Limited supplies of fuel for nuclear power plants may thwart the renewed and growing interest in nuclear energy in the United States and other nations, according to an MIT expert on the industry.
With little development of nuclear energy over the past 20 years, there was investment neither in new uranium mines nor in building facilities to produce fuel for existing reactors. Instead, the industry lived off commercial and government inventories, which are now nearly gone. Worldwide, uranium production meets only about 65% of current reactor requirements.
That shortage of uranium and of processing facilities worldwide leaves a gap between the potential increase in demand for nuclear energy and the ability to supply fuel for it, said Thomas Neff, a research affiliate at MIT’s Center for International Studies.
Currently, much of the uranium used by the United States is coming from mines in such countries as Australia, Canada, Namibia and, most recently, Kazakhstan. Small amounts are mined in the western United States, but the United States is largely reliant on overseas supplies. The United States also relies on Russia for half its fuel, under a "swords to ploughshares" deal that Neff originated in 1991. This deal is converting about 20,000 Russian nuclear weapons to fuel for US nuclear power plants, but it ends in 2013, leaving a substantial supply gap for the United States.
Further, China, India and even Russia have plans for massive deployments of nuclear power and are trying to lock up supplies from countries on which the United States has traditionally relied. As a result, the United States could be the “last one to buy, and it could pay the highest prices, if it can get uranium at all,” Neff said. “The take-home message is that if we’re going to increase use of nuclear power, we need massive new investments in capacity to mine uranium and facilities to process it.”