Peak Uranium by Ugo Bardi

12 01 2017

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THIS should get Eclipse all stirred up……..

[ This is an extract of Ugo Bardi’s must read “Extracted”.  Many well-meaning citizens favor nuclear power because it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases.  The problem is that the Achilles heel of civilization is our dependency on trucks of all kinds, which run on diesel fuel because diesel engines transformed our civilization by their ability to do heavy work better than steam, gasoline, or any other engine on earth.  Trucks are required to keep the supply chains going that every person and business on earth depend on, as well as mining, tractors/harvesters, road & other construction trucks, logging etc.  Since trucks can’t run on electricity, anything that generates electricity is not a solution, nor is it likely that the electric grid can ever be 100% renewable (read “When trucks stop running”, this can’t be explained in a sound-bite).

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Although there is a rebirth of interest in nuclear energy, there is still a basic problem: uranium is a mineral resource that exists in finite amounts.

Even as early as the 1950s it was clear that the known uranium resources were not sufficient to fuel the “atomic age” for a period longer than a few decades.

That gave rise to the idea of “breeding” fissile plutonium fuel from the more abundant, non-fissile isotope 238 of uranium. It was a very ambitious idea: fuel the industrial system with an element that doesn’t exist in measurable amounts on Earth but would be created by humans expressly for their own purposes. The concept gave rise to dreams of a plutonium-based economy. This ambitious plan was never really put into practice, though, at least not in the form that was envisioned in the 1950s and ’60s.Several attempts were made to build breeder reactors in the 1970s, but the technology was found to be expensive, difficult to manage, and prone to failure. Besides, it posed unsolvable strategic problems in terms of the proliferation of fissile materials that could be used to build atomic weapons. The idea was thoroughly abandoned in the 1970s, when the US Senate enacted a law that forbade the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. 47

A similar fate was encountered by another idea that involved “breeding” a nuclear fuel from a naturally existing element—thorium. The concept involved transforming the 232 isotope of thorium into the fissile 233 isotope of uranium, which then could be used as fuel for a nuclear reactor (or for nuclear warheads). 48 The idea was discussed at length during the heydays of the nuclear industry, and it is still discussed today; but so far, nothing has come out of it and the nuclear industry is still based on mineral uranium as fuel.

Today, the production of uranium from mines is insufficient to fuel the existing nuclear reactors. The gap between supply and demand for mineral uranium has been as large as almost 50 percent in the period between 1995 and 2005, but it has been gradually reduced during the past few years.

The U.S. minded 370,000 metric tons the past 50 years, peaking in 1981 at 17,000 tons/year.  Europe peaked in the 1990s after extracting 460,000 tons.  Today nearly all of the 21,000 ton/year needed to keep European nuclear plants operating is imported.

The European mining cycle allows us to determine how much of the originally estimated uranium reserves could be extracted versus what actually happened before it cost too much to continue. Remarkably in all countries where mining has stopped it did so at well below initial estimates (50 to 70%). Therefore it’s likely ultimate production in South Africa and the United States can be predicted as well.

The Soviet Union and Canada each mined 450,000 tons. By 2010 global cumulative production was 2.5 million tons.  Of this, 2 million tons has been used, and the military had most of the remaining half a million tons.

The most recent data available show that mineral uranium accounts now for about 80% of the demand. 49 The gap is filled by uranium recovered from the stockpiles of the military industry and from the dismantling of old nuclear warheads.

This turning of swords into plows is surely a good idea, but old nuclear weapons and military stocks are a finite resource and cannot be seen as a definitive solution to the problem of insufficient supply. With the present stasis in uranium demand, it is possible that the production gap will be closed in a decade or so by increased mineral production. However, prospects are uncertain, as explained in “The End of Cheap Uranium.” In particular, if nuclear energy were to see a worldwide expansion, it is hard to see how mineral production could satisfy the increasing uranium demand, given the gigantic investments that would be needed, which are unlikely to be possible in the present economically challenging times.

At the same time, the effects of the 2011 incident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant are likely to negatively affect the prospects of growth for nuclear energy production, and with the concomitant reduced demand for uranium, the surviving reactors may have sufficient fuel to remain in operation for several decades.

It’s true that there are large quantities of uranium in the Earth’s crust, but there are limited numbers of deposits that are concentrated enough to be profitably mined. If we tried to extract those less concentrated deposits, the mining process would require far more energy than the mined uranium could ultimately produce [negative EROI].

Modeling Future Uranium Supplies

Uranium supply and demand to 2030

 

Using historical data for countries and single mines, it is possible to create a model to project how much uranium will be extracted from existing reserves in the years to come. 54 The model is purely empirical and is based on the assumption that mining companies, when planning the extraction profile of a deposit, project their operations to coincide with the average lifetime of the expensive equipment and infrastructure it takes to mine uranium—about a decade.

Gradually the extraction becomes more expensive as some equipment has to be replaced and the least costly resources are mined. As a consequence, both extraction and profits decline. Eventually the company stops exploiting the deposit and the mine closes. The model depends on both geological and economic constraints, but the fact that it has turned out to be valid for so many past cases shows that it is a good approximation of reality.

This said, the model assumes the following points:

  • Mine operators plan to operate the mine at a nearly constant production level on the basis of detailed geological studies and to manage extraction so that the plateau can be sustained for approximately 10 years.
  • The total amount of extractable uranium is approximately the achieved (or planned) annual plateau value multiplied by 10.

Applying this model to well-documented mines in Canada and Australia, we arrive at amazingly correct results. For instance, in one case, the model predicted a total production of 319 ± 24 kilotons, which was very close to the 310 kilotons actually produced. So we can be reasonably confident that it can be applied to today’s larger currently operating and planned uranium mines. Considering that the achieved plateau production from past operations was usually smaller than the one planned, this model probably overestimates the future production.

Table 2 summarizes the model’s predictions for future uranium production, comparing those findings against forecasts from other groups and against two different potential future nuclear scenarios.

As you can see, the forecasts obtained by this model indicate substantial supply constraints in the coming decades—a considerably different picture from that presented by the other models, which predict larger supplies.

The WNA’s 2009 forecast differs from our model mainly by assuming that existing and future mines will have a lifetime of at least 20 years. As a result, the WNA predicts a production peak of 85 kilotons/year around the year 2025, about 10 years later than in the present model, followed by a steep decline to about 70 kilotons/year in 2030. Despite being relatively optimistic, the forecast by the WNA shows that the uranium production in 2030 would not be higher than it is now. In any case, the long deposit lifetime in the WNA model is inconsistent with the data from past uranium mines. The 2006 estimate from the EWG was based on the Red Book 2005 RAR (reasonably assured resources) and IR (inferred resources) numbers. The EWG calculated an upper production limit based on the assumption that extraction can be increased according to demand until half of the RAR or at most half of the sum of the RAR and IR resources are used. That led the group to estimate a production peak around the year 2025.

Assuming all planned uranium mines are opened, annual mining will increase from 54,000 tons/year to a maximum of 58 (+ or – 4) thousand tons/year in 2015. [ Bardi wrote this before 2013 and 2014 figures were known. 2013 was 59,673 (highest total) and 56,252 in 2014.]

Declining uranium production will make it impossible to obtain a significant increase in electrical power from nuclear plants in the coming decades.





Does nuclear energy produce no CO2 ?

8 10 2013


Another guest post by Dave Kimble at www.peakoil.org.au

Proponents of nuclear power always say that one of the big benefits of nuclear power
is that it produces no Carbon dioxide (CO2).

This is completely untrue, as a moment’s consideration will demonstrate that fossil fuels, especially oil in the form of gasoline and diesel, are essential to every stage of the nuclear cycle, and CO2 is given off whenever these are used.

Ranger Pit 1

This is Ranger Uranium Mine’s Pit Number 1.
All of the material removed from this hole, over-burden and ore, was moved by truck.

 

heavy pit truck These trucks run on diesel. It would be interesting to know how much diesel is used for how much ore in a year at Ranger.If we are to increase the number of nuclear power stations, we also need to increase the number of these trucks (which obviously take a lot of fossil fuel energy to build), and the volume of diesel fuel. Currently Australia imports 26% of its diesel consumption, and this figure is rising as our oil production falls.

The tyres on these trucks are also particularly energy-intensive to make, and there is a world-wide short of these tyres.

 

Olympic Dam uranium mill The ore is taken to a mill, usually nearby to keep trucking costs down. The mill crushes the rock to powder. The powder is then treated with sulphuric acid to dissolve the uranium, leaving the rock (depleted ore) behind.

 

tailings neutralisation The depleted ore is washed and neutralised using lime, and the slurry is pumped to the tailings ponds.

 

tailings ponds Maintaining the tailings ponds, with more diesel powered machinery.

 

Saskatchewan uranium mill Hard rock ores, such as quartz conglomerates and granites, are approximately 3 to 4 times more energy-intensive than soft rock ores (limestones and shales) to crush.

 

Ammonium diuranate - yellowcake The dissolved uranium solution, including other metals, is then treated with amines dissolved in kerosene to selectively separate the uranium, which is then precipitated out of solution using ammonia, forming Ammonium di-uranate, or “yellowcake”.All of these chemicals, sulphuric acid, lime, amines, kerosene and ammonia are energy-intensive to make, and the energy required is in the form of fossil fuels, that produce CO2 when used.

 

The calciner roasts the yellowcake to produce Uranium oxide In the final stage, the yellowcake is roasted at 800ºC in an oil-fired furnace called a calciner. The Ammonium di-uranate is converted to 98% pure Uranium oxide (U3O8), which is a dark green powder that is packed into 44-gallon drums for shipment.

 

forklift stacking yellowcake drums Drums of Uranium oxide are stacked by forklifts, while they await shipment, sometimes to the other side of the world.

 

Hydrofluoric Acid transported by rail The next stage involves dissolving the Uranium oxide in Hydrofluoric Acid and excess Fluorine gas to form Uranium hexafluoride gas :

U3O8 + 16HF + F2 => 3UF6 + 8H2O

Hydrofluoric Acid is one of the most corrosive and poisonous compounds known to man.

 

Uranium hexafluoride gas in cyclinders The Uranium hexafluoride gas is then transported in cylinders to be enriched.

 

centrifuge cascade
Naturally occurring Uranium consists of three isotopes:
U-238 = 99.2745% ; U-235 = 0.7200% ; U-234 = 0.0055%
Despite its tiny proportion of the total by weight, U-234 produces ~49% of the radioactive emissions, due to its very short half-life.

The standard enrichment process for pressurised water reactor (PWR) fuel converts this mix to:
fuel stream : U-238 = 96.4% ; U-235 = 3.6%
tailings stream : U-238 = 99.7% ; U-235 = 0.3%

The centrifuges are powered by electricity, so this stage can be powered by nuclear power. However building the centrifuge cascades requires lots of fossil fuels.

 

low enriched uranium Low-enriched (3.6%) Uranium hexafluoride gas is then transported to the fuel fabrication plant.

 

30 gram fuel pellet The UF6 gas is converted to Uranium dioxide (UO2) powder, pressed into pellets, and baked in an oil-fired furnace to form a ceramic material. These are then loaded into a tube made of a zirconium alloy. Several of these tubes form one fuel assembly.

 

fuel rod fabrication Zirconium is a metallic element derived from zircon, an ore of Zirconium silicate (ZrSiO4), which is a by-product of rutile sand mining (another energy-intensive business). Naturally occuring Zirconium is always found with Hafnium, which has to be removed (with difficulty) for nuclear uses.For every tonne of Uranium in the fuel, up to 2 tonnes of Zirconium alloy are needed.

 

fuel rod assemblies Fresh fuel is only mildly radioactive and can be handled without shielding. The fuel assemblies are then transported to the reactor by truck or train.A 1000 MW(e) nuclear reactor contains about 100 – 130 tonnes of Uranium dioxide, and usually one third of that is replaced in rotation each year.

 

The Paluel complex at Fecamp, France If you ignore the vehicles that the workers use to get to work, the reactor does not produce any CO2. But it does use electricity, as well as produce it, and to the extent that electricity is largely produced by fossil fuels, this needs to be counted in the energy balance.

 

Blast furnace chimney It takes a lot of steel and concrete to built a nuclear power station, and steel is made by smelting iron ore with coking coal.

 

Cement factory And a nuclear power station uses lots of concrete, which is made from cement. Cement is made by crushing limestone and roasting it, using fossil fuels, to drive off Carbon dioxide. So cement is particularly CO2-intensive. Concrete manufacturing is one of the highest CO2 emitters globally.

 

Reactor waste storage flask Spent fuel rods ‘normally’ spend six months in cooling ponds located within the reactor building, so that short-lived radio-activity can decay, making the material easier to handle. In the US and many other places, these spent fuel rods stay at the reactor a lot longer than that, while politicians argue over what to do with it next.

 

Reactor waste removed by truckReactor waste removed by rail Reactor waste moved by road and rail.


The Pond at Sellafield, UK

Spent fuel is kept under water until it is reprocessed. This keeps it cool and acts as a radiation shield. In the ‘once through’ process, the fuel rods are dissolved in acid, and the Plutonium is extracted, and the remainder including the Uranium becomes high-level waste. In the ‘recycling’ process, Uranium is also recovered.

 

Plutonium and MOX transport Recovered Plutonium and Mixtures of Plutonium and Uranium oxides (MOX) are sent by road back to the fuel fabrication facility to be used in new fuel rods.

 

Underground waste repository This is not really a waste repository, ( it is the NORAD military bunker at Cheyenne Mountain ) but this is what one might look like if one was ever to be built.

 

Security Police This is a security policeman, well , it does say POLICE on his bag. I do hope everything is alright.

 

Ah, that’s more like it.
How many miles per gallon do you get out of one of those ?

 

security surveillance Security surveillance is needed to prevent terrorists from getting access to radio-active materials.

 

 

Tor-M1 anti-missile missile system And increasingly these days, one also has to defend ones nuclear facilities against attack by an increasingly sophisticated enemy. This is the Tor-M1 – a fully integrated combat vehicle with anti-missile/anti-aircraft missiles, that the Iranians are getting from Russia to protect themselves from the peace-makers.


As you can see, every step of the nuclear power cycle involves the expenditure of energy derived from fossil fuels, which nuclear electricity cannot replace. Thus it is untrue to say that nuclear energy is greenhouse friendly.

In the paper “Nuclear Power : the energy balance” by J.W. Storm and P. Smith (2005) download here, the authors calculate that with high quality ores, the CO2 produced by the full nuclear life cycle is about one half to one third of an equivalent sized gas-fired power station.

 

For low quality ores (less than 0.02% of U3O8 per tonne of ore),
the CO2 produced by the full nuclear life cycle is EQUAL TO
that produced by the equivalent gas-fired power station.

 

So the question is :
Given that the greenhouse claims for nuclear power are false,
and if the only way the nuclear industry can operate is with massive amounts of cheap fossil fuels,
especially diesel derived from oil,
and with oil going to be very much scarcer in the future,
is this a good time to be thinking of increasing the nuclear industry ?

 


Related article : Confronting a false myth of nuclear power by Mary Olson, NIRS