ON THE ROAD TO RUIN
Uranium production peaked in
1981 and the supply is running out, yet the UK still plans to build more nuclear
Wednesday June 7, 2006
The idea of "peak oil" - the year when global annual production of oil reaches its highest point and thereafter declines irreversibly - is now central to the debate about oil as a world energy source. The experts are predicting this will occur within the next five to 10 years, after which the global oil supply will begin to run out from some time around 2050. It will have potentially cataclysmic consequences for the international economy and for human societies unless the world begins now to urgently diversify out of oil into renewables and much greater energy conservation. There is little sign so far of that.
Do we now want to repeat the same mistake with nuclear? The supply of uranium has already reached its peak, in 1981. There are 440 nuclear reactors worldwide, and the world produces just over half the uranium ore these plants consume each year.
At present, the gap is filled by using the plutonium from dismantled cold war nuclear weapon stockpiles. But this source is drying up and will end by 2013, so 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, not to mention new demand from the 28 nuclear plants under construction worldwide, added to China's plan to build 30 new plants by 2020. As a result, about a quarter of nuclear power plants could be forced to shut down within a decade because of a lack of fuel.
Developing a uranium mine is expensive and complex since the material is hazardous - it takes about 15 years from discovery to production. Therefore, even if a massive effort were now launched to find and develop new mines, there will still be an eight-year gap after 2013. China is already scrambling to corner contracts for uranium ore, and uranium prices have soared by 400% over the past six years.
While the element uranium is commonly available, concentrated uranium ore suitable for energy is limited. Uranium ore is rock containing uranium mineralisation in concentrations that can be mined economically.
The main argument used by the nuclear industry for downplaying this crisis is that, if necessary, thorium can be used instead of uranium as reactor fuel, and thorium is abundant. However, the US, Russia, Germany, India, and Japan have all studied thorium reactors for 30 years, yet no commercial thorium reactor has ever been constructed. Another idea is to reuse uranium in "fast breeder" reactors. This is feasible, but such reactors are more complex, more costly and more dangerous, which is why the US halted their use in the 1970s and the UK abandoned the idea in 1994. There is, at present, no serious large-scale attempt to convert to either thorium or breeder reactors anywhere in the world, making widespread closures of traditional uranium fuelled reactors within a decade a real possibility.
Meanwhile, as demand rises and supplies fail to keep up, a 10-fold increase in the price of uranium over the next few years is not impossible. The Canadian, Australian and Russian governments clearly will not allow their own nuclear plants to close as a result of shortages, leaving the rest of the world - including the UK, which has no indigenous supplies of uranium - even more at the mercy of a fast diminishing market.
The imminent uranium shortage has been admitted by the World Nuclear Association, which provided a chart of the unfolding crisis on its website in July. But while the nuclear industry is comfortable with debating the safety of nuclear reactors it will not discuss the uranium supply shortfall.
Philip Dewhurst, chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, has said it is necessary to examine replacing those nuclear generators that are due to be closed "whether the uranium supply is plentiful or not". But, as uranium hoarding begins, a major shortage could arise sooner than 2013, and its value pushed up to the levels of precious metals.
Against this background, to shell out on a new round of reactors in the UK at £2bn a time, and then within a decade have to close perhaps 25% of them, must surely be the ultimate folly.