Energy source uranium – resources, production and adequacy
Author: Dr.-Ing. Michael Lersow, Breitenbrunn/Germany
Read the full article in Mining Report Glückauf Issue 3 / 2017
Summary and OutlookA holistic view on the availability of the energy source uranium should include – in addition to the resources which are far from fully known – the different factors of the energy yield in nuclear reactors, taking into account future technological possibilities. A static viewpoint based on currently secured resource data and today’s uranium consumption (in nuclear reactors with second generation reactors) possibly leads to an underestimation of the range. The further exploration of resources, the advance in nuclear technology as well as the consideration of economic criteria, which could also justify uranium mining from deposits with low concentration and/or difficult degradation conditions (up to the extraction of seawater), correct a simplified estimate of the extent of reach (12), clearly upwards.
The following comments summarize current trends and issues:
- If one estimates the reach of the energy source in a simplified manner according to the formula (1), the uranium resources identified today are approximately 10.3 Mt of uranium and the extrapolated annual demand for the next few years is approximately 70,000 t/a, enough to last for 150 a. If one trusts the correctness of all currently known resources – including the prognosticated and speculative resources, but not the uncertain ones – of 16.2 Mt of uranium at unchanged extrapolated production in the amount of 70,000 t/a, it lasts for 235 a. When the uranium in phosphate deposits is included, the reach increases to more than 350 a. The currently known thorium stocks increase the reach up to 450 a. If the production of uranium from seawater is taken into consideration – an alternative that can be represented at the scarcity of energy resources worldwide – the range is theoretically increased by more than two orders of magnitude. Therefore a shortage of resources for nuclear fuel is not apparent for long periods.
- The share of nuclear energy in global electrical energy production is currently about 19.6 % (World Nuclear Association, 2016). Most likely scenario: Moderate increase in nuclear energy production – New policy scenario – by 2040.
- In 2015, 449 NPPs were grid-connected (IAEA/PRIS status 2017) with an installed electrical power of approximately 392 GWe. From the mined uranium ores, 71,343 t of U3O8 were produced in 2015, which corresponds to 90 % of the notified requirements. The New-Policy scenario prognosticates an output of 624 GWe in 2040, which corresponds to an increase of 60 %.
- The increase is concentrated in China (46 %) and India, Korea and Russia (together 30 %) and the USA (16 %), while the capacity of nuclear power in the EU decreases by 10 %. However, the share of nuclear energy in the global energy mix will be 12 % in 2040.
- The dependence of raw materials supply in Europe, in particular for fossil fuels as well as its range on the basis of economically mineable inventories, has led to the fact that in some European countries the extraction of uranium ore for securing the national demand fuel, either continued is (e.g. Czech Republic) or will seriously be taken into consideration.
- The exploration of uranium deposits has been carried on with considerable intensity worldwide in recent years. A further increase in the known uranium resources is expected for the future.
- The advances in nuclear technology have led to a significant increase in the specific energy yield from uranium, that inventory range analyses must take into account. Third-generation reactors, which are currently under construction or planned, will continue this trend, and by the implementation of fourth-generation reactors in the future a new dimension will be reached.
- The “Generation IV” initiative is designed to develop new reactors and nuclear fuels with which one aims for maximum safety and profitability for NPPs, will also mean significantly reduced uranium requirements, less and more short-lived radioactive waste and better assurance of the use of peaceful nuclear power rather than for military purposes. This also has an influence on uranium requirements (4).
- In China the first fourth-generation NPP in Shidao Bay in the coastal town of Rongcheng is under construction (200 MW), which will be connected to the grid at the end of 2017.
- In public discussions and in the professional world, uranium use will be con-nected with the question of acceptance of nuclear energy at all, as well as to the adequacy of uranium ore supply, which is associated with further issues such as:
- environmental and radiation risks in uranium mining and processing;
- closure of the legacies of uranium ore mining and processing in connection with the aspect of approvals and economic safeguards ( reserves/irrevocable bank guarantees) (12);
- safety of Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs); and
- storage and handling of nuclear waste from NPPs (19).
- The changes in the uranium price have practically no or only a marginal impact on energy price development. The share of the uranium cost at the total cost of electricity generated from nuclear power is about 5 %. An appropriate uranium price is necessary to operate the uranium mining and processing according to the highest international safety standards and to settle the costs for storage after the end of the life of the sites.
- The climate change caused primarily by fossil fuels has pushed the future of nuclear power as a long-term alternative for sustainable energy production in the context with the economic expansion of renewable energies. National borders do not play a role in energy distribution, so that a sustainable energy policy can only be implemented globally in large economic areas.
- Even if all arguments raised against nuclear power are objectively disproved, but the majority of a society decides against nuclear power, it is accepted that nuclear power should be excluded or abolished in this society. People are sovereign in their country to decide about the used kind of nuclear power generation, or to decide on its exclusion or abolition.
The societal task of generating energy, taking into account technological, economic, ecological and safety-relevant boundary conditions, will be decided in individual countries with a strong political influence. There are great differences with regard to Europe. While countries such as Finland and France are set up to replace old NPPs by the construction of new third-generation reactors, Germany will have carried out the exit of nuclear energy by 2022. Germany is not the only European country to renounce nuclear power, which has already occurred in Italy and Austria.
Although the borders between countries are gradually disappearing in Europe, unification of the energy supply is not yet apparent. Consequences of national energy policy, in particular the impact on climate change, are, however, to a large extent global. Electrical energy is by its very nature source-neutral. The individual countries determine the efficient, sustainable energy and raw material management adapted to social needs and the environment in their own way. For strategic decisions on the type of energy supply, economic criteria are just as important as environmental and safety issues, technological progress (including investment in relevant research and development) and, last but not least, the sustainability of raw material supply for energy generation.
Forecasts on the adequacy of energy sources play thereby an important role. However, a society decides about the type of its energy supply. But this decision is a long term one and should not be corrected short term.
I might say many thanks Dr. Peter Woods (IAEA – Department of Nuclear Energy – Team Leader, Uranium Resources and Production – Vienna/Austria) for support with the translation into the English language version and suggestions for completing this paper. However, the interpretations and opinions given here are those of the author.
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