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The limited supply of nuclear fuels is surprising. Uranium is the key fuel in the nuclear power industry and uranium, like oil, gas, and coal, is a finite and limited resource. There is already concern by professionals in the nuclear power industry that demand may out-pace supply in the first decade of the 21st century. Predictions for the future availability of uranium are guardedly optimistic, but rely heavily on conditions for uranium demand to rise only slightly. A market report published by the Uranium Institute for its twenty-first Annual Symposium in 1996 noted that in recent years the "shortfall in supply has been met from inventories that are considered to have now reached near minimum strategic reserve levels." The report concludes that "only with the combination of the lowest requirement scenario and the highest supply scenario will uranium production be sufficient to meet demand, and then only until 2002." Otherwise demand may exceed present planned supply by as much as 15,000 tons of uranium per year.
Estimated western world resources of three million tons of uranium at under $60,000 per ton are sufficient to satisfy demand for only 42 years. There is another 1.5 million available at $100,000 per ton. The total of 4.5 million tons is sufficient to meet demand for a mere 60 years. Gerald Grandey, senior vice president of marketing and corporate development for Cameco, told the Nuclear Energy Institutes fuel cycle conference in 1996 that as of 2005, "using somewhat optimistic supply assumptions, including the less traditional supply sources, the market appears to be in balance or slightly short of supplies."
Are there reasons to be optimistic? Uranium Centre of Australia figures estimate the total world recoverable resources of uranium at 3,256,000 tons. Existing power plants operational worldwide require 75,000 tons of uranium a year to produce roughly 17% of the total world power requirements. As we've noted, current recoverable resources will only power existing reactors for four or five decades. Replacing power generated from fossil fuel with nuclear power would require a six-fold increase in the amount of recoverable uranium simply to provide the world with energy for half a century at the most. The nuclear power industry is focusing on ways to more efficiently generate power from uranium, and some display hope in the so-called breeder reactors. But so far the breeder reactor has proven too costly and dangerous a venture to offer much hope for a solution to our looming energy problem.
Assuming, momentarily, that scientists will discover more efficient ways of generating power from uranium, or that the breeder reactors become economically viable, or that vast new resources of uranium will be discovered; there are yet more compelling reasons for the world to think carefully before relying too heavily on nuclear power as the answer to the next century's power problems.