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?