220.127.116.11 Uranium exploration, extraction and refining
In the long term, the potential of nuclear power is dependent upon the uranium resources available. Reserve estimates of the uranium resource vary with assumptions for its use (Figure 4.10). Used in typical light-water reactors (LWR) the identified resources of 4.7 Mt uranium, at prices up to 130 US$/kg, correspond to about 2400 EJ of primary energy and should be sufficient for about 100 years’ supply (OECD, 2006b) at the 2004 level of consumption. The total conventional proven (identified) and probable (yet undiscovered) uranium resources are about 14.8 Mt (7400 EJ). There are also unconventional uranium resources such as those contained in phosphate minerals, which are recoverable for between 60 and 100 US$/kg (OECD, 2004a).
If used in present reactor designs with a ‘once-through’ fuel cycle, only a small percentage of the energy content is utilized from the fissile isotope U-235 (0.7% in natural uranium). Uranium reserves would last only a few hundred years at current rate of consumption (Figure 4.10). With fast-spectrum reactors operated in a ‘closed’ fuel cycle by reprocessing the spent fuel and extracting the unused uranium and plutonium produced, the reserves of natural uranium may be extended to several thousand years at current consumption levels. In the recycle option, fast-spectrum reactors utilize depleted uranium and only plutonium is recycled so that the uranium-resource efficiency is increased by a factor of 30 (Figure 4.10; OECD, 2001). Thereby the estimated enhanced resource availability of total conventional uranium resources corresponds to about 220,000 EJ primary energy (Table 4.2). Even if the nuclear industry expands significantly, sufficient fuel is available for centuries. If advanced breeder reactors could be designed in the future to efficiently utilize recycled or depleted uranium and all actinides, then the resource utilization efficiency would be further improved by an additional factor of eight (OECD, 2006c).
Figure 4.10: Estimated years of uranium-resource availability for various nuclear technologies at 2004 nuclear-power utilization levels.
Nuclear fuels could also be based on thorium with proven and probable resources being about 4.5 Mt (OECD, 2004a). Thorium-based fast-spectrum reactors appear capable of at least doubling the effective resource base, but the technology remains to be developed to ascertain its commercial feasibility (IAEA, 2005a). There are not yet sufficient commercial incentives for thorium-based reactors except perhaps in India. The thorium fuel cycle is claimed to be more proliferation-resistant than other fuel cycles since it produces fissionable U-233 instead of fissionable plutonium, and, as a by-product, U-232 that has a daughter nuclide emitting high-energy photons.