: Resources, Production and Demand, also known as the Red Book, estimates the identified amount of conventional uranium resources which can be mined for less than USD 130/kg to be about 5.5 million tonnes, up from the 4.7 million tonnes reported in 2005. Undiscovered resources, i.e. uranium deposits that can be expected to be found based on the geological characteristics of already discovered resources, have also risen to 10.5 million tonnes. This is an increase of 0.5 million tonnes compared to the previous edition of the report. The increases are due to both new discoveries and re-evaluations of known resources, encouraged by higher prices."  
  7. ^ "Uranium 2007 – Resources, Production and Demand". OECD Publishing. 2008-06-17. http://www.oecdbookshop.org/oecd/display.asp?sf1=identifiers&st1=9789264047662. Retrieved 2008-06-21.  
  8. ^ a b "Uranium Supply". Australian Uranium Association. 2007-03. http://www.uic.com.au/nip75.htm.  
  9. ^ "Markets". Cameco Corporation. http://www.cameco.com/uranium_101/markets/.  
  10. ^ Michael Meacher (2006-06-07). "On the road to ruin". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2006/jun/07/guardiansocietysupplement2.  
  11. ^ a b c d "Survey of Energy Resources 2007 Uranium - Resources". World Energy Council. 2007. http://www.worldenergy.org/publications/survey_of_energy_resources_2007/uranium/673.asp.  
  12. ^ "NUEXCO Exchange Value (Monthly Uranium Spot)". http://www.uranium.info/prices/monthly.html.  
  13. ^ Ted Jackovics (2007-05-11). "Phosphate industry may restart uranium mining as price soars". Herald Tribune. http://www.heraldtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070511/NEWS/705110305/-1/Help0530.  
  14. ^ "Analysis of Uranium Supply to 2050 - STI-PUB-1104". IAEA. 2001-05. http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/Pub1104_scr.pdf. Retrieved 2008-05-07.  
  15. ^ "Uranium Recovery from Phosphates". Wise Uranium Project. 2008-02-17. http://www.wise-uranium.org/purec.html. Retrieved 2008-05-07.  
  16. ^ a b Julian Ryall (2009-06-16). "Japan plans underwater sponges to soak up uranium". Telegraph Media Group Ltd.. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/5550284/Japan-plans-underwater-sponges-to-soak-up-uranium.html. Retrieved 2009-07-05.  
  17. ^ Noriaki Seko, Akio Katakai, Shin Hasegawa, Masao Tamada, Noboru Kasai, Hayato Takeda, Takanobu Sugo, Kyoichi Saito (November 2003). "Aquaculture of Uranium in Seawater by a Fabric-Adsorbent Submerged System". Nuclear Technology (American Nuclear Society) 144 (2). http://www.ans.org/pubs/journals/nt/va-144-2-274-278. Retrieved 2008-04-30.  
  18. ^ "Uranium Resources 2003: Resources, Production and Demand". OECD World Nuclear Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency. 2008-03. p. 22. http://www.neutron.kth.se/courses/reactor_physics/NEA-redbook2003.pdf. Retrieved 2008-04-23.  
  19. ^ Tamada M. et al. (2006) (in Japanese, translated into English). Cost Estimation of Uranium Recovery from Seawater with System of Braid type Adsorbent. 5. Nippon Genshiryoku Gakkai Wabun Ronbunshi.. pp. 358–363. http://jolisfukyu.tokai-sc.jaea.go.jp/fukyu/mirai-en/2006/4_5.html. Retrieved 2008-05-02.  
  20. ^ E. A. Heide, K. Wagener1, M. Paschke and M. Wald (1973-09). Extraction of uranium from sea water by cultured algae. 60. SpringerLink. http://www.springerlink.com/content/p22p0j6u818x3h34/. Retrieved 2008-04-22.  
  21. ^ Cooper, Christopher, H. et al. (2003-03-07). "Purification of fluids with nanomaterials". http://www.wipo.int/pctdb/en/wo.jsp?wo=2004080578&IA=WO2004080578&DISPLAY=DESC. Retrieved 2008-04-22.  
  22. ^ Dyni, John R. (2006) (PDF). Geology and resources of some world oil-shale deposits. Scientific Investigations Report 2005–5294. U.S. Department of the Interior. U.S. Geological Survey. http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2005/5294/pdf/sir5294_508.pdf. Retrieved 2007-07-09.  
  23. ^ "Uranium Resources and Nuclear Energy". Energy Watch Group. 2006-12. http://www.lbst.de/publications/studies__e/2006/EWG-paper_1-06_Uranium-Resources-Nuclear-Energy_03DEC2006.pdf. Retrieved 2004-04-23.  
  24. ^ "Uranium Resources 2003: Resources, Production and Demand". OECD World Nuclear Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency. 2008-03. p. 29. http://www.neutron.kth.se/courses/reactor_physics/NEA-redbook2003.pdf. Retrieved 2008-04-23.  
  25. ^ a b "Uranium 2007 – Resources, Production and Demand". OECD Publishing. 2008-06-17. http://www.oecdbookshop.org/oecd/display.asp?sf1=identifiers&st1=9789264047662.  
  26. ^ M. King Hubbert (1956-06). "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels 'Drilling and Production Practice'". American Petroleum Institute. p. 36. http://www.hubbertpeak.com/hubbert/1956/1956.pdf. Retrieved 2008-04-18.  
  27. ^ Dave Kimble. "Is there enough Uranium to run a nuclear industry big enough to take over from fossil fuels?". Peak oil.en peakoil.org.au. http://www.peakoil.org.au/peakuranium.htm. Retrieved 2008-04-21.  
  28. ^ "Uranium Report: Plenty more where that came from". http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/News/2008/uraniumreport.html.  
  29. ^ "Uranium Resources 2003: Resources, Production and Demand". OECD World Nuclear Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency. 2008-03. p. 65. http://www.neutron.kth.se/courses/reactor_physics/NEA-redbook2003.pdf. Retrieved 2008-04-23.  
  30. ^ "Uranium Resources 2003: Resources, Production and Demand". OECD World Nuclear Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency. 2008-03. p. 22. http://www.neutron.kth.se/courses/reactor_physics/NEA-redbook2003.pdf. Retrieved 2008-04-23.  
  31. ^ "World Uranium Resources", by Kenneth S. Deffeyes and Ian D. MacGregor, Scientific American, January, 1980, page 66, argues that the supply of uranium is very large.
  32. ^ Deffeyes, K.S.; MacGregor, I.D. (1980-01-01). "Citation for World uranium resources". Scientific American. p. 50–60. http://www.osti.gov/energycitations/product.biblio.jsp?osti_id=6665051. Retrieved 2008-04-26.  
  33. ^ Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills (2005). "The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy". Basic Books. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bottomless-Well-Twilight-Virtue-Energy/dp/046503117X. Retrieved 2008-04-26.  
  34. ^ a b Cohen, Bernard L. (1983-01). "Breeder reactors: A renewable energy source" (PDF). American Journal of Physics 51 (1): 75–76. doi:10.1119/1.13440. http://sustainablenuclear.org/PADs/pad11983cohen.pdf. Retrieved 2007-08-03.  
  35. ^ "U.S. Panel Shifts Focus to Reusing Nuclear Fuel". New York Times. 2009-09-23. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/24/business/energy-environment/24yucca.html.  

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