A Uranium Shortage?

There are many people concerned right now about the continued ability of oil reserves to keep up with demand. We’ve had a bit of a reprieve because of the global recession, but as the recession lessens around the world, demand for energy is increasing and oil prices are starting to rise again.

A number of countries, France and Japan in particular, have decided that they are going to try to lessen the impact of an oil supply shortage on their economies by building nuclear power plants. I believe that’s part of the argument that Iran is using for the research it is carrying out for it’s nuclear program. (Though why an oil rich country is worried about oil reserves is a question. Either the oil reserve issue is much worse than most think, or there’s some other reason for their particular program…)

But there’s a problem. We’re running out of Uranium reserves:

“‘Uranium mines provide us with 40,000 tons of uranium each year. Sounds like that ought to be enough for anyone, but it comes up about 25,000 tons short of what we consume yearly in our nuclear power plants. The difference is made up by stockpiles, reprocessed fuel and re-enriched uranium — which should be completely used up by 2013. And the problem with just opening more uranium mines is that nobody really knows where to go for the next big uranium lode. Dr. Michael Dittmar has been warning us for some time about the coming shortage (PDF) and has recently uploaded a four-part comprehensive report on the future of nuclear energy and how socioeconomic change is exacerbating the effect this coming shortage will have on our power consumption. Although not quite on par with zombie apocalypse, Dr. Dittmar’s final conclusions paint a dire picture, stating that options like large-scale commercial fission breeder reactors are not an option by 2013 and ‘no matter how far into the future we may look, nuclear fusion as an energy source is even less probable than large-scale breeder reactors, for the accumulated knowledge on this subject is already sufficient to say that commercial fusion power will never become a reality.””

Read the original here, with links to the referenced documents.

Sigh.

There are a couple of suggestions in the comments in the linked article post that suggest that breeder reactors or thorium based reactors might be a way to get around the issue. But apparently we’re not set up to re-enrich the plutonium byproduct of fission reactions in sufficient quantities right now. And thorium, while more abundant (4x) than uranium, and potentially cleaner, is still in its infancy as a nuclear fuel substitute.

So the upshot appears to be that nuclear power may not be the magic genie to solve the issues surrounding Peak Oil. Solar and wind power probably aren’t either.

From everything I’ve been reading, it’s going to take a combination of all three, plus some serious lifestyle changes and demographic shifts to get ourselves back to a sustainable energy economy.

Unless of course something disruptive comes along. Then it’s an open question. But disruptive events can go either way, so I’m not sure whether we ought to be hoping for one, much less praying for one.

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...