Nuclear Power Continues World Dependence on Middle East Oil

arab oilOut of the frying pan…are uranium reserves to run out in a decade?

In its haste to free itself from oil-powered electricity, during the Arab oil shocks of the ”70s, France switched to nuclear energy. It had been vulnerable in its dependence on the Middle East, and moved to nuclear to free itself of the risk from more oil shocks. Since then, it has been the poster child nation for nuclear energy, getting almost 80% of its electricity from nuclear power. It must be in good shape to weather the bumpy exit from the oil age, right?


It turns out that uranium, the fuel needed to make nuclear power, is completely dependent on oil for the very heavy duty machinery needed for extracting the annual supplies of uranium needed. And it takes a staggering amount of heavy mining equipment to extract the tiny amount of uranium needed.

What’s more, the world is running short of uranium fuel to supply reactors. According to Scientific American in 2009, the World Nuclear Association gives these figures.

Every year, each of the 436 nuclear power plants in the world need to mine 143 million pounds of uranium, to extract the usable fuel. The largest mine in the world produces only 18.7 million pounds, or about a quarter of what just the US nuclear power plants need to mine each year.

The McArthur River uranium mine North of  Saskatchewan is the largest mine in the world, and yet it can only supply a quarter of the 104 US nuclear plants’ needs.

From that 18 million pounds of natural uranium, only 1.8 million pounds of enriched uranium is produced, containing usable 4.5 percent U235. Currently the US gets about ten percent of it nuclear fuel from melted down Russian warheads, but this is not an unlimited supply, obviously.

The rapid decline of highly concentrated uranium deposits concerns European policy makers. “The high grades will be depleted within a decade,” says energy analyst Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, at Ceedata, which advises European governments on energy.

In 2005, he predicted that at present consumption rates, the industry-wide average ore grade will fall below 0.1 percent—or one metric ton of uranium for every 1,000 metric tons of nonuranic material—within the next decade.

Uranium depletion is one issue. But the amount of fossil energy fuel needed to extract and then refine the uranium is even more reason that nuclear power will prove unsustainable in freeing the world from fossil fuels.

“Seventeen-foot-tall, 11-ton raise-boring machines spear into the rock with as much as 750,000 pounds (340,194 kilograms) of force and then chew out the ore with a 10-foot- (three-meter-) wide reaming head that applies as much as 115,000 pounds (52,163 kilograms) of force for every foot (30.5 centimeters) it turns. They work more than 1,700 feet (520 meters) below the surface, knocking ore into remote-controlled loaders in a tunnel nearly 2,100 feet (640 meters) belowground.”

Extracting the usable uranium from the slurry is another energy-intensive process, and carried out in gigantic coal power plants with their own environmental problems. The US uranium is refined in 90% coal-powered Kentucky at a gigantic plant covering 74 acres that itself grinds through through megawatts of coal power to make the nuclear fuel that must be replenished each year.

The plant “sucks up at least 300 megawatts of electricity most of the time, peaking at as much as 2,000 megawatts (much of it from a coal-fired power plant nearby), to heat uranium hexafluoride until it gasifies and then force it through 1,760 porous membranes that gradually concentrate the level of the fissile isotope—a method invented during World War II.

“The gaseous diffusion is an electricity-intensive process,” says Jeremy Derryberry, a spokesman for the coal company. But “we don’t discuss how much power we use to do the enrichment.”

If the coal plant owner is coy about the energy use, the consultant is not.

By 2070, says Storm van Leeuwen, the amount of energy it takes to mine, mill, enrich and fabricate one metric ton of uranium fuel may be larger than 160 terajoules—the amount of energy one can generate from it.

Within 60 years, the energy needed to get fuel for nuclear power will be the same as the energy it can make.

MENA nations considering a shortsighted lurch into nuclear:
Iran Going Nuclear in Joint Power Plant Plan with Neighbors
Jordan Explores the Nuclear Option
Is Israel Coming out of The Nuclear Closet by Planning Nuclear Power Station?

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16 thoughts on “Nuclear Power Continues World Dependence on Middle East Oil”

  1. Marcus says:

    check out the kitegen for a high EROI/low carbon energy source.
    It is ten times lighter than a wind turbine and has about twice the CF.

    There is already a 3MW Prototype in Italy.

    If someone still believes in nuclear power…nobody can help.

  2. Susan, you do not appear to have taken any of the responses on board.

  3. Jack Gamble says:

    Isn’t it ironic (don’t ya think) that these same people who are falsely claiming nuclear doesn’t reduce oil dependency are the sane ones who promote natural gas?

    There are almost no oil power plants left in the US and France because nuclear replaced them. The middle east wants nuclear power so they can stop burning their oil for electric and sell it to us instead (for transportation).

    Meanwhile these same serial liars are pushing fossil fuels because their solar panels and windmills require massive natural gas offsets (80% of the time is seriously
    stretching the phrase ‘back up’).

    If you’re new to this debate, this should speak volumes about the lack of credibility of antinuclear activists.

  4. Susan, have a look at the quantity of power solar can produce compared to a similar investment in nuclear. Look at it honestly.

    1. In this article, I had just been struck by the surprising ongoing reliance on fossil fuels of nuclear, for its annual fuel use. I had thought nuclear was more of a clean (other than cancer risk) energy source: with no greenhouse gases, and one of the seven wedges we need to get off fossil fuels. It just seemed ironic, that we (well, the French) had not escaped the oil industry as they thought. I think they are both needed sources, but the dependence makes nuclear more subject to peak oil for ongoing fuel supplies than I thought, so I see it as more of a risk. I worry that we (in America) will be caught without energy if we wait too long to put in the replacements for fossil energy, like solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and nuclear.

  5. Nukster, there are plenty of women engaged in successful high quality careers in the nuclear industry.

    Also, my apologies for the typos in my previous comment.

  6. Nukster says:

    My biggest problem with Susans comment is that it doesn’t have anything to do with the sammiches she should be making, and how shiny she made the kitchen floor today. That might have more relevancy here than her previous statement.

  7. Nonsense, Susan. You really need to have a look at the actual quantities involved, and examine the amount of mining needed to deliver a given quantity of power from different sources. Solar panels have a functional lifetime of 25 yearts or less, low capacity factors, and are hobbled by intermittency. Nuclear plants last for at least 60 years, have the highest capacity factor of any power source, and can deliver power under all conditions.

    See the following article for a comparison of the mining requirements on a unit power delivered basis for various selected technologies:

    Please note that fossil fuels are only currently included in the mining process because they are sheap and plentiful. Nuclear-derived synthetis liquid fuels can replace them when that becomes necessary.

    1. Regarding “Solar panels have a functional lifetime of 25 years or less”. No, actually you are thinking of the 25 year warranty, as many do: not the lifetime.

      Manufacturers warranty them for 25 years at full power, but they produce power for at least 40 years, losing a half a percent of efficiency each year. (in theory, but in practice that reduction is not always happening: )

      We don’t know how much longer they last than 40 years, because the first ones made in the ’70s are still going strong 40 years on in 2011. It may turn out to be 50, 60, or 100 years.

      Nuclear power plants cannot produce power in all conditions, for example heat waves or droughts. When water becomes an issue, nuclear gets shut down, as does coal.

  8. Wyatt Buck says:

    This is so full of holes. If she had any ethics about telling the truth she would have mentioned that these huge (17 ft) raise bore units are actually electric over hydraulic and thus can operate on nuclear generated electricity. I can’t stand these bloody NGOs that don’t think telling the truth should get in the way of a story.

  9. Gary says:

    Man, this is just such a great laugh to read. Maybe the author should actually try using her head. Perhaps she should do some research to understand how much energy that little bit of uranium produces….

  10. Justin Alexander says:

    I agree with the above comments. Windmills and Solar panels aren’t made from unicorn farts. They require the same dirty motors to build them as anything else in the current world.

    A few points to add:

    1) The article points to world uranium consumption, but then only measures it’s utility by US law. The US is one of the ONLY countries in the world that doesn’t reprocess it’s spent nuclear fuel. In the US they just bury it after one use, wasting some 99.9% of the available energy in the enriched uranium.

    2) U-235 occurs at about 0.7% in nature, mixed with inert and harmless U-238. Using breeder reactors we can turn U-238 in to useful nuclear fuel.. magnifying our uranium reserves 100 fold.

    3) Sensible application of current reprocessing technologies and current breeder reactor technologies would extend our current Uranium only fuel supplies to 10,000 years. Obviously that gets shortened if it’s our ONLY fuel source.

    4) Uranium is not the only viable fuel source. Thorium is about as common on earth as lead. It’s major stable isotope decays into fissile uranium when bombarded with neutrons (like say in a breeder reactor). Thorium is a waste product from mines producing rare earth elements (that we dig up to make wind mills and batteries). There is enough Thorium sitting in waste heaps right now to power humanity for the next 100,000+ years. And thats without digging up any more, of which there is quite a lot.

    5) If we scrimp and save, and get all of humanity on the same page, and keep Africa, India, and China from developing any further: Solar and Wind might be enough to keep us afloat. On the other hand Nuclear power we can lift the entire world out of poverty and still have enough power left over for giant TVs and refrigerators for everyone.

    1. Unicorn farts. Love it.

  11. This is honestly the worst example of anti-nuclear ignorance I’ve seen for a long time.

    Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen is probably the single most ridiculed anti-nuclear hack who has dared to peddle his foolishness in academic circles on the face of the earth. His nonsensical contentions about the pending exhaustion of the uranium deposits, his unsubstantiated guesses that the EROEI of uranium is about to become unviable have become the stuff of legendary hilarity in the pro-nuclear community.

    The high grade uranium ores are not about to run out. The EROEI for uranium is excellent. Nuclear power is the only power source with any chance of providing enough cheap thermal and electrical energy to allow the manufacture of synthetic liquid fuels once the fossil fuel reserves run out. And once they do, the nuclear-derived synfuels will be carbon neutral.

    See the following essay for the truth about the sustainability of nuclear power into the indefinite future:

  12. AdamF says:

    Of course, the author must realize that all of her critiques of nuclear power generation apply to “green” and “renewable” sources as well. I live in a small town in Idaho, and currently many wind farms are being built in the foothills above where I live. How are the materials being transported? With large heavy trucks. How are the tools powered to build them? Large diesel generators. The problem that the author first cites, concerning fossil fuel use in nuclear industry, applies equally to any “green” power generation. It is not a nuclear problem, it is an infrastructure problem, one that needs to be worked on. Second, the author leaves out promising technologies such as fuel reprocessing and laser enrichment that will make nuclear energy even more efficient. Finally, the author makes no mention of the rare earth and other interesting material that must be mined to make “renewable” technologies. I believe that this is a case of an anti-nuke zealot who speaks without knowledge.

    1. The big difference is that a one time use of fossil energy to mine the materials to build solar yields 40 years of electricity production from solar, with no further mining needed, right?

      By contrast, nuclear needs that fossil -energy-intensive mining year in year out, to produce fuel to burn. So we are getting ahead by switching to fuel free energy like solar and wind. Nuclear stays wedded to extracting uranium each year.

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