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Uranium Estimates

January 18, 2012 by Tony Noerpel filed under Columns, Sustainable Planet, Uncategorized No Comments

“However it is conducted, mining will bring destruction as well as wealth.” Editorial “Beyond Mining”, Nature Geoscience, Vol. 4, October 2011 [1].

This is a remarkable statement. Simply put, all mining activity destroys wealth as well as it creates wealth. We can readily appreciate that the high grade deposits will likely yield more wealth than their exploitation destroys and that poor quality deposits will destroy more wealth than they create. We can also appreciate there are few high quality deposits and lots of poor quality deposits and this is called a resource pyramid. In terms of uranium deposits there exists a few ores with grades in excess of two percent natural uranium content in Canada, but nowhere else. There exists only a few hundred kilo tons of natural uranium at this grade in total but several hundred billion kilo tons in the earth’s crust at about 0.0001 percent. Humans always exploit the high quality resources first and only mine lower quality resources as the best resources become depleted. There is a fallacy among economists that higher prices simply make more resources available ad infinitum. I’ll call this the infinite resource hypothesis. It is not true, of course. At the point where more energy is required to mine the resource than the resource contains it is all over. This does not even have to include environmental destruction or negative health impacts which are difficult to measure but still quite real. The exploitation of Canadian tar sands, which economists and the media mistakenly refer to as “oil”, is a painful example. Mining tar is an elaborate, inefficient and expensive way to liquefy natural gas. The energy recovered minus the energy invested may be negative even without consideration of the human and environmental costs.

For uranium mining, Storm van Leeuwen shows from empirical data that ore grades below 0.01 percent cost more energy than they produce [2]. His plot is shown in figure 1. The x-axis is uranium ore grade and represents natural uranium content as a percentage by weight. The y-axis is the percent recoverable. The red circles are data from existing uranium mines. Note that the extrapolated yield curve falls to zero very fast as the grade approaches 0.01 percent. The blue curve follows data from soft rock deposits and the purple and green curves are yields for hard rock ores. It is intuitive that hard ores would be more difficult and take more energy to crush and mill than soft ores. Uranium ore grades below 0.01 percent which might be plentiful can never be mined profitably for society, according to Storm van Leeuwen, no matter how expensive uranium becomes. These deposits are below an energy cliff.

Storm van Leeuwen’s report is thorough, detailed and well referenced. The last characteristic means that while his work might be biased or not completely correct, it is verifiable. His results are indeed disputed by the World Nuclear Association an industry group [3], but this lobbying organization is certainly biased and as we’ve seen has unrealistically denied all limits to anything [4]. Storm van Leeuwen’s results are independently confirmed by the particle physicist Michael Dittmer [5 and 6].

I asked a friend of mine who is a PhD nuclear engineer and a nuclear power proponent to recommend a credible study which might conclude that uranium resources are not critically limited. He recommended the World Council of Energy 2010 Survey of Energy Resources report on uranium supply written by Hans-Holger Rogner [7]. Rogner is an economist and subscribes to the infinite resource hypothesis to some degree.

In my last article, I discussed Rogner’s fossil fuels estimate which is the most optimistic estimate I could find. His uranium article, similarly, is optimistic. The good news is that Rogner uses the same primary source as every other analyst, the NEA/IAEA red book [8] given in Table 1. Unfortunately, this report costs over one hundred dollars so I don’t have a copy, have not read it and have to be content with reading about it.

The typical 200 plus year Production/Reserves estimate cited by proponents (see for example [9]), assumes that 100 percent of undiscovered speculative resources exist and are 100 percent recoverable and also assumes no growth in nuclear power. Rogner, more reasonably, estimates that we have a 98 year supply. I estimate 33 years might represent a more reasonable expectation. It is useful to compare Rogner’s estimate to my own. Rogner assumes 100 percent of RAR and IR exist and are recoverable, and he uses production of 60 kilotons per year rather than demand even though he admits that uranium production has consistently fallen short of demand and the industry has been relying on existing stockpiles, which he further admits is unsustainable. Furthermore he assumes no growth in demand even though his own estimate of uranium expansion requirements of 2.5 to 3.5 times the current capacity over the next 20 years exceeds the EIA forecast [9] of approximately three percent per year. I submit that only RAR be included as this is all that is discovered (and it includes Coles Hill), 90 percent recovery (which might be optimistic given Figure 1), and three percent growth (which is the industry assumption). Furthermore, I use demand of 70 kilotons per year rather than production which soon will have to be met as stockpiles are finite. If we assume Rogner’s 3.5 times growth forecast is correct then uranium runs out in 23 years. In other words, the difference is not different data on uranium supply but bookkeeping.

If we wish to generate all of humanity’s exosomatic energy from nuclear power, RAR would last all of three years and even including all the undiscovered speculative resources, these would only last 11 years. Nuclear power cannot possibly be considered a viable long term source for the bulk of our energy needs. Why are we contemplating expanding the most expensive energy source, the most heavily subsidized, and far and away the most reckless and dangerous when it can easily be replaced with the cheapest and most reliable resource of all; that being conservation?

Both Dittmer and Storm van Leeuwen expect that increased exploration will not result in the discovery of high quality ore grades but simply expand the inventory of high cost deposits. Rogner agrees. “Some analysts expect that the next generation of uranium projects will have significantly higher costs than the mines that are currently in operation. Recent re-evaluations of uranium deposits resulted in a larger resource base, albeit at higher production costs.” He adds that the cost basis of addition of new deposits “seems to confirm that the exploration rush has primarily resulted in high-cost discoveries.” Rogner is not at all sanguine about uranium extraction from sea water, as is reasonable. He mentions thorium but no reactor today can burn thorium and no commercial thorium reactor design exists despite the fact that this technology has been touted since the 1950s. He is not even particularly optimistic about breeder reactors and indeed after decades of effort and investment there is no such thing as a commercial breeder reactor in service. They seem to catch fire. While researching this and prior articles on nuclear power, I recall reading that in the summer of 2010 there was only one operational commercial breeder reactor at the time in Monju, Japan. Here is Monju’s history [10].

  • Monju breeder reactor construction begins 1986
  • Reaches criticality 1994
  • Accidental major fire December 1995
  • Restarted May 2010
  • 2nd accident August 2010 shuts it down again
  • Reactor has generated electricity in aggregate for one hour during its entire lifetime.

A 2010 research report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials [11] concludes “Because of the high costs and reliability and safety issues …, however, no commercial breeder reactors have been deployed.” And “after six decades and the expenditure of the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars, the promise of breeder reactors remains largely unfulfilled and efforts to commercialize them have been steadily cut back in most countries.”

Ever honest, Rogner attributes the recent fall in uranium prices to slippage in nuclear power generation “owing to reactor closures, decommissioning and lengthy shutdowns for maintenance and repair (e.g. the Kashiwazaki Kariwa units in Japan, owing to an earthquake).” Rogner is writing in 2010 before the Fukushima disaster. The Kariwa shutdown is a completely unrelated and apparently routine loss of power generation. Reactors are shut down all the time. Rogner attributes the 2007 increase in the spot price of uranium to “several technical failures in major producing mines in Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan adversely affecting global production capabilities.” One wonders if these Canadian technical failures released any toxic and radioactive wastes into the surrounding communities. These are the same folks who will be running things at Coles Hill so it is not an idle question. For technologies which are sixty years old and presumably mature, both uranium mining and nuclear power generation are quite unstable in unpredictable and risky ways.

Yet Rogner concludes that “even without considering the 10.4 mtU of undiscovered and speculative uranium resources, unconventional uranium occurrences or reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, uranium availability per se does not pose a constraint to a possible expansion of nuclear energy.” Unfortunately Rogner does not make this case. In fact, as we see he is not even at all confident in uranium extraction from sea water, breeder reactors or thorium reactors, the usually overhyped pro-nuclear technologies. He is putting lipstick on a pig.


[1] Editorial “Beyond Mining”, Nature Geoscience, Vol. 4, October 2011, http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v4/n10/full/ngeo1291.html

[2] http://www.stormsmith.nl/report20071013/partA.pdf

[3] http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf11.html

[4] http://www.worldenergy.org/publications/3040.asp

[5] Michael Dittmar, “The End of Cheap Uranium”, Institute of Particle Physics, ETH, 8093 Zurich, Switzerland, June 17, 2011 http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1106/1106.3617v2.pdf

[6] Michael Dittmar, “The Future of Nuclear Energy: Facts and Fiction An update using 2009/2010 Data”, Institute of Particle Physics, ETH, 8093 Zurich, Switzerland, January 21, 2011 http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1101/1101.4189v1.pdf

[7] Rogner’s two chapters on uranium and nuclear energy are contained in http://www.worldenergy.org/publications/3040.asp

[8] Uranium 2009: Resources, Production and Demand (Red Book), a joint report of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency (NEA/IAEA, 2010) see also http://www.iaea.org/OurWork/ST/NE/NEFW/documents/RawMaterials/RTC-Ghana-2010/5.RedBook.pdf

[9] Steve Fetter, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy “How long will the world’s uranium supplies last?” http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-long-will-global-uranium-deposits-last

[10] Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monju_Nuclear_Power_Plant

[11] Cochran, Feiveson, Patterson, Pshakin, Ramana, Schneider, Suzuki, von Hippel, Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status, A research report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, February 2010

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