UNCERTAINTY hovers over the extent of uranium reserves, and over the health and environmental impact of nuclear power plants.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, a group of 30 rich nations), claim in a new report that there is plenty of uranium to guarantee the future development of nuclear energy.
The report estimates that 4.7 million tonnes of conventional uranium can be mined for less than $130 a kilogramme, just above the current price, to provide enough fuel for nuclear power plants for the next 85 years.
But the report suggests that more uranium is around for mining at a higher price. “Based on geological evidence and knowledge of uranium in phosphates, the study estimates that more than 35 million tonnes are available for exploitation.”
Luis E. Echávarri, director of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, who together with Yuri Solokov of the IAEA presented the report in Paris recently, said uranium producing countries such as Niger, Brazil, Australia and Namibia have reported new deposits of the material.
“There is likely enough uranium to fuel nuclear power plants for the next 150 years,” Echávarri said. “In other words, if any country wants to launch a new nuclear energy programme, because of security of other energy supply or climate change concerns, uranium resources are not a limiting factor.”
The promotion of nuclear power remains controversial. Germany and Sweden have decided to phase out their present nuclear power plants, but others such as Finland and France have launched construction of new reactors. A handful of other countries, including Britain, China, India and the United States are planning to build new ones.
The IAEA-OECD report, also known as the Red book of uranium market evolution, claims that “continuing advances in nuclear technology will allow a substantially better utilisation of the uranium resources. Reactor designs are being developed and tested that are capable of extracting more than 30 times the energy from uranium than today’s reactors.”
The report adds that for these expectations to be fulfilled, “a continued strong market and sustained high prices (for uranium) will be necessary for resources to be developed within the timeframe required to meet uranium demand.” That means that construction of new reactors is essential for the agencies’ forecasts to be met.
Opponents of nuclear power dismiss these claims as propaganda to boost the construction of new nuclear reactors. Stephane Lhomme, spokesperson for the French network of anti-nuclear organisations Sortir du nucléaire (Phase out nuclear power) told IPS that “similar affirmations have been made for decades, based on the hope that technological advances in nuclear power technology such as the so-called fast breeder reactors would provide for uranium eternally.”
Fast breeder reactors are supposed to produce more uranium than they consume, providing, theoretically, for an everlasting supply of nuclear fuel. But such reactors need a special cooling medium, and no effective medium has been found yet.
So far, Lhomme said, these technological advances have been a fiasco. “Although the fast breeder reactor technology has been in use for decades, no reactor of this type functions regularly today.”
Reactors of this kind are functioning in Russia but without producing electricity that is cost-effective, given the costs of running and cooling the plant. The French fast breeder reactor Superphénix was disconnected in 1996 after more than 10 years of tests, several major accidents, and without ever producing a usable watt of electricity, Lhomme said. It was officially shut down in 1997.
The French accounts office says the reactor cost more than $11 billion. It left a heavy radioactive heritage yet to be disposed of. Lhomme said independent estimations of uranium reserves vary between 50 and 150 years.
“But if generation of nuclear power increases by, say, 20 per cent, uranium resources would last only a couple of decades. — Dawn/IPS News Service