Nuclear Power & Climate Change

Uranium gets leached into the oceans due to erosion. Even though the uranium content in sea water is very small, the total amount of uranium in the seas would increase our known reserves manifold. Extracting uranium from sea water is being researched and developed, so the cost is likely to fall in the future.

Will we run out of Uranium?

To mitigate climate change in a meaningful way, we would need to at least double the current nuclear power capacity in electricity production by 2050. In addition, we would need to decarbonize much of the heat and industrial process heat sectors, where nuclear has a big role to play as well. In this light, should we be worried about our uranium reserves?

Have you heard, that we only have 80 years of uranium left at current level of use? And if we double the use, doesn’t that mean that it will only last for 40 years? I have heard that one as well. Luckily, it’s not true, at least not in any meaningful sense.

The known reserves of minerals, uranium included, are often defined as “economic reserves.” These minerals can be found almost everywhere, but in differing concentrations and qualities. What are defined as “reserves” today is basically an estimate based on certain price-levels and technologies available.

The most recent edition of IAEA’s The Red Book (20161) tells us that at a price of $130 per kilogram, we have uranium reserves of around 5.7 million tons. It is a sobering fact that this is less than one tenth of a percent of the global annual coal consumption, which is around 8,000 million tons. Nevertheless, we use uranium at a rate of 68,000 tons per year, which means that the 5.7 million tons will last us about 80 years.2

But what will happen if the price of uranium rises? The share of uranium in the price of nuclear electricity is only a couple percent, so a doubling or a tripling of uranium price won’t increase the costs of nuclear energy significantly. But it causes a world of other activities to start happening.

Reserves increase when the price increases

As the price of uranium starts to rise, so starts prospecting for more uranium. And every time we have seriously looked for more uranium, we have also found it. Rising price also makes some of the already known deposits economic for production and encourages us to develop more advanced and efficient production technologies. By enriching our uranium more efficiently, recycling and reprocessing the used fuel, we can effectively halve the uranium use of current reactors3.

None of this means that uranium would not be a finite resource, but it is worth noting how finite it is. In the upper mile of the earth’s crust, there is an estimated 25,000 billion tons of uranium. This is more than 4 million times the known reserves (at a price of $130 / kg) discussed above. Most of this is not economically retrievable, but the number gives us a sense of scale on how much uranium there is.

Last Stop: The Oceans

With erosion, uranium gets leached into the oceans. The oceans have roughly 3.2 parts per billion of uranium. This is a small number, but given the enormous size of the oceans, it translates into roughly 4,500 million tons of uranium, almost thousand times of the known economic reserves.

Some research has been going on into how to get that uranium from the sea-water. The current price is perhaps around $300 per kilogram. With more research, this price will likely decrease significantly, but for now, we can assume that $300 / kg is a long-term price ceiling for uranium. At that price, the known economic reserves can grow by orders of magnitude. Even before this happens, many secondary sources of uranium, such as phosphates and coal ash, become economic to produce.4

Even as we would experience a nuclear power renaissance like nothing we have seen before as a part of our climate mitigation efforts, there will be ample reserves of relatively affordable uranium for the current types of nuclear reactors. These light water reactors use mostly the rare U235 isotope of uranium5, and we have enough of it to last us for centuries. It is abundantly clear that the decisive climate battles will be fought way before we will run into any serious uranium scarcity.
 


1. http://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/pubs/2016/7301-uranium-2016.pdf
2.
 80 years is in fact an uncommonly long time. With similar method, we only have 30 years’ worth of silver left (an essential part of many solar PV panels). 

3. IPCC has estimated that these become competitive at prices of around $400 / kg.
4. 
In an ironic twist, we can actually get more energy from the uranium in the coal ash than we got when we burned the coal.
5.
 U235 isotope represents around 0.7 % of all uranium. The rest is almost exclusively of the U238 isotope. It can also be made into nuclear fuel

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