(read Part 5 here)
World Uranium Reserves
...we continually hear about how the “proven reserves” of uranium will only last ~50 years at current consumption levels.
Lately, the price of uranium ore has increased substantially... This is occurring due to the anticipation of the end of the weapons uranium stockpile, along with improved prospects for increased nuclear power generation. As a result of this price increase, several things are happening. There are now numerous reports of old, lower-grade ore sites going into development, as they will now be profitable. Also, many properties with uranium potential are now being explored, and many are being found to contain economically recoverable uranium. Reserves are increasing as we speak.
The “proven reserve” estimates are flawed for two primary reasons. First of all they do not consider the fact that very little effort, or money, has been put towards uranium exploration thus far. Second, they do not adequately account for the tiny effect that uranium ore price has on final nuclear power price, and the maximum allowable prices that they use to determine “economically recoverable” reserves are far too low.
Current estimates of “economically recoverable” reserves apply an upper price/cost limit of $135/kg for uranium ore. This price cutoff does not sufficiently appreciate the lack of effect that ore cost has on power cost. It corresponds to a power price increase of only ~0.25 cents/kW-hr, versus today’s [Oct 2004] $40/kg ore price. Uranium sources that cost up to $500, and perhaps even ~$1000/kg (which would increase nuclear power’s cost by 1-2 cents/kW-hr) can still be economic, especially in a CO2-emission-constrained world, and/or a world where gas and oil have started to run out. Even at $1000/kg, advanced nuclear plants should be able to produce power at ~6 cents/kW-hr or less. The cost of power from post-production-peak gas or oil plants, or from coal plants with full CO2 sequestration, is likely to be higher than this. Finally, it should be noted that (as discussed later), at a uranium price of $500-1000/kg, breeder reactors become economical, and the uranium supply effectively becomes infinite.
Using the Deffeyes & MacGregor data you can estimate the total reserves of uranium that can be extracted, as a function of the maximum allowable ore cost. As the allowable cost goes up, the potential supply exponentiates. Extrapolations using this data shows that at a (still economical) price of a few hundred dollars per kg of uranium, there is enough recoverable uranium to provide all of our nuclear power needs for several hundred (perhaps 1000) years, even at a greatly increased rate of usage.
And note, this is even for the once-through cycle, which only makes use of the U-235. If we went to breeders, the amount of uranium ore used, per unit of electricity generation, is divided by a factor of 60-70. Not only that, but since 1/60th as much ore is used, the tolerable ore price increases by yet another factor of 60. This, of course, causes another exponential increase in the economically recoverable reserves. If we go with breeders, we have enough economically recoverable uranium to meet all our power needs for tens, probably hundreds of thousands of years. It should be noted, however, that the price of ore will have to go extremely high ($500-1000/kg) before breeding would make economic sense, and this won't happen for well over a century; plenty of time to develop safe, reliable, and economic breeder technology.
In summary, the actual recoverable uranium supply is likely to be enough to last several hundred (up to 1000) years, even using standard reactors. With breeders, it is essentially infinite. Hundreds of thousands of years is certainly enough time to develop fusion power, or renewable sources that can meet all our power needs.
Uranium supply links:
International Atomic Energy Agency: "Over the long term, recycling plutonium from reprocessed spent fuel in thermal reactors as mixed oxide fuel and the introduction of fast breeder reactors to also convert non-fissionable uranium into plutonium would increase the energy potential of today's known uranium reserves by up to 70 times, enough for more than 3 000 years at today's levels of use. Uranium used in a complete fuel cycle not only maintains, but also significantly increases the resource base."
Nuclear Energy Agency: "...with already identified advances in technology these resources can be extended so that nuclear fuel resources become virtually unlimited."
World Nuclear Association:
"Current estimates of all expected uranium resources (including those not yet economic or properly quantified) are four times as great, representing 200 years' supply at today's rate of usage."
"...uranium supplies will be more than adequate to fuel foreseeable expansions of nuclear power. Indeed, in addition to its other noteworthy virtues, an abundant fuel resource will remain a crucial advantage of nuclear power. The world faces many challenges in achieving a global expansion of nuclear energy to fully realise the technology's clean-energy potential. A limited supply of uranium resources is not among them."
also see Supply of Uranium at WNA: "uranium is a very inexpensive energy source to replenish, as society has accepted far higher energy replacement costs to sustain oil resources. This low basic energy resource cost is one argument in favour of a nuclear-hydrogen solution to long-term replacement of oil as a transportation fuel."