Peak Uranium – And Other Threats To Nuclear Power

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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.

Gordon Edwards.

 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
Fukushima reactors.

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

existing reactors.

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.