The world is about to enter a period of unprecedented investment in nuclear power. The combined threats of climate change, energy security and fears over the high prices and dwindling reserves of oil are forcing governments towards the nuclear option. The perception is that nuclear power is a carbon-free technology, that it breaks our reliance on oil and that it gives governments control over their own energy supply.
That looks dangerously overoptimistic, says Michael Dittmar, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich who publishes the final chapter of an impressive four-part analysis of the global nuclear industry on the arXiv today.
Perhaps the most worrying problem is the misconception that uranium is plentiful. The world’s nuclear plants today eat through some 65,000 tons of uranium each year. Of this, the mining industry supplies about 40,000 tons. The rest comes from secondary sources such as civilian and military stockpiles, reprocessed fuel and re-enriched uranium. “But without access to the military stocks, the civilian western uranium stocks will be exhausted by 2013, concludes Dittmar.
It’s not clear how the shortfall can be made up since nobody seems to know where the mining industry can look for more.
That means countries that rely on uranium imports such as Japan and many western countries will face uranium .shortages, possibly as soon as 2013. Far from being the secure source of energy that many governments are basing their future energy needs on, nuclear power looks decidedly rickety.
But what of new technologies such as fission breeder reactors which generate fuel and nuclear fusion? Dittmar is pessimistic about fission breeders. “Their huge construction costs, their poor safety records and their inefficient performance give little reason to believe that they will ever become commercially significant,” he says.
And the future looks even worse for nuclear fusion: “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.”
Dittmar paints a bleak future for the countries betting on nuclear power. And his analysis doesn’t even touch on issues such as safety, the proliferation of nuclear technology and the disposal of nuclear waste.
The message if you live in one of these countries is to stock up on firewood and candles.
There is one tantalising ray of sunlight in this nuclear nightmare: the possibility that severe energy shortages will force governments to release military stockpiles of weapons grade uranium and plutonium for civilian use. Could it be possible that the coming nuclear energy crisis could rid the world of most of its nuclear weapons?
Ref: The Future of Nuclear Energy: Facts and Fiction
arxiv.org/abs/0908.0627: Chapter I: Nuclear Fission Energy Today
arxiv.org/abs/0908.3075: Chapter II: What is known about Secondary Uranium Resources?
arxiv.org/abs/0909.1421: Chapter III: How (un)reliable are the Red Book Uranium Resource Data?
arxiv.org/abs/0911.2628 :Chapter IV: Energy from Breeder Reactors and from Fusion?