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Global Nuclear Expansion Based on Plentiful Uranium Supply

Published by MAC on 2006-06-06

Global Nuclear Expansion Based on Plentiful Uranium Supply

VIENNA, Austria, ENS

6th June 2006

Over the next 20 years, world nuclear energy capacity is expected to increase between 22 percent and 43 percent, according to a new estimate issued by the UN nuclear watchdog agency. At that rate of increase and using current technology, there is enough uranium to last for the next 85 years, although the study says that fast reactor technology would lengthen this period to over 2,500 years.

Released Thursday in Vienna, the new edition of the world reference guide "Red Book": Uranium 2005: Resources, Production and Demand," was jointly prepared by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of 30 industrial democracies.

Head of the IAEA Department of Nuclear Energy Yuri Sokolov told reporters, "There is plenty of uranium assuming the industry keeps moving ahead with exploration and new mines. The message in the Red Book is that, for the immediate future at least, they are doing precisely that."

Total conventional uranium resources are estimated at 14.8 million metric tons, the Red Book shows.

Of that amount, Sokolov said the nuclear experts are confident of 4.7 million metric tons of "identified resources," which can be mined for less than $130 per kilo. "We know they exist because we can see them in mines that are already dug, or in rock samples that have been analyzed for the next mine, or they can be inferred from the surrounding geology," he said. World uranium resources in total are considered to be much higher. Based on geological evidence and knowledge of uranium in phosphates, the study considers that more than 35 million metric tons are available for exploitation.

"One important reference point to note is that in the whole 60 year history of the nuclear era through today, the total amount of uranium that has been produced adds up to about 2.2 million metric tons," Sokolov said.

If world nuclear capacity increasts 22 percent by 2025, the industry would require about 80,000 metric tons each year. If the increase is up to 43 percent, the industry would require 100,000 metric tons per year, the new Red Book shows.

"Those levels are certainly achievable based on industry expansion activities and plans today," said Sokolov. "They simply mean that the activities have to continue and the plans have to be implemented."

Critics of the nuclear power industry say the problem of waste disposal has not been solved and highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel continues to pile up in facilities that may release radiation into the environment, and may also be targets for terrorists.

The two major uranium producers are Canada and Australia, both OECD countries. In 2004, Canada produced 29 percent of the world's uranium supply and Australia produced 22 percent. Most of the other major producing countries – Kazakhstan, Niger, Namibia, Russia, and Uzbekistan – add up to less than 10 percent of the total.

Over the next five years, new mines are expected in Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Brazil, India and other countries. They would add around 30,000 tons of uranium of annual production capacity, about a 60 percent increase over today’s capacity. Australia is going to study whether or not it should develop nuclear power, Prime Minister John Howard, said today.

Until now Australia has relied on coal for its energy, although 40 percent of known uranium reserves are found on the continent. Howard said that a panel of experts would examine whether it is "economically feasible to contemplate nuclear power stations in our country."

"I have always maintained that holding the reserves of uranium that we do, it is foolish to see ourselves simply as an exporter," the Prime Minister said. If the review backs nuclear power, private companies would be able to build and operate nuclear power stations. To date, Australia has only one research reactor in a Sydney suburb.

The United States, Russia, China and India, among other countries, have recently announced plans to build more nuclear power plants.

Sokolov said nuclear power expansion is a worldwide phenomenon.

"The spot price of uranium has also increased fivefold since 2001, fuelling major new initiatives and investment in exploration," he said. There is currently a revival of the uranium industry after the extended period of low prices and low activity.

The IAEA report makes the point that diverse sources of uranium enhance supply security. Sokolov says that any risk to supply security now comes not from limited resources or political instability, but from possible delays in moving from discovery to production, particularly if demand increases rapidly.

"One possible driver of a large nuclear power expansion is the introduction of increasingly stringent environmental constraints on power generation, especially on greenhouse gas emissions," said Sokolov.

"Nuclear power, including the fuel cycle chain from mining through waste disposal and decommissioning, has one of the lowest greenhouse gas emission levels of all power generation options – 1-6 gC/kWh of electricity – about the same as wind and solar power and well below coal, oil and natural gas.

Given this advantage of nuclear power, a significant tightening of greenhouse gas emission limits creates incentives for an accelerated nuclear power expansion," Sokolov said.

The IAEA foresees continuing advances in nuclear technology that will allow much better utilization of uranium resources and may also help solve the issue of nuclear waste. Fast reactor designs are capable of extracting more that 30 times more energy from uranium than today's reactors, and they already exist.

These reactors can, in principle, "not only provide more effective use of uranium but also incinerate long-lived wastes," Sokolov said. "At the moment they need to be improved for better commercial competitiveness."

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