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Peak Uranium: the uncertain future of nuclear energy

Peak Uranium: the uncertain future of nuclear energy thumbnail
Alice Friedmann recently posted on her blog “Energy Skeptic” a summary of the discussion on nuclear energy from my book “Extracted” (Chelsea Green, 2014). It is a well-done summary that I am reproducing here. Note that the text below mixes some of the considerations of the main text (written by me) and of one of the “glimpses”; that were written by other authors. The glimpse that reports the results of a model of future uranium production was written by Michael Dittmar. He told me in a recent mail exchange that his model seems to be doing pretty well more than two years after its results were published in “Extracted”. (U.B.)


Peak Uranium by Ugo Bardi from “Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet”

Figure 1. cumulative uranium consumption by IPCC model 2015-2100 versus measured and inferred Uranium resources

[ Figure 1 shows that the next IPCC report counts very much on nuclear power to keep warming below 2.5 C.  The black line represents how many million tonnes of reasonably and inferred resources under $260 per kg remain (2016 IAEA redbook). Clearly most of the IPCC models are unrealistic.  The IPCC greatly exaggerates the amount of oil and coal reserves as well. Source: David Hughes (private communication)

This is an extract of Ugo Bardi’s must read “Extracted” about the limits of production of uranium. Many well-meaning citizens favor nuclear power because it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases.  The problem is that the Achilles heel of civilization is our dependency on trucks of all kinds, which run on diesel fuel because diesel engines transformed our civilization with their ability to do heavy work better than steam, gasoline, or any other kind of engine.  Trucks are required to keep the supply chains going that every person and business on earth require, from food to the materials and construction of the roads they run on, as well as mining, agriculture, construction trucks, logging etc. 

Nuclear power plants are not a solution, since trucks can’t run on electricity, so anything that generates electricity is not a solution, nor is it likely that the electric grid can ever be 100% renewable (read “When trucks stop running”, this can’t be explained in a sound-bite).  And we certainly aren’t going to be able to replace a billion trucks and equipment with diesel engines by the time the energy crunch hits with something else, there is nothing else.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Although there is a rebirth of interest in nuclear energy, there is still a basic problem: uranium is a mineral resource that exists in finite amounts.

Even as early as the 1950s it was clear that the known uranium resources were not sufficient to fuel the “atomic age” for a period longer than a few decades.

That gave rise to the idea of “breeding” fissile plutonium fuel from the more abundant, non-fissile isotope 238 of uranium. It was a very ambitious idea: fuel the industrial system with an element that doesn’t exist in measurable amounts on Earth but would be created by humans expressly for their own purposes. The concept gave rise to dreams of a plutonium-based economy. This ambitious plan was never really put into practice, though, at least not in the form that was envisioned in the 1950s and ’60s. Several attempts were made to build breeder reactors in the 1970s, but the technology was found to be expensive, difficult to manage, and prone to failure. Besides, it posed unsolvable strategic problems in terms of the proliferation of fissile materials that could be used to build atomic weapons. The idea was thoroughly abandoned in the 1970s, when the US Senate enacted a law that forbade the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

A similar fate was encountered by another idea that involved “breeding” a nuclear fuel from a naturally existing element—thorium. The concept involved transforming the 232 isotope of thorium into the fissile 233 isotope of uranium, which then could be used as fuel for a nuclear reactor (or for nuclear warheads). The idea was discussed at length during the heydays of the nuclear industry, and it is still discussed today; but so far, nothing has come out of it and the nuclear industry is still based on mineral uranium as fuel.

Today, the production of uranium from mines is insufficient to fuel the existing nuclear reactors. The gap between supply and demand for mineral uranium has been as large as almost 50% from 1995 to 2005, though gradually reduced the past few years.

The U.S. mined 370,000 metric tons the past 50 years, peaking in 1981 at 17,000 tons/year.  Europe peaked in the 1990s after extracting 460,000 tons.  Today nearly all of the 21,000 ton/year needed to keep European nuclear plants operating is imported.

The European mining cycle allows us to determine how much of the originally estimated uranium reserves could be extracted versus what actually happened before it cost too much to continue. Remarkably in all countries where mining has stopped it did so at well below initial estimates (50 to 70%). Therefore it’s likely ultimate production in South Africa and the United States can be predicted as well.

Table 1. The European mining cycle allows us to determine how much of the originally estimated uranium reserves could be extracted versus what actually happened before it cost too much to continue. Remarkably in all countries where mining has stopped it did so at well below initial estimates (50 to 70%). Therefore it’s likely ultimate production in South Africa and the United States can be predicted as well.

The Soviet Union and Canada each mined 450,000 tons. By 2010 global cumulative production was 2.5 million tons.  Of this, 2 million tons has been used, and the military had most of the remaining half a million tons.

The most recent data available show that mineral uranium accounts now for about 80% of the demand.  The gap is filled by uranium recovered from the stockpiles of the military industry and from the dismantling of old nuclear warheads.

This turning of swords into plows is surely a good idea, but old nuclear weapons and military stocks are a finite resource and cannot be seen as a definitive solution to the problem of insufficient supply. With the present stasis in uranium demand, it is possible that the production gap will be closed in a decade or so by increased mineral production. However, prospects are uncertain, as explained in “The End of Cheap Uranium.” In particular, if nuclear energy were to see a worldwide expansion, it is hard to see how mineral production could satisfy the increasing uranium demand, given the gigantic investments that would be needed, which are unlikely to be possible in the present economically challenging times.

At the same time, the effects of the 2011 incident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant are likely to negatively affect the prospects of growth for nuclear energy production, and with the concomitant reduced demand for uranium, the surviving reactors may have sufficient fuel to remain in operation for several decades.

It’s true that there are large quantities of uranium in the Earth’s crust, but there are limited numbers of deposits that are concentrated enough to be profitably mined. If we tried to extract those less concentrated deposits, the mining process would require far more energy than the mined uranium could ultimately produced [negative EROI].

Modeling Future Uranium Supplies

Uranium supply and demand to 2030

Table 2. Uranium supply and demand to 2030

Michael Dittmar used historical data for countries and single mines, to create a model that projected how much uranium will likely be extracted from existing reserves in the years to come. The model is purely empirical and is based on the assumption that mining companies, when planning the extraction profile of a deposit, project their operations to coincide with the average lifetime of the expensive equipment and infrastructure it takes to mine uranium—about a decade.

Gradually the extraction becomes more expensive as some equipment has to be replaced and the least costly resources are mined. As a consequence, both extraction and profits decline. Eventually, the company stops exploiting the deposit and the mine closes. The model depends on both geological and economic constraints, but the fact that it has turned out to be valid for so many past cases shows that it is a good approximation of reality.
This said, the model assumes the following points:

  • Mine operators plan to operate the mine at a nearly constant production level on the basis of detailed geological studies and to manage extraction so that the plateau can be sustained for approximately 10 years.
  • The total amount of extractable uranium is approximately the achieved (or planned) annual plateau value multiplied by 10.

Applying this model to well-documented mines in Canada and Australia, we arrive at amazingly correct results. For instance, in one case, the model predicted a total production of 319 ± 24 kilotons, which was very close to the 310 kilotons actually produced. So we can be reasonably confident that it can be applied to today’s larger currently operating and planned uranium mines.

Considering that the achieved plateau production from past operations was usually smaller than the one planned, this model probably overestimates the future production.

Table 2 summarizes the model’s predictions for future uranium production, comparing those findings against forecasts from other groups and against two different potential future nuclear scenarios.

As you can see, the forecasts obtained by this model indicate substantial supply constraints in the coming decades—a considerably different picture from that presented by the other models, which predict larger supplies.

The WNA’s 2009 forecast differs from our model mainly by assuming that existing and future mines will have a lifetime of at least 20 years. As a result, the WNA predicts a production peak of 85 kilotons/year around the year 2025, about 10 years later than in the present model, followed by a steep decline to about 70 kilotons/year in 2030. Despite being relatively optimistic, the forecast by the WNA shows that the uranium production in 2030 would not be higher than it is now. In any case, the long deposit lifetime in the WNA model is inconsistent with the data from past uranium mines. The 2006 estimate from the EWG was based on the Red Book 2005 RAR (reasonably assured resources) and IR (inferred resources) numbers. The EWG calculated an upper production limit based on the assumption that extraction can be increased according to demand until half of the RAR or at most half of the sum of the RAR and IR resources are used. That led the group to estimate a production peak around the year 2025.

Assuming all planned uranium mines are opened, annual mining will increase from 54,000 tons/year to a maximum of 58 (+ or – 4) thousand tons/year in 2015. [ Bardi wrote this before 2013 and 2014 figures were known. 2013 was 59,673 (highest total) and 56,252 in 2014.]

Declining uranium production will make it impossible to obtain a significant increase in electrical power from nuclear plants in the coming decades.

 Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi

23 Comments on "Peak Uranium: the uncertain future of nuclear energy"

  1. Anonymous on Sat, 14th Jan 2017 4:13 pm 

    While there it arguably true humans are burning through Uranium in its rusty, poorly built nuclear reactors at an unsustainable clip (sound familiar?), I don’t see this issue as being nuclear powers biggest concern. Even if we had an assured endless supply of HQ uranium to burn in our leaky reactors,(we dont of course), that would hardly matter.

    Nuke plants would still be unsafe, prohibitively expensive, risky and dangerous to operate regardless of the quantity or quality of nuclear fuel available.

  2. Kathy C on Sat, 14th Jan 2017 5:07 pm 

    Anonymous, exactly.
    And then there is the problem of solar flares and EMP.
    I have posted several times the article “400 Chernobyls”
    That information is echoed here by Dr. Jeff Masters of weather underground.

  3. jjhman on Sat, 14th Jan 2017 5:28 pm 

    This is an odd jumble of an article. I expect better from Ugo Bardi. On this website, and on the old Oil Drum, there have been a number of competing articles about the amount of available Uranium and Thorium available to enable a reactor renaissance. I would have like to see this article address some of the conflicting analyses rather than just make a set of statements wsome of which are clearly not well thought out. For example dismissing Thorium altogether just because nothing has come of it yet.

    I quit the nuclear industry in 1979 partly because I believed it was going nowhere and that that was a good thing. The argument for continuing to go nowhere needs to be better than this.

  4. dave thompson on Sat, 14th Jan 2017 6:39 pm 

    The real question when it comes to using the nuke power is, what kind of legacy are we currently leaving future generations, if in fact there will be any future generations.

  5. GregT on Sat, 14th Jan 2017 6:39 pm 

    “there have been a number of competing articles about the amount of available Uranium and Thorium available to enable a reactor renaissance.”

    Unless the humans started respecting their one and only ever planet, and stopped breeding like rats, what would be the point? The end result would be the same, just on a larger scale.

  6. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 15th Jan 2017 2:50 am 

    The Uranium fuel cycle sucks.

    If we used Thorium as the nuclear fuel, it is
    far more available and we could NOT run out
    of such fuel.

    Thorium produces way more energy and way less waste.

    Thorium would work great.
    Since it would work, then it is not allowed to design and build reactors that use Thorium.

    The big mommy Hillary government will slap your
    wrist with a ruler, if you use any Thorium
    in your new reactor design. You are only
    allowed to use Uranium, since it produces
    lots of nuclear waste, and it will run out.

    Somebody says ‘reactors aren’t useful because
    they only produce electricity’.
    Bull, use the reactor and generator to produce oil.
    It is possible and it is the next step, is
    just make our own oil. Would take a colossal
    energy input, but a Thorium reactor would give
    you that input energy to manufacture oil.

  7. dissident on Sun, 15th Jan 2017 6:06 am 

    This article assumes that nuclear power plants will remain dinosaur water-cooled non-breeder designs. It makes the routine mistake of predicting the future based on the past data.

    Some countries are actively commercializing closed cycle fuel systems based on fast neutron breeder reactors. But those countries are not part of the self-anointed navel of creation that is NATO.

  8. Davy on Sun, 15th Jan 2017 8:07 am 

    NUK power is going to have less and less relevance except as a liability. Closed fuel systems offer nothing to improve on this negative situation. The smartest nations have not embraced NUK power.

  9. curlyq3 on Sun, 15th Jan 2017 10:33 am 

    Howdy jjhman, you state that “I quit the nuclear industry in 1979 partly because I believed it was going nowhere and that that was a good thing”. I would like to say that we can now affirm that the nuclear industry is definitely going somewhere and it is not where any sane person would want to go. Nuclear profiteers and their apologists will likely be hiding from the masses of Humanity that will be seeking revenge for the toxic mess that has been created that can not be removed from our environment. And I for one believe that many Nuclear advocates truly had good intentions but were foolish to pretend that the waste disposal issue would someday be figured out. This mess will be a burden on Humanity for ages to come.


  10. penury on Sun, 15th Jan 2017 11:14 am 

    If memory serves me (and it usually fails) the U.S. has been running out of fission grade uranium for the past 50 years, and only the Navajo could save us. At the time most of us thought that would be a good thing, but I am still waiting for GODOT.

  11. Alice Friedemann on Sun, 15th Jan 2017 1:09 pm 

    Electricity is not a solution for the liquid fuels diesel energy crisis.

    The main reason few nuclear power plants will not be built is economic. And there are many other reasons as well:
    Why Nuclear Power is not an alternative to fossil fuels

    There’s the huge issue of nuclear waste

    A Nuclear spent fuel fire at Peach Bottom in Pennsylvania could force 18 million people to evacuate

    Book review of “Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste”

    The numbers of nuclear plants are going to go DOWN:
    Nuclear power is too expensive, 37 costly reactors predicted to shut down
    A third of Nuclear Reactors are going to die of old age in the next 10-20 years

    It’s crazy on this forum to argue there are no limits to uranium (or thorium), especially because it hasn’t happened yet and therefore it never will. Bardi can’t be expected to spend much time on other people’s estimates of uranium – his book is about MINING, a HUGE topic.

    That’s why this is a must read book, the scope is amazing and though I’ve been reading about energy/resources for 17 years, was full of important information I’d never seen before. And it is so well written, I could hardly put it down.

  12. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 15th Jan 2017 2:32 pm 

    There are limits on Uranium.
    But there is no limit to Thorium. It is everywhere.
    Your constraint instead is how long til the sun blows up.
    In perhaps 800 million years, the Earth will be too hot
    to be inhabitable. Oceans will boil away.
    For that duration of time, we can’t run out of Thorium.

  13. R1verat on Sun, 15th Jan 2017 7:00 pm 

    What scares the living crap out of me is that even the “experts” say it would take 40-60 years to decommission a nuke plant. Wikipedia quotes 50 years. How will that play out with energy restraints?

  14. makati1 on Sun, 15th Jan 2017 7:25 pm 

    R!verat, it should be obvious that there is no way that 400+ nuke plants will EVER be ‘decommissioned’ in any safe way. They will be ‘extended’ until the SHTF and then they will be shut down and abandoned. Some will likely go to meltdown before that happens.

    Most nuke plants in the U$ are over 40 years (their design lifetime.)old. Most will be extended another 20 years because there is no money to do anything else. In those 20 years, failures will increase. OR, the SHTF and the above scenario takes place. Neither is good for life on this planet.

  15. makati1 on Sun, 15th Jan 2017 7:28 pm 

    GSR, Thorium is plentiful, but so is the gold in the oceans or a lot of rare minerals in the earth, but that does not mean that they are recoverable at a price that is profitable. Keep in mind: NO PROFIT – NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. Thorium power – NOT going to happen.

  16. penury on Mon, 16th Jan 2017 4:14 pm 

    I agree that thorium reactors will never happen. The current nuclear plants will eat up any monies available and there will be no funding for clean-up re-building or storage of waste for the next thousand years.When (not if) fossil fuels peak and decline there will be no magic bullet left to save humans, if we do not kill everything on the planet before we go the decaying nuclear waste we leave behind will, and trust me I am not overly dramatic, do your own research.

  17. Go Speed Racer on Tue, 17th Jan 2017 1:19 am 

    Why will not a Thorium reactor ever happen?
    It already has happened! Weinberg was running
    one in the 1950’s, until Nixon and his tricky dicky, cancelled the whole project to shut it down “I am not a crook”. That is the whole point.

    So when you say a Thorium Reactor ‘will never happen’ its sort of automatically a 100% false statement since it already did happen.
    (You could say in 1980 that “a 747 will never fly, it is too heavy”. However, a 747 has already flown so your statement is false). You can even take an existing crappy crummy Uranium reactor, open the lid, dump in some Thorium fuel, and it will burn it. It’s like saying an ‘Ethanol car will never happen’, but the car in your driveway will, in fact, burn some ethanol with its gasoline.

    Anyway, whatever. I agree that any solution to the energy crisis will be 100% blocked to make sure that civilization comes to an end.
    It won’t be blocked by all the ‘no no no addicts on this chat board, it will be blocked by all the dumb stupid assinine MBA business rich billionaire MBA fraternity boy dickheads like Paul Ryan Mitt Romney and John Roberts…. along with twisted old nag bitches like Hillary Clinton the walking talking cadaver with the colostomy bag, always knowing what is best for us. Trump will also block Thorium nuclear power, and anything else that provides unlimited cheap energy, because Trump is greedy and stupid and therefore incapable of understanding any scientific principle of any kind, whatsoever, at any time in his entire life. He only understands that he needs more money, because umpteen billion just isn’t enough.

  18. makati1 on Tue, 17th Jan 2017 1:39 am 

    GSR, you need help. Really. You ignore the real reasons and rant about the false ones. lol

  19. peakyeast on Tue, 17th Jan 2017 5:03 am 

    @GSR: Thorium reactors has their very own set of problems..

    Some of them mentioned here:

    As the article states: Why would India or Japan (even Iran) for that matter not pursue this tech??

    To me it seem there is only one explanation: It is not a viable alternative. Why else would india not expand their test system?

  20. peakyeast on Tue, 17th Jan 2017 5:05 am 

    Damn… Sorry – forgot to TinyURL it…

  21. Fred on Wed, 18th Jan 2017 8:32 am 

    Mass starvation from overpopulation was predicted with such certainty in the 1900’s through 1970’s. Peak Oil was predicted with such certainty in the 1970’s and again in the late 2000’s. Now we have Peak Uranium.

    Do you folks understand how the average person does not believe these dire headlines any more? Too many times people have cried wolf. Folks clearly understand that some people want to raise taxes and lower their standard of living to fight off what MAY happen.

    It’s seems a human condition is to believe the world is about to end very soon or we are at the cusp of a huge revolution or change. The cycle continues it appears.

  22. Davy on Wed, 18th Jan 2017 8:54 am 

    It is also a condition to reject or disregard science when it does not fit into the social narrative of progress. Fred, you are making the traditional point of the failure of crying wolf. The other part of the equation fits now and more than ever of those crying “all is well”. Who do you think is more realistic these days? I can understand in the 70’s disregarding those who cry wolf but today is a different animal.

  23. GregT on Wed, 18th Jan 2017 11:27 am 

    “Mass starvation from overpopulation was predicted with such certainty in the 1900’s through 1970’s. Peak Oil was predicted with such certainty in the 1970’s and again in the late 2000’s.”

    Have patience Fred, while neither one has affected you just yet, billions are already being affected throughout the world. Your turn is coming, soon enough.

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