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Is there enough Fuel for Nuclear Power?

  1. Jan 22, 2007 #1

    Andrew Mason

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    I live in Saskatchewan, which has the world's largest and richest Uranium mines (producing 35% of the world's uranium from deposits as rich as 25%). But at present rates of extraction, the known reserves will last only 20 to 30 years according to the Cameco, the largest uranium producer.

    It appears to me that we have to mine about 175 T of U for every 1 T. that is actually consumed (ie. fissioned). The rest ends up as either depleted U (U238) or waste. Presumably with Candu reactors the whole 175 T ends up as radioactive waste and a LWR leaves about 25 T of radioactive waste for every T consumed.

    If China, India and other countries go ahead with accelerated nuclear programs using existing thermal reactor technology, it seems to me that we will have to do a whole lot more reprocessing (which raises environmental and proliferation concerns). Even then, I do not see the U supply being able to meet such an increase in demand - certainly not on a sustained basis.

    Now we may find new economic deposits, but would it not be a better idea to perfect the technology to use the whole 175 T? If a reactor produced only fission products as waste, we would have enough U for thousands of years from existing high level deposits. Also, from an environmental point of view: the richer the deposit, the better it is for the environment to mine it (smaller tailings volume, processing volume etc.)

    Last edited: Jan 22, 2007
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  3. Jan 22, 2007 #2
    One of the key objectives of the Gen IV programme is reduced waste and, of the six technologies chosen for study, I think four aim to operate a closed fuel cycle.
  4. Jan 22, 2007 #3


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    That's EXACTLY why we should be building reactors such as the IFR - the Integral
    Fast Reactor developed over a decade ago by Argonne National Lab:


    The IFR is a breeder - so it will be able to use, not just the 0.7% of Uranium that is the
    fissile isotope U-235; but it can convert the 99.3% of the Uranium that is U-238 into
    Pu-239, which is fissile and burn that too. Therefore, ALL the Uranium is fuel, not just
    the 0.7% that is fissile U-235.

    The IFR also addresses the proliferation concerns. It reprocesses / recycles its spent
    fuel onsite. Additionally, the Plutonium produced by the IFR can't be used for weapons
    as Dr. Till states.

    Too bad the research and development of this reactor was cancelled back in the early
    '90s by the Clinton Administration.

    Dr. Gregory Greenman
  5. Jan 22, 2007 #4


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    ...not to mention (if I understand correctly), the spent fuel issue would become much more manageable, perhaps even to the point of irrelevancy, if we were using such reactors.
  6. Jan 22, 2007 #5
    We have more than we will ever be able to use. If prices goes up recovering uranium from seawater will be economicaly feasible.
    It will also open up uranium from phospates and that alone contains up to 10 times as much uranium as is economicaly recoverable with todays prices.


    Then we offcourse have thorium. There is more thorium than uranium aviable.
  7. Jan 23, 2007 #6

    Andrew Mason

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    It may be cost effective to get U from seawater, but it is very slow. You need the ability to process enormous volumes of water (at a 3 ppb concentration, you would need to process about 60 billion cubic metres (Tonnes) of seawater to produce 175 T of U, which is needed fuel one reactor for one year). That is 60 cubic kilometres of water. All the more reason to reduce fuel waste.

    And if we use thorium just as inefficiently as U, we will be in the same position in a few decades - looking for a source of nuclear fuel.

  8. Jan 23, 2007 #7
    Well acctualy you dont need to process any water manualy. All that is involved is that you drop cages of adsorbent down into the ocean and let them sit there for 60 days. Each ton of adsorbent can adsorb 6kg of uranium in 60 days. 36kg every year. So you need 4800 tons of adsorbent out in the ocean constantly to supply one nuclear power plant with uranium for a year. I guess that means 9000 tons in total if we assume each cage spend as much time on ground as in water.

    Each cage contains 12,5 ton adsorbent. So you need around 800 cages for each nuclear power plant and the projected cost for all of that is 5 times as much as todays uranium recovery cost. Atleast acording to that article

    Doesnt seem like its impossible or even THAT hard if there where just a economic incentive in doing so.

    It seems to me it comes down to this.
    Is it cheaper to continue with todays type of reactor and use unconventional uranium
    build breeders and fuel them with todays waste?

    Offcourse the second option is a much better environmental chooise. But we all know economic concerns almost always wins over environmental concerns. What is sure though is that todays reactors will be run as long as its possible. Since all the capital costs ect are payed long ago they are big money makes for the power industry,

    Thorium will by its nature be used more efficiently than uranium because you need to breed thorium into u233 to be able to get any energy out of it. I dont know exactly how efficient this is, the breeding rate or whatever the technical jargon is(Im sure morbius or astronuc knows). But I assume its much more than todays bwr or pwr reactors?:confused:
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2007
  9. Jan 23, 2007 #8
    If we take a swedish power plant. Oskarshamn as a example.

    The production cost of electricity would increase from 188sek/MWh to 268sek/MWh in that plant if we assume uranium prices increase to 5 times todays price. Thats in dollars a increase from around 30$/MWh to 40$/MWh.

    How much does it cost to produc electricity in fast neutron reactors? Does anyone have the figures from the russian BN 350 or BN 600? or maby french superphenix?
  10. Jan 23, 2007 #9

    I would like to quote an MIT study done in 2003 called The Future of Nuclear Power. The study can be found at http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/ the qoute is on page 44 chapter 4

  11. Jan 23, 2007 #10
  12. Jan 23, 2007 #11


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    However, the MIT conclusions are predicated on an assumption that MIT states upfront:

    How long will the uranium ore resource base be sufficient to support large-scale
    deployment of nuclear power without reprocessing and/or breeding?

    Is there some reasons to assume that the USA will forever being precluded from
    reprocessing and breeding? The USA needs to repeal the 1978 law that forbid
    reprocessing. That law was a "lead by example" ploy to get other nations to
    forego reprocessing as a method of staving off nuclear weapons proliferation.

    It DIDN'T WORK. Not a single nation gave up reprocessing especially not the two
    nations that the law was principally aimed at - France and Great Britain.

    So the international policy ploy didn't work - yet the USA is still saddled with this
    restriction. The ban on reprocessing prevents the USA from recycling the long-lived
    components of nuclear waste back into the reactors to be burned as fuel and converted
    to short-lived fission products.

    Because those long-lived components are in the nuclear waste; it makes the job of
    disposing of nuclear waste much more dificult.

    Why have we been "shooting ourselves in our collective feet" for almost 30 years; and
    why are we continuing to do it?

    Dr. Gregory Greenman
  13. Jan 23, 2007 #12

    Andrew Mason

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    This article seems to ignore the increased environmental costs of mining low grade ore and the environmental and human safety problems in dealing with the highly toxic long-lived radioactive waste.

    Besides, the problem is not so much the amount of U in the ground. It is the rate at which it can be extracted. Mills have to be built near where the ore is located. But if the ore is low grade, you need a lot of it and it tends to be spread out. You cannot build a mill near every low grade deposit. So one has to develop expensive transportation systems to move large volumes of ore long distances to the mill. The result is that rates of extraction are lower for low grades of ore.

    The Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta have enough oil to keep the world going for 100 years. But the problem is getting it extracted. Even with the huge equipment they have, they cannot process it fast enough to meet demand.

  14. Jan 23, 2007 #13

    Andrew Mason

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    An excellent question.

    It is as much a political as a technical issue, I'm afraid.

    The rate at which the nuclear power industry can expand is severely limited by the fuel requirements and waste disposal requirements of the current generation of uranium-hogging reactors. So inevitably more coal plants get built. China is building about one a week.

    I understand that in China, where occupational health and safety is apparently not a high priority, there is a huge death toll. This site says there are about 6000 deaths in China per year: http://www.clb.org.hk/public/contents/news?revision_id=19324&item_id=19316 This does not even deal with the huge number of pre-mature deaths due to black-lung, and other occupational diseases and the thousands of premature deaths each year due to breathing the atmospheric pollutants caused by coal burning. It is estimated by the EPA that 24,000 such deaths occur in the US each year: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5174391/ . (Imagine what it is in China!) The overall negative effects on the economy are staggering, if you take into account medical costs, lost time from work, early retirements etc. see: http://www.ecomall.com/greenshopping/cleanair.htm If you add the long term environmental costs due to global warming, and ocean acidification to the occupational health and safety and pollution related costs/deaths around the world, the toll is mindboggling. If nuclear had 1 millionth of the known dangers that coal produces, we would hear no end of it.

  15. Jan 23, 2007 #14
    Andrew I think you are overstating the resource demands of todays gen nuclear power. A nuclear power plants yearly need of 175 tons uranium is nothing compared to the 1 000 000 tons a coal power plant of the same capacity needs. There is no shortage of uranium in the close future.

    Except for the waste issue there seems to be no real motivation to start mass building breeder reactors yet. In a ideal world we would have them now and it would solve all problems.
    But when we have abundant resources of uranium for more or less 100 years more the economic factors should be deciding.

    Is any fast reactor economicaly competitive with the light water reactors? The superphenix was a complete economic disaster as far as I know and Im not aware of any other fast reactor built mainly for power production and nothing else?
    If we want to be realistic the power companies must after all be competitive with coal and gas.

    I dont think I have ever read or heard anywhere that the aviability of uranium is hampering the nuclear power industry?
    The main thing hampering it is the environmentalist fanatics that has managed to scare the genera public and offcourse the vote fishing politicians that take full advantage of that.

    Take swede as a example. We have more uranium than any other country in europe. But the ecofanatics, leftist parties and green party are dead set on stopping any attempt to mine uranium.
    We could massivly expand our nuclear power and fuel it with our own uranium for a very very long time with minimal environmental consequenses.
    The one and only thing standing in the way is the lefts hate towards nuclear power and the environmentalist organisations that are blind to facts.

    Since the 80 every sitting goverment in swede has been forced to cooperate with small environmentalist influenced parties in order to stay in power, so even though 70% of the swedish population today supports nuclear power nothing happens. Its just a ****ed up politican game with the environment as the big looser.

    Instead we are building wind power where the subsidises alone ammounts to twice as much as the electricity production cost in our nuclear power plants.
  16. Jan 23, 2007 #15
    The power plants we build today, like the new one they are building in finland. Will last for 40-60 years. So when its time to replace them it makes more sense to start to build breeders. By then cheap uranium will start to become scarce and we probably will have had more large scale breeders running for a while.

    Today though it doesnt seem to make any economic sense to build them instead of lwr's? I might be making a misstake about the cost of breeders though since I havent read any analysis of the cost of producing electricity in them.
  17. Jan 23, 2007 #16


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    Here's my candidate for a breeder reactor; Argonne's Integral Fast Reactor or IFR:


    Dr. Gregory Greenman
  18. Jan 23, 2007 #17

    Andrew Mason

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    There is no shortage in the ground. There is a shortage of production, however.

    World production of U is about 30,000 T per year. Consumption is about 66,000 T. That is a huge gap that is presently being filled by U stockpiles built up in the 1980s and 90s when U was very cheap, and by weapons grade fuel that is mixed down to reactor grade fuel (MOX fuel). The uranium companies are trying desperately to supply the demand, but they are having trouble. The world's richest deposit, Cigar Lake, was to come on stream in 2008 but due to serious technical problems (flooding) may be delayed several years. It may prove to be unmineable. The price of uranium is going up because of it.

    So, while we may have lots of U in the ground, we are not able to get it out of the ground at a rate that will meet demand.

    We may have 100 years of supply if the demand does not increase. But if nuclear power is to displace coal, we will need a huge increase in the number of reactors and we will quickly run into U shortages. There is not enough potential U production to meet that demand. So nuclear power, with present nuclear technology, is not a solution to the greenhouse gas/climate change problem.

    Nuclear would be much more competitive if it used 1/100th of the Uranium, produced 1/100th of the waste which had 1/100,000th of the storage costs (in terms of volume and duration), and was inherently safe to operate. One could argue that if you take all of the costs into account, nuclear energy cannot be competitive or sustainable in the medium to long term without a dramatic improvement in the technology.

    When we can see the brick wall coming, why is it that we always insist on hitting it at full speed?

    BTW, coal and gas are competitive now partly because we continue to subsidize coal prices with miners' health/lives and with our environmental capital.

    It isn't yet, largely due to secondary supplies from weapons stockpiles. But this will end soon. Have look at the International Atomic Energy Agency report: Analysis of Uranium Supply to 2050 which shows that production is about 1/2 of demand and predicts shortages unless new reserves are found and production is ramped up dramatically (or unless demand is dramatically reduced).

    The environmentalists have good points. Present nuclear technology is wasteful and unsustainable. The problem is that they get their goals confused. Their goal should not be to stop nuclear power - that genie is out of the bottle - but to solve the problems so that nuclear power produces no long-lived radioactive waste and cannot be used for non-peaceful purposes. If the nuclear industry and governments would understand that, and support the improvement of nuclear technology (maybe rather than pouring all their money into fusion which is at least 50 years away if it is at all possible) you might be surprised how fast the anti-nuclear movement would disappear.

    It is not a left-right thing, really. We have had a left of centre government in Saskatchewan for all but 16 of the last 63 years and the uranium industry is very strong here. I am convinced that the environmentalists would accept nuclear energy if we were able to: mine 1/200th of the U from only high grade deposits, eliminate long-lived radioactive waste and use reactors that were inherently safe and proliferation-proof. A tall order. But Morbius has convinced me that it is quite possible.

  19. Jan 24, 2007 #18

    Yes I have read about it before and it looks like a awsome piece of technology:tongue2: Do you have any article about the projected cost of producing electricity with the IFR?
  20. Jan 24, 2007 #19
    I would venture to guess that the production isnt higher precisely because we have U stockpiles. If there was a higher demand there would be higher production. Do you have any link that shows the uranium mines have troubble keeping up with the demand?

    Realisticly nuclear wont replace coal for a long time to come. Simply because its dirt cheap to build coal power plants and we have plenty of coal for a long time to come. Only if we start to tax the **** out of co2 emissions will it become uneconomic and I doubt india and china would do it.

    The methods to extract uranium large scale from phosphates already exist. Its just not economic to do so now. The methods to get it from seawater seems almost ready to go if if made economic sense. If the current rate of production wont be able to meet demand then prices will go up and alternatives will show up rather quickly Im willing to wager.

    Right now its not more cost competitive to use breeders. We can all agree that breeders are the way of the future and very nice technology. But it wont happen untill they also make economic sense. Remember that the current gen nuclear power already pay for all costs associated with the uranium. Including waste handling and storage. Uranium costs doesnt even makeup a significant part of electricity production costs today. If the uranium prices becomes 5 times as high the electricity production cost will only increase betwen 20-30%.

    Agreed. If external costs where taken into account coal and gas would be horribly expensive. Have you read the externE study? Take a look at it if you havent, its realy interesting.

    Im going to skim through that link tomorrow, looks interesting!

    Im afraid you have to much faith in the environmental organisations. Remember that they are the ones fighting breeder technology hardest. They are dead set against nuclear power and there is nothing that will change that. I have in the last 6 months gotten more and more involved with a swedish pro nuclear environment organisation and Im regulary debating with other environmentalists in newspapers. They are unresonable to the extrem. They dont care about facts or science. They have a agenda.

    Look at Patric Moore, greenpace cofounder that has left greenpace and are now promoting nuclear power. In environmentalist circles, even among his old friends, he is know as "eco judas".

    The nuclear industry get more money than fusion already so I dont think the investment in for instance ITER is unresonable. France alone are (according to a article I have seen) investing 11 billion euro in nuclear R&D. Twice as much as the total construction cost for iter.

    We still have to realise that we will probably build conventional nuclear power plants for 30-40 more years. The current fleet of reactors in both the UK and france are getting old and right now it doesnt seem like there is any tested, reliable and most importantly cheap breeder design that can be used. France wants a good design that they can massproduce to minimise costs. Im sure they are cautious after the superphenix failure.

    IMO a few big breeders should be built. To demonstrate that they can be economic and run without problems. Politicians wont invest big money in a unproven technology when they have the reliable LWR designs.

    Remember also that we are in no way wasting uranium with todays reactors. We can still put them into breeders in the future when we decide to build them. So even if we use up all cheap uranium in LWR's we will still have plenty for the breeders later. There is no rush to build them just yet. Im sure they will have there breakthrough when the economic incentive to build them appears.

    We probably agree on all points, except when we should start building the breeders :-) As long as the economists have the final world we have to rely on the cheapest solution. Eventhough every technologicaly minded person would prefer to se the breeders build today not tomorrow.
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