This article discusses the fact that the world will “run out of
uranium” about the same time it “runs out of oil”.
It is a limitation that was recognized from the very earliest
days of nuclear research. Before the first commercial reactors
were ever built, nuclear scientists were well aware that
they would have to shift away from uranium towards a
plutonium-fuelled nuclear industry if nuclear power is to be
anything more than a brief “flash in the pan”.
It is a timely reminder to see this fundamental flaw in
the nuclear picture clearly laid out as it is here. Nuclear
power, as presently conceived, is inherently limited to a
few decades of electricity production.
Hardly a solution to our energy problems, let alone the
global warming problem!
That is why, in almost every country that has made a major
commitment to nuclear power — France, Russia, the UK,
India, Japan — there has been a substantial investment
in technology to extract plutonium from irradiated nuclear
fuel. The idea is that plutonium will take over from uranium
as the nuclear fuel of the future.
by Andrew McKillop, The Market Oracle, April 14 2011
We have nearly all heard about Peak Oil despite doubts on very
basic elements like how we define “oil” compared with oil
condensed from natural gas, but the possibility of there simply
not being enough uranium to keep present and planned reactor
fleets going is new.
The case for Peak Uranium is made by several nuclear experts,
such as Dr Michael Dittmar of CERN:
In brief, Dittmar argues that the most worrying problem is the belief
that uranium is plentiful. It is in fact quite a rare mineral, with a
crustal abundance about 4 parts per million, ranking it far less
abundant than many minerals and metals we consume in large
The world’s 440-odd nuclear plants (Japan having lost several,
making it difficult to give an exact number in operation) ate
through about 68,000 tons of uranium in 2010, but uranium mining
industry supplied only 55,000 tons. The rest came from secondary
sources including mining stocks, reactor building company stocks,
reprocessed “spent” fuel, recycled atomic warheads, and military
uranium sources, among others.
As Dittmar says:
“….without access to military stocks, the civilian western uranium
stocks will be exhausted by 2013”, writing before the late 2010
agreement by Obama and Medvedev to further extend the
“Megatons to Megawatts” programme.
Dismantling mainly Russian surplus atomic warheads will therefore
continue, but with considerable and calculated lack of clarity on how
long bomb stocks and security considerations will allow this, and the
exact tonnages that will be made available.
This lack of clarity has many reasons including the technical details
of what types of highly enriched uranium and other materials,
including plutonium, are recovered from the atomic weapons and
supplied by Russia’s TENEX
then “down blended” with weakly enriched uranium, and other
The reactor fuel produced is similar to MOX fuel, also
produced by “down blending”, of spent reactor fuel contaminated
by highly active and very dangerous long-lived radionuclides,
especially plutonium, and notably used in one of the stricken
Not Enough Fuel
In fact this source of “cut down” fuel, produced from atom bomb
warheads is completely unable to cover more than around 9 percent
of current total civil reactor fuel needs (about 68 000 tons in 2010),
despite brave claims that it covers “at least 15 percent” of world
needs and “45 percent of US needs”. Through simple scarcity, and
shown every day by uranium sector buy-outs and financial
operations, the world’s reactor operating companies are forced
to look absolutely everywhere for more uranium.
In addition they are also forced to think of ways how they might no
longer depend on uranium as the main fuel for nuclear reactors in
a rapidly approaching future.
Obviously this would require the design, development, financing
and building of an entirely “new generation” of electricity generating
reactors and the extremely expensive replacement of the world’s
What we find is that countries relying on imported uranium such as
Japan, the UK, Germany, France and in fact the bulk of other “old
nuclear” countries, and the emerging economy giants China and
India, already face recurring uranium shortages.
This shortage is already acute, and may become very large by as
soon as 2013.
Rube Goldberg and Heath Robinson Solutions
The simple and basic shortage of uranium of course immediately
challenges the supposed “silver bullet” image of nuclear power ensuring
high levels of energy security in a troubled world, that is claimed by the
nuclear lobby and promoted by many governments. What in reality we
find is that the fundamentals of uranium supply and demand are
decidedly not “nuclear friendly”.
The Achilles heel of uranium shortage has mothered a host of imaginative,
but unworkable solutions, or claimed solutions to the problem. New
technologies such as fast-fission breeder reactors generating more
plutonium fuel than they consume, nuclear fusion machines (also heavily
criticized by Michael Dittmar), thorium reactors which are particularly
promoted by India, and underground ‘build and forget’ reactors are among
the many quick fix solutions on offer.
A large number of nuclear experts are pessimistic about fast breeders. In
the words of Dittmar: “Their huge construction costs, their poor safety
records and their inefficient performance give little reason to believe that
they will ever become commercially significant,”. To this we can add that
the environmental, human health, and weapons proliferation implications
of building up massive national stockpiles of plutonium would be extreme,
in the event of the so-called “plutonium economy” ever coming about.
To be sure the USA and Russia have good reason to continue “recycling”
atomic weapons and recovering reactor fuel from them. According to the
USA’s specially created and tightly controlled entity charged with “recycling
warheads” from Russia to feed US civil reactors – the USEC – this nuclear
material replaced ‘about 45 percent’ of US uranium fuel needs in 2009, but
many independent observers doubt this claim.
Swords to Ploughshares
Megatons to Megawatts is periodically given large media attention because of
the nice image of old and surplus atom bomb warheads of Russia and the USA,
dating from the Cold War are being turned into fuel, but this immediately
underlines one especially dangerous fact.
The difference between “nuclear civil” and “nuclear military” is very slight, and
always has been.
Well may the UN’s IAEA atomic agency proclaim that it seeks to increase and
enhance the use of peaceful nuclear power, while also acting as the “nuclear
proliferation cop”, but nuclear electricity inevitably produces the basic materials
for making nuclear weapons. As we are painfully reminded today with the
Fukushima disaster, categorized at 7 on the IAEA’s INES scale of nuclear
accidents – the same as Chernobyl – civil nuclear power is above all dangerous
and polluting when accidents occur, as they inevitably do.
By mid-April the Fukushima disaster has been estimated as spewing about 15
times more radiation into the environment than the total from the Hiroshima
atom bomb of 1945, that is about one-tenth as much as the final and total
radiation release from the Chernobyl disaster, which probably killed more than
150 000 persons.
The consequences of the Fukushima disaster for human health, farm animals,
fish, and food crops in the affected areas will of course be disastrous, as they
were at Chernobyl.
The vaunted promise of atomic energy’s promoters – that it turns swords to
ploughshares – is once again refuted by the real world, as civil nuclear power
turns atom bombs into a vast defragmented array of cancerous radiation
Together with the Achilles heel of not enough fuel, even for the world’s present
reactor fleet, this underscores the very strong case for abandoning nuclear
power, seeking alternatives, and using less electricity
By Andrew McKillop: [email protected] Biographic Highlights
Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission.
Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and
finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially
long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and
financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and
Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of
Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher
for UN agencies including the ILO.