Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Hey, Wait a Minute!

Nuclear power has many advantages about which we have written extensively in the past but there is a question we need to ask today.
Do we have enough uranium reserves to power a "nuclear renaissance?" Let's run the math.

Today, our global total primary energy supply (TPES) is equivalent to 12,717 Mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent).
For the year 2035 the IEA (International Energy Agency) predicts two scenarios, one at 16,961 and the other at 14,870 Mtoe.  For simplicity let's use the mathematical average of the above: 15,916.

Today, nuclear energy provides 5.7% of our TPES.  
In order for nuclear to be a very significant energy source that would help us to drastically reduce our carbon emissions, let's say we target for 25% of our TPES by the year 2035 to be uranium based nuclear power.
How much uranium would we need per year and, most importantly, what are our current known reserves?
According to MIT (below), 200 tons of natural uranium are required to produce one Giga Watt of electricity for a full year.  That means currently we use close to 65,000 tons per year**.

For the 2035 scenario, we would need grossly (25% / 5.7%) x (15,916 Mtoe / 12,717Mtoe) * 65,000 tons = 356,802 tons every year.
According to Wikipedia (below) the current uranium reserves are around 5.5 million tons, so this would turn out to be around 15 years of supply.  Not very encouraging.  Sure, more reserves will be found, but still...

On the other hand, today we have close to 430 nuclear power reactors.  Assuming the same average power from new reactors as we have right now, we would need an additional 1,930 reactors, in other words, commissioning an average of 88 new reactors EVERY year for 22 consecutive years (and this without decommissioning any of the current ones).
Sorry, but this ain't going to happen.

With respect to the uranium shortage, thorium looks, on paper, quite promising, but even if it did go mainstream soon, the thorium build out would have to be of monumental proportions (see above).

Conclusion: moving to a low carbon economy is MUCH more difficult than is generally realized.

**Annual nuclear electricity production: 2,765 TWh * 1,000 = 2,765,000 GWh
2,765,000 / (1GW x 24 hrs. x 365 days) x 200 tons = 63,128 tons.


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