In 2001, Dutch chemist and energy systems expert Jan Willem Storm Van Leeuwen and nuclear physicist Dr. Phillip Smith published a paper based on peer reviewed methodology which showed that when the concentration of uranium ore in mined rock drops below a level of 0.02 per cent, nuclear power uses more energy in the form of fossil fuels than it generates as electricity.
Their work demonstrates that nuclear power faces an identical situation to fossil fuels – there will come a point at which more energy is expended in extracting the fuel from the ground than is eventually available at the plug. The question is, how long will rich uranium ores last?
The most widely accepted estimate suggests that the world’s known uranium deposits could fuel the current fleet of reactors for around 42 years. However, this is based on an assumption that the world’s nuclear fleet will expand no further. Contrary to this, India has announced plans to build a further 24 reactors, China another 40, Japan 13, Russia 40, and the United States expects private sector applications for another 29.
If these projects go ahead, the demand for uranium will soar. Attempting to supply just 16 per cent of world electricity demand from nuclear power will lead to the exhaustion of rich ore reserves within 12 years, according to environmental scientist and author Paul Mobbs.
The world’s largest uranium mine is Australia’s Olympic Dam. Operated by mining giant BHP Billiton, it currently mines uranium ore in the region of 0.05 per cent concentration, and is only economic because it also produces copper, silver and gold. Its future uranium reserves, upon which many of the nuclear industry’s hopes are pinned, hover around 0.022 per cent, dangerously close to the level at which nuclear power becomes a net emitter of greenhouse gases.
Despite its 50-year history, nuclear power is still unable to survive without subsidies. The Government has set aside some £75 billion of taxpayer’s money to deal with legacy nuclear waste, and has financially guaranteed the decommissioning of two defunct ‘Magnox’ reactors.
No private sector company will undertake the building of a new nuclear power station without a guarantee that assistance will be available to deal with waste that will last for hundreds of thousands of years.
Currently, the UK has a stockpile of more than 100,000 tonnes of nuclear waste, which is set to grow to at least 500,000 tonnes by 2050, even without new plants. The nuclear industry is keen to stress that new reactors would produce much less waste than past ones. But The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has shown that the proposed new reactors for the UK, Westinghouse AP1000s, actually produce more high level nuclear waste (HLW) per unit of output than the current fleet of power stations. Figures released by the Government’s Committee on Radioactive Waste Management show that while the volume of waste future power stations might produce is not great, it would increase the radioactivity of Britain’s stockpile by 165 per cent.
It is this HLW waste that is the hardest – and most energy-intensive – byproduct to deal with. A cocktail of highly radioactive isotopes, including uranium and plutonium, HLW is so radioactive when removed from reactors that it must be sealed and actively cooled in ponds of water for 50 years, or ‘vitrified’ in glass. In an energy-constrained future, could we afford to pay for this legacy?
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This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2007