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Limited Fuel May Hobble Nuclear Power Expansion

22 March 2007

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.

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The U.S. is clearly lagging the rest of the world in securing clean and efficient nuclear energy for its future. While the U.S. meets ~20% of its electrical demand with nuclear power, France is ~80% nuclear pwoer.

The absence of greenhouse gas emissions coupled with a relatively small footprint make nuclear energy attractive; the ability to provide baseload power whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining make it an essential cornerstone of moving away from carbon fuels to clean and renewable energy sources.

Time to dismantle and use up the massive US stockpile of nuclear weapons... Seems like a pretty obvious solution.

On the other hand it sure makes nuclear power look a whole lot less sustainable when the world's superpowers start fighting over not only oil but uranium supplies. It's too bad the military is disposing of much of the depleted uranium in Iraq by using it as illegal weaponry since it could become a valuable fuel source when push come to shove.

Markets?

If China, India, et al are planning on opening up some more nuclear reactors, surely there's some enterprising folks out there who will mine some more, in an effort to make some cash. Yes? No?

You are correct stomv, in this case we are not yet looking at geological limits, just economic gyrations. That's why Uranium stock has done so well over the last few years.

The Japanese have estimated they can mine uranium from seawater for only a few times the current market price. The oceans contain 4 billion tons of dissolved uranium.

I might worry more about running out of zirconium for the fuel rod cladding. Sure, it could be recovered in reprocessing, but that's expensive.

This is good news. Nuclear energy as currently run is unsustainable. I don't care how 'expensive' reprocessing is. Whatever the cost, that's the true price of nuclear power. The stockpiling of waste at plants around the country is an outrage.

Jimmy Carter's shortsighted move to kill reprocessing in the 1970's may have been politically expedient for the stated goal of non-proliferation. But it left us in a terrible fix with this "once-through" fuel cycle.

Higher world prices will force the hand of government and industry to do what they should have done in the first place.

The us has uranium deposits of its own its just that no one wants em tapped yet. Its also alot cheaper to mine radioactives in other places then here.

During last 10 years Uranium mining industry was devastated by cheap supply of government stockpiles and huge amount of decommissioned US and USSR nuclear warheads. Now, when these sources have dried-up, it takes at least 7-8 years for new Uranium mine to start production. This lag is the main reason for skyrocketing Uranium prices.

Depleted Uranium used widely in amour-piercing antitank ammo is not radioactive and is not illegal, and can not be used to create nuclear weapons.

Major Uranium producers are Canada (30% of world supply and rising), Australia, South Africa, Russia, and Kazakhstan. US have huge reserves of uranium ore, but ceased Uranium production almost completely in last 15 years.

Ya if I remember correctly the us in fact has the LARGEST deposits of uranium on the planet we just dont mine them.

Depleted Uranium used widely in amour-piercing antitank ammo is not radioactive and is not illegal, and can not be used to create nuclear weapons.

Nitpick: depleted uranium is not significantly radioactive, in that context. Geologically, the heat produced by its and its daughters' radioactivity is quite important.

US uranium production increased about 50 percent last year, from, IIRC, 100 million barrels-of-oil equivalent to 150 million. This seems to be in response to the price increase to US$2/BOE; up here, we're trying so hard to increase production that more haste has been resulting in less speed, but there's always next year.

The US has substantial Uranium deposits but they cannot hold a candle to Canada and Australia. US production in 2006 had more than a 50% increase over 2005. 2005 was up 18% over 2004.

US and Russian dumping of excess stocks for the last 10 years has suppressed prices. The Russian contract with USEC as the sole western distributor for downblended weapons stock will expire in 2013 because the Russians believe they have been short changed by USEC (mostly true-the recent run up in Uranium prices has benefitted USEC much more than the Russians). The Russian downblend will continue to feed the western market-it will probably not be marketed by USEC however. (URENCO?) The downblend program has been very profitable for the Russians and they have plenty of high enriched Uranium left.

The US has been downblending its excess weapons also but not on the scale of the Russians. Nuclear Fuel Services in Tennessee and BWXT in Virginia have had the contracts.

The weapons grade Uranium being downblended is excess and also generally from obsolete weaponry. State of the art nuclear weaponry is Plutonium based rather than Uranium.

The US has a program to dispose of excess weapons grade Plutonium. A trial batch of Plutonium was blended with depleted Uranium to make European style MOX (mixed oxide) fuel. The fuel was prepared in France since the US has no facility liscensed to do this type work. The MOX fuel is now being used as a trial in one of Duke Power's reactors. A facility to fabricate MOX from weapons grade Plutonium is under construction at Savannah River.

The biggest problem with weapons based MOX is that it still has weapons potential until it has cooked in a power reactor for a couple of months. This is not a technical problem but can be a security problem.

The Savannah River plant would be a logical place to fabricate MOX from reactor grade Plutonium if the US decides to get back into fuel recycling. In Europe, many of the reactors are liscensed to run up to 30% MOX fuel instead of enriched Uranium. I believe MOX is run in PWRs only, not BWRs.

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