There is not enough uranium on the planet for a large-scale global nuclear industryby David Fleming / June 19, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
There are two things to be said for nuclear power. It is based on an energy process which does not produce carbon dioxide. And it is a way of generating energy which is not directly at risk from the looming scarcities affecting oil and gas. These two killer arguments tend to be conflated into one persuasive and rhetorical question: “What’s the alternative?”
There are arguments against it too, and most of them are well known. It is expensive and, without hefty government subsidy, offers little potential for profit. It leaks low-level carcinogenic wastes into the air and water. It produces high-level radioactive waste, requiring standards of treatment and storage which are seldom met. It produces the materials for nuclear proliferation. Its accidents can potentially devastate continents.
But there are two other arguments against nuclear power that are not so well recognised. The first is that nuclear power actually produces quite a lot of carbon dioxide: every stage in the process uses fossil fuels (oil and gas)—with the exception of fission itself. Uranium ore has to be mined and then milled to extract the uranium oxide from the surrounding rock; it has to be enriched; the wastes have to be processed and buried, safely; nuclear power stations have to be constructed, maintained and then eventually chopped into bits and stored away.
But it is the second argument which shocks: nuclear power depends on a supply of uranium ores from scarce, rich deposits, which face a depletion problem every bit as serious as that of oil and gas. That rich ore will soon no longer be available. The poorer grades of ore which would then have to be used take more energy to process than they yield.
The question of how much rich uranium ore is left would not matter if the industry were to continue on its present small scale. So the question is: what job is nuclear power likely to be asked to do? A serious contribution—enough to make a difference—might mean bringing on nuclear power to replace the gas and coal now used to generate electricity. A more ambitious one—but necessary, given the scale of our energy problem—would be to provide the primary energy to generate the hydrogen that we would need to replace the use of petrol and diesel on road and rail. If nuclear power did all that, then gas could be reserved for the jobs it does best—providing fuel for industry and households. If applied worldwide, this would, in principle, solve the energy problem for some years to come.