Myth VI – there’s plenty of fissile material in the world

Unfortunately, the truth is that the world has relatively limited stockpiles of Uranium ore. Figures from the WNA (World Nuclear Energy Agency) suggest 80 years of reserves (5.4 Mt) with current consumption rates (68,000 Tons/yr) and extraction techniques if a cost of $80-130kg is tolerated.

Obviously by trying to double the production rate of nuclear energy we’ll run down this supply in half the time. Trying to completely replace all fossil fuel resources, assuming no overall increase in energy demand, would involve exhausting our reserves in around 2.8 years!

The report linked above does point to speculation (by the IEA and NEA) that it might be possible to double these resources, giving us 160 years supply at current consumption rates (5.6 years supply for our current energy needs), if an aggressive campaign of exploration was mounted. They also speculate on the possibility of various unconventional reserves (22 Mt). I would note that such talk is nothing new. Indeed the NEA previously stated (back in the 1980’s) that a price rise to $130 kg would in itself unlock up to 10.6 – 22 Mt of reserves. This obviously hasn’t materialised, so one has to be sceptical as to whether these claims are valid.

And of course we are ignoring a whole host of real world issues here. Extracting any mineral resource at a rate greater than 2% of held conventional reserves in a single year would be extremely challenging, Uranium in particular. With any form of unconventional resource an extraction rate of closer to 0.1-0.4 %/yr is more likely….meaning we could at best increase the global output of nuclear energy by 1.5 fold its current level (assuming we want to sustain that output for a reasonable time period, else we’ll end up in a “Peak Uranium” scenario very quickly). For the record nuclear power supplies between 2.5- 5.8% of global energy output (depending on how you do you’re maths, see IEA 2010 stat’s here) so this would still have nuclear playing a very modest role in global energy output, for a fairly high cost.

Even the pro-nuclear author David Mac Kay suggests that conventional reserves of Uranium could only sustain half of our current number of nuclear reactors, although he uses the criteria of 1,000 years supply. If we drop this down to a 250 year requirement, then we could at best double nuclear energy output from its current status of 5% of global energy output to 10%. Although I would note a discrepancy here, as MacKay also quotes a figure of 0.55 kWh/p/day  for Uranium fuelled nuclear, against a total energy use of 125 kWh/p/day, this would imply that, even if we take the 250 year figure I suggest we can still only get 1.76% of global energy use from Uranium “sustainably” (1000/250 =4 x 0.55 = 2.2 => 2.2/125 = 1.76%).

Uranium from Seawater

Extracting Uranium from seawater, as is often trotted out, is not a realistic prospect as it will likely be too expensive to ever prove economically viable and likely consume more energy than we get back from using the Uranium (as anyone familiar with the concept of EROEI’s would know).

Barti 2010 discusses such EROEI implications here. He also questions the practicality of such extraction noting that “it means that we would have to appropriate the whole North Sea with adsorption structures in order to get enough uranium for just 16% of the present world’s electric power production“.

Dr Dittmar (see slide 12 here) points out that it would take capturing and filtering the flow of FIVE Rhine rivers to keep a SINGLE 1 GW reactor running.

Finally, Van Leeuwen 2008 Part D discusses Uranium resources, conventional and unconventional. Again Uranium from seawater is dismissed as technically unfeasible for numerous reasons. The report includes many references to peer reviewed journal papers that reached a similar conclusion.

Thorium…only for comic book heroes!

Nuclear advocates also like to mention the option of Thorium, forgetting to mention it has no naturally occurring fissile isotopes, i.e. we can only rely on Thorium so long as we have supplies of U-235 available, or we tinker around with various fast reactor systems (failed white elephant projects that never really worked, see myth VIII). Again, returning to MacKay’s figures, he quotes 4 kWh/p/day suggests we could get at most: 4x(1000/250) = 16 kWh/p/d => 16/125 kWh/p/d = 13% of global energy from Thorium, assuming there’s enough fissile material handy for startup purposes (which there may well not be!).

A number of studies have been done over recent years which have in many cases concluded Thorium is simply not a viable option (You’ll find links to a number of them here). Even the NNL (National Nuclear Laboratories) in the UK pours cold water on this issue. In short, yes Thorium could help….a bit! but not nearly as much as is often suggested.

Other options

Other ridiculous suggestions such as MOX or the plutonium economy are a waste of time, as far as anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the concept of “economics” or “safety” would know (see myth X & XI). Also as Fukushima demonstrates, it raises the stakes in the event of any nuclear accident, greatly increasing the level of fallout as well as lowering the margins of safety (see myth I).

Even if we factor in Thorium (noting that Thorium’s use as a nuclear fuel is currently in no way economically or even technically proven) and we drastically increase our output of uranium we could at best probably double current nuclear energy production globally….to between 10% to maybe even 15% of current global energy consumption…of course we will still need to get the other 90-85% of the energy from somewhere else….and of course we’d be assuming that the build rate on new nuclear reactors could even keep up with this, and chances are it would struggle to maintain our existing fleet (see myth VII). So not so much a nuclear renaissance, more of a primary school arts project, as to be realistic maintaining approximately our current level of nuclear output (or maybe a modest increase in line with rising energy demand) is probably the best that can be hoped for, at least if we want to guarantee no future fuel supply problems.


About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in economics, energy, future, nuclear, peak oil, power, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Myth VI – there’s plenty of fissile material in the world

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  13. RipSaw says:

    So in this nice LFTR video I watched, the guy says that one mine produced 5,000 tons of thorium WASTE every year, and that is enough to run the entire world. Given that there are dozens if not hundreds of mines just like this one, and that we can make U233/235 from Thorium, how can you possibly claim we’ll ever run out of Thorium? Once a reactor gets going, you don’t need any more Uranium to run it, and you can pull out extra to start a new reactor. Don’t bring technical limitations into the argument here, I’m only looking at theoretical yield.

    • daryan12 says:

      “So in this nice video I watched”
      Hardly a credible reference! A guy down the pub awhile back told me about water powered cars, that doesn’t necessarily mean it works! The LFTR is at a fairly limited stage of development and performance of the level you mention is entirely theoretical and has not been proven in the real world.

      “technical limitations”
      Its important to consider these, after all the cornocupians will point out how vast the world’s “theoretical” reserves of fossil fuels are. Problem is that only a small proportion of these resources are ever likely to be extracted, for a host of good practical and economic reasons. Similarly the “theoretical” available renewable energy resources are vast and easily exceed the world’s nuclear and fossil fuel resources by some significant margin. It’s the thorny issue of those “details” that’s the problem with renewables, or indeed any energy resource.

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