It takes a lot of fossil energy to mine uranium, and then to extract and prepare the right isotope for use in a nuclear reactor. It takes even more fossil energy to build the reactor, and, when its life is over, to decommission it and look after its radioactive waste.
As a result, with current technology, there is only a limited amount of uranium ore in the world that is rich enough to allow more energy to be produced by the whole nuclear process than the process itself consumes. This amount of ore might be enough to supply the world's total current electricity demand for about six years.
Moreover, because of the amount of fossil fuel and fluorine used in the enrichment process, significant quantities of greenhouse gases are released. As a result, nuclear energy is by no means a 'climate-friendly' technology.
How Long Before Uranium Shortages?
Posted by Gail the Actuary on February 19, 2009
URANIUM RESOURCES AND NUCLEAR ENERGY
Lower grade uranium could hasten climate change pace
By Rob Edwards Environment Editor
AS the use of nuclear power expands, it will become increasingly ineffective at combating global warming, warns a report by an independent think tank published today .
The Oxford Research Group argues that a worldwide shortage of high- grade uranium ore will force new nuclear reactors to exploit increasingly lower-grade ores for their fuel. Because that requires more energy to extract, the process will result in ever-greater amounts of climate-wrecking pollution.
A report by the Dutch nuclear expert Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen says that, after 2034, the grade of uranium ore being dug out of the ground will fall dramatically. “This will cause nuclear power to become increasingly inefficient and expensive, leading to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions,” he says.
By 2070 the grade of uranium ore being used will have become so poor he predicts that nuclear power will become a net energy user. At the end of 2005 the world’s known recoverable uranium resources amounted to about 3.6 million tonnes, mostly in Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan.
A similar point will be made tomorrow when the Scottish National Party (SNP) publishes its energy review. It has been written for the party by leading energy experts Stephen Salter, Kerr MacGregor and Clifford Jones.
The SNP review argues that within 50 years or less carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power could be as high as those from gas-fired power stations. Nuclear technology also releases chlorine and fluorine which can be thousands of times more effective at causing climate chaos, it points out.
The value of nuclear power as a weapon against climate change might have been exaggerated, the review concludes. “The advantage may not be as large as has been claimed.”
The nuclear industry, however, is optimistic that new reserves of uranium will be discovered. And, if not, it will rely on the fast breeder reactor, which extracts up to 60 times more energy from uranium than conventional reactors.
According to Luis Echavárri, director-general of the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD club of industrialised nations, fast reactors will be needed in 60 years’ time. They are “most attractive from a sustainable point of view”, he said.
But the industry’s view is dismissed by the Green MSP Chris Ballance. The fast reactor was a “discredited technology across the world”, he said. “And building nuclear power stations to tackle climate change is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.”
09 July 2006