Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Peak uranium?

marklynas.org: Peak uranium? Article in Prospect (UK)

reply from Keith Thomas to There isn't enough uranium!! on 27th June, 2005. . See below for an overview of the conversation.

According to David Fleming (writing in June 2005 Prospect), uranium supplies will soon reach their peak if we turn to nuclear power as a replacement for the energy generated by coal and oil or to generate the energy to produce hydrogen. The rich uranium rich ore will soon no longer be available and the remaining poorer grades of ore would take more energy to process than they yield.

It is not the mining process that makes the really serious demands for energy, but the milling. All too soon, it would be necessary to mill hard ores with a uranium oxide content of 0.02 per cent - that is, one part in 5000. For every tonne of uranium oxide they extracted, the suppliers would have to mine, mill and dispose of some 5000 tonnes of granite. At the same time, it would be reduced to milling soft ores (sandstone) with a uranium oxide content of just 0.01 per cent - 10,000 tonnes of ore to be mined, milled and disposed of for every tonne of uranium oxide extracted.

It is with ores at these grades the energy balance turns against nuclear power. If ores any poorer than this were to be used, while at the same time maintaining proper standards of waste control in all operations, nuclear power production would go into energy deficit: it would be putting more energy into the process than it could extract from it. Its contribution to meeting the world's energy needs would become negative.

At present, nuclear power is not a major producer of energy. It accounts for about 16 per cent of the world's electricity supply, which in turn accounts for about 16 per cent of all the energy supplied, so that its total contribution to the world's present energy consumption is about 2.6 per cent.

However, if nuclear power supplied the world with all its electricity, then the total quantity of useful ores on the planet would be sufficient to keep the nuclear industry going for just six years. If, in addition, the world's road and rail transport fleet were to be run on hydrogen derived from nuclear power, then the useful life of the industry would be about two years.

Like oil exploration, from the 1960s to the 1980s, exploration for uranium deposits was intensive; most that was there to be found was found. Some small deposits doubtless remain to be discovered but, as the geology of uranium is now well known, we can say there are almost certainly no major new discoveries to be made.

Although uranium is an abundant element in the Earth's crust, the energy needed to extract the bulk of it would be more than could ever be recovered.

Breeder reactors ? which would be 100 times as efficient as today's thermal reactors - are still not technically feasible.

An expansion in the nuclear power industry will suck up the funds which should be made available for conservation and renewables. It will be a source of low-level radiation, of materials for proliferation and of carbon dioxide emissions. It will produce some very expensive energy. And then it will hit its limits. The industry will be left with huge reserves of low-grade uranium ores, too poor to be usable, and an equally huge inheritance of contaminated waste which has to be dealt with.

The above is plagiarised and summarised from Fleming's article available at the prospect website and also republished in the Australian Financial Review at:


Unfortunately, Fleming's article is not referenced, but the structure of his argument and his broad, long-term view gives it credibility. He draws on analysis being done by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith, both nuclear scientists.


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