Impending global uranium supply gap heralds end of cheap uranium, future of ‘involuntary phase-outs, blackouts and worse’
As the British and American governments signal their renewed commitments to nuclear power as a clean, abundant source of energy that can fuel high growth economies, a new scientific study of worldwide uranium production warns of an imminent supply gap that will result in spiralling fuel costs in the next decades.
The study, based on an analysis of global deposit depletion profiles from past and present uranium mining, forecasts a global uranium mining peak of approximately 58 kilotonnes (kton) by 2015, declining gradually to 54 ktons by 2025, after which production would drop more steeply to at most 41 ktons around 2030. The peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, concludes:
“This amount will not be sufficient to fuel the existing and planned nuclear power plants during the next 10–20 years. In fact, we find that it will be difficult to avoid supply shortages even under a slow 1%/ year worldwide nuclear energy phase-out scenario up to 2025. We thus suggest that a worldwide nuclear energy phase-out is in order.”
But just last week, in response to dire warnings of power blackouts within two years – the same time uranium production will peak according to this study – the UK government announced £10 billion in financial guarantees to the nuclear power industry. Now Energy Secretary Ed Davey promises, “Prices aren’t going to spike: the lights are going to stay on because we’ve got a very well thought-through plan.”
The decision reinforces the government’s focus on nuclear power as central to its national energy strategy. According to the government’s high-nuclear scenario, nuclear power could provide 86% of the UK’s electricity at 75GW of capacity by 2050.
The new study acknowledges the dawn of a new production period in the last five years, during which a total of 250 ktons or uranium has been produced, but points out that increasingly producers must extract lower grade uranium which generates less energy than higher grades. On average, it finds, only 50-70% of initial uranium resource estimates can be extracted.
Developing a model based on precise data about extraction rates and deposits for individual mines in Canada and Australia, the study concludes that planned new mines can only “partially compensate” a production decline from all mines currently in operation:
“After 2015 uranium mining will decline by about 0.5 ktons/year up to 2025 and much faster thereafter… Assuming that the demand side will be increased by 1% annually, we predict both shortages of uranium and (inflation-adjusted) price hikes within the next five years.”
The study suggests that one way to delay the uranium supply crunch until 2025 would be a carefully coordinated “voluntary nuclear energy phase-out.” Another alternative would be to open up access to “the still sizable quantities of the military uranium reserves from the USA and Russia especially after 2013.” If countries do not voluntarily adopt a “slow phase-out scenario”:
“… we predict that the end of the cheap uranium supply will result in a chaotic phase-out scenario with price explosions, supply shortages and possible electricity shortages in many countries.”
Study author Dr. Michael Dittmar, a nuclear physicist at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, described the nuclear component of the UK’s energy strategy to keep the national electric grid going even during the next 10 years as “effectively non-existent.”
The US, China, and India all plan to dramatically ramp up nuclear power production in coming decades, but like the UK, their energy strategies completely overlook potential uranium supply challenges.
Dittmar pointed out that an agreement with Russia supplying the US with 50% of its uranium supply from Russian military reserves ends later this year. The US will either have to “reduce its aging nuclear power plants or to open American military reserves” which will only last “a few years.” China faces similar challenges:
“The euphoric growth of new nuclear power plant construction in China came to somewhat of a standstill since 2011. Compared to the years 2008 to 2010 when construction began for 6, 9 and 10 reactors, during the last years 2011, 2012 and 2013 so far only four new constructions were started in 2012. Nuclear plant construction in China was already running out of steam well before the Fukushima disaster.”
Dittmar said that such developments are consistent with specific warnings of decline he made years ago. On the UK nuclear energy strategy, he added:
“I would suggest to ask the question how much uranium is required during the next 10 years , and where the uranium for the UK should come from during the next 10-20 years. The absence of an answer will already be telling enough.”
Putting this question to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc), a spokesperson said that he could not supply an answer because the information was “commercially sensitive”, and that the way the question was worded made it “technically impossible to answer.” He then said:
“Operation of nuclear power stations is the responsibility of the industry operators who will have their own strategies and processes for sourcing fuel. The majority of the UK fleet is owned and operated by EDF.”