The chart shows (red line) the number of years that currently known exploitable uranium reserves can meet the uranium mining industry requirements. The blue line shows the kilo tonnes of uranium mined from 2003 to 2010. The dotted lines indicate the linear trends. Although the pace is fast for both the increase of mining (6.05% average annual growth rate), and for the depletion of uranium reserves (5.70% average annual decrease), the world still can count on about a century of assured uranium supply under the current commercial conditions and at the present consumption rate.
The core process of nuclear power generation consists of a controlled fission of uranium fuel. Uranium is a radioactive metal commercially exploited from ore deposits, of which 61% currently known world exploitable reserves are located in Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada and Russia. It is worth noting that the big uranium consumers — United States, France and Japan — depend upon far-away suppliers, a fact that undermines the alleged "energetic self-reliance" expected from nuclear power.
Uranium goes through a complete nuclear fuel-cycle that encompasses mining, milling, conversion and enrichment, fuel fabrication, power generation and burn-up, used fuel storage, reprocessing, used fuel disposal and wastes.
Current uranium usage in the world operating 440 nuclear reactors is about 69,000 tonnes per year. The world's present known recoverable reserves of uranium (5.4 million tonnes) are enough to meet the nuclear industry requirements for 78 years. In fact, nuclear fuel is supplied to the industry not only from mining (about 78%), but also from secondary sources, such as commercial stockpiles, nuclear weapons stockpiles, recycled plutonium and uranium from reprocessing used fuel, and some from re-enrichment of depleted uranium or "tails".
More worrisome than the ability to meet the uranium requirements on an ongoing basis, is the amount of radioactive trash that the nuclear fuel-cycle leaves behind. The following fuel balance calculations are provided by the World Nuclear Association for the annual operation of a 1000 MWe nuclear power reactor.
Anything from 20,000 to 400,000 tonnes of uranium ore are mined and milled to extract about 200 tonnes of uranium. The remainder of the ore, containing most of the radioactivity and nearly all the rock material, known as "tailings", is buried because it contains long-lived radioactive materials and toxic materials such as heavy metals. Upon enrichment, about 27 tonnes of pressed uranium oxide (UO2) with 24 tonnes of enriched uranium are extracted from the 200 tonnes of uranium — the left-overs known as "tails", a balance of about 175 tonnes, consist of depleted uranium of which a minor part may be used in the metallurgy or in fuel reprocessing, although most of it must be disposed of. The used fuel of the reactor operation amounts to 27 tonnes containing 240 kg transuranics (mainly plutonium), 23 tonnes of low U-235 uranium and 1100 kg fission products. Used fuel is unloaded into a storage pond to allow the radiation levels to decrease, and remains there for several months to several years. Some used fuel may be reprocessed, but at this time most of it must be stored with a view to an ultimate permanent disposal. Currently, there are no disposal facilities in operation anywhere in the world, in which used fuel, and the waste from reprocessing, can be placed.
Realizing that nuclear wastes are dangerously radioactive, some of them emitting high-level radiations along periods of hundreds of thousands of years, one should legitimately feel less concerned with meeting the uranium requirements of the industry, than with the growing amounts of lethal trash left over by the nuclear industry for the thousands of years to come (see also Nuclear power worldwide).
Nuclear power plant fuel supply and requirements
Known Recoverable Resources of Uranium¹
|tonnes U||percent of world||tonnes U||percent of world|
|Korea RO (South)||3,586||5.2%|
|¹ Reasonably Assured Resources plus Inferred Resources, to US$ 130/kg U, 1/1/09, from OECD NEA & IAEA, Uranium 2009: Resources, Production and Demand ("Red Book").|
Sources: EIA – Energy Information Administration, IAEA – PRIS – Power Reactor Information System, and WNA – World Nuclear Association.
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