MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Africa's No-Win on Uranium

Published by MAC on 2006-01-18


Africa's No-Win on Uranium

18th January 2006

One thing seems clear: today's uranium exploration is being targeted primarily at Africa. But that's perhaps the only certainty in the debate over future reliance on nuclear-powered (we should really call it "uranium powered") electricity generation.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IEAE) last week cast a shadow over the optimism, recently expressed by certain governments (notably India, China and Australia), that the world is on the brink of a major expansion in atomic energy which, some claim, will miraculously counter the impacts of global greenhouse gas contributions to adverse climate change.

In fact, according to the IAEA, there will probably be no major expansion in nuclear generation over the next 20-30 years (the period in which massive reductions of carbon output are essential) . Moreover, uranium's share of gross electricity output is actually likely to go down from the present 16% to around 12%. Although this proportion may have risen to 20-25% by 2050, by then it will be far too late for uranium power to have made any substantial impact on reducing global warming.

Twenty nine reactors are currently under construction around the world - just over half of which are located in Asia, with INDIA leading the way and CHINA not far behind.

How many of these will actually come on stream? And how much uranium will they require? At present that's almost anyone's guess. The IAEA itself predicts that coal, "renewables", and gas will far outstrip uranium in meeting electricity demand within the next twenty three years. But, even if demand for nucear power were to double over the next quarter of a century, African mining authorities would be wildly over-optimistic to bank on bringing into production more than a tiny fraction of the curent prospects on the continent.

While Namibia (which hosts Rio Tinto's Rossing mine) has awarded more than a score of licences to uranium miners in the past six months alone, the Zambian government recently declared it wouldn't rush into doing so and there is strong resistance to the Australian company, Paladin ,from civil society in Malawi.

For Africans, it almost inevitably seems like a Losers' game. If you pin your hopes on uranium mining as a new generator of GDP, they will be dashed as expansion in global nuclear demand fails to materialise.

But, if African peoples once again yield their resources to foreign powers, they may end up with the worst of the potentially deadly (and radioactive) consequences of mining them.

[Comment by Nostromo Research, London January 18 2007]


ANALYSIS - Nuclear Power Faces Reduced Role in Energy Mix

Planet Ark UK

9th January 2007

LONDON - Nuclear power's share of global power supply is likely to shrink over the next few decades as political indecision and public opposition stunt its growth.

Even optimists do not see a big expansion in nuclear power's share of electricity production over the next few decades, despite governments warming to it as fears over climate change and security of energy supply intensify.

"In relative shares, in most projections out to 2030 nuclear power is going to decline," Hans-Holger Rogner, head of nuclear energy planning at the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Reuters.

The IAEA expects nuclear power to produce 12-13 percent of global electricity by 2030, down from the current 16 percent, while the International Energy Agency forecasts 10-14 percent. But Rogner said that long construction times, planning obstacles, a lack of trained nuclear engineers and lingering public fear all hindered the progress of nuclear energy.

"Even if there is a momentum of rising expectations for nuclear power, it will take time to propagate to the system," he said. "Many countries, even nuclear countries, have lost the capability. They don't have the licensing authorities in place any more, and they have to re-educate their people."

The IAEA forecasts an increase in nuclear generation capacity of 20-30 percent by 2030, but as overall electricity generation capacity is going to double in that period -- with most of that met by coal, renewables and gas-fired plants -- nuclear looks like being left behind.

Beyond 2030 is very hard to predict because it mostly depends on whether fears over climate change override the fear of nuclear power that still lingers 20 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

"One accident could set everything back," Rogner said. "If we have a little bit more climate catastrophe it may just go the other direction."

If there is a big shift towards nuclear over the next few decades, amid accelerating climate change and diminishing fossil fuel reserves, the technology might grow its share of generation, but not until the middle of the century and beyond.

"Our 2050 projections, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios and so on... you get into the 20 to 25 percent range of nuclear generated electricity," Rogner said.

CLIMATE CHANGE

The global response to climate change, together with soaring oil and gas prices, has helped bring nuclear power out from the shadow cast by Chernobyl.

But growing political discussion in the developed world about the benefits of the technology has yet to result in large scale nuclear build, while Europe's ageing, state-built reactors hobble towards retirement.

"Is it just lip service that our politicians pay or do they really mean it?" Rogner said. "That will make a difference over the next 20 to 30 years."

Because of the huge costs involved in building new nuclear plants and disposing of the waste, private companies demand investment security from governments, particularly a long-term, global cost on carbon emissions. There is no sign of that yet.

Even where there is a cost for carbon, potential investors in new European reactors are reluctant to commit to new build because Europe's CO2 trading scheme currently ends in 2012.

"It's hard to see private industry investing in nuclear power stations without guarantees from government, not only for carbon but also for... waste disposal and decommissioning," Andrew Nind of Poyry Energy Consulting said.

Nind said that increasingly liberalised markets of Europe discourage new nuclear build, but that growing environmental concerns might force governments to assume enough of the risks involved to encourage private industry to build it.

"A lot will depend on the weather and the political will to do something about global warming," he said.

GROWTH AREAS

As it stands, Asia will probably see the biggest nuclear energy growth over the next few decades, observers say.

The IAEA says 16 of the 29 reactors being built are in developing countries. Most of those are in Asia, with India leading the pack with seven new reactors and China just behind.

Meanwhile, 20 years after Chernobyl, public distrust of nuclear power lingers in Europe and its role in generation there is likely to shrivel as political indecision and public opposition persist.

Story by Daniel Fineren

REUTERS NEWS SERVICE

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