In addition, research shows that renewable
technologies are expanding very fast and could produce all the energy
needs of advanced economies, phasing out both fossil fuels and nuclear.
Mudd, who is a lecturer in the department
of civil engineering at Monash, has compiled decades of data on the
availability and quality of uranium ore. He concludes that, while
uranium is plentiful, mining the ore is very damaging to the environment
and the landscape.
It is expensive to rehabilitate former
mines, not least because of the dangerous levels of radiation left
behind. As a result many of the potential sources of uranium will not be
exploited because of opposition from people who live in the area.
'Too cheap to meter'
His paper examines the history of uranium
mining and its wild fluctuations in price. These have little to do with
supply, but rather with demand that is badly affected by nuclear
accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima, and by the political decisions
by governments to embark on new nuclear building programmes, or to
“Despite the utopian promise of
electricity ‘too cheap to meter’, nuclear power remains a minor source
of electricity worldwide", Mudd writes. In 2010 it accounted for 5.65%
of total primary energy supply and was responsible for 12.87% of global
electricity supply. Both contributions have effectively been declining
through the 2000s.
“Concerns about hazards and unfavourable
economics have effectively slowed or stopped the growth of nuclear
energy in many Western countries since the 1980s.”
The Fukushima accident in Japan has
accelerated the trend away from nuclear power. The growth in projects in
some countries, notably China, Russia and India, does not offset the
fact that many more nuclear power stations will reach retirement age
over the next 15-20 years than will be constructed.
Among the factors Mudd considered in the
fluctuation of supply was the conversion of Russian and American nuclear
weapons into power station fuel supplying 50% of American needs since
the mid-1990s, and 20% of global uranium supply. This has not
materially affected the long-term supply of uranium.
Another issue that is more politically
contentious is the high cost of rehabilitating mines, notably in Germany
and the US. In many of the countries where uranium has been mined and no
rehabilitation attempted, the prospect of further mining is blighted.
Mudd gives the examples of Niger, Gabon, Argentina and Brazil, where
there has been considerable public opposition to opening up fresh
deposits as a result.
If these resources and other uranium
deposits elsewhere in the world are to be exploited, Mudd argues, the
issue of rehabilitating existing and future mines needs to be addressed.
“There is a critical need for a thorough
and comprehensive review of the success (or otherwise) of global U mine
rehabilitation efforts and programmes; such a review could help
synthesise best practices and highlight common problems and possible
solutions,” he says.
The paper also examines in detail the
quality of the ore and the difficulty of extracting uranium from various
rocks. Mudd concludes that as time passes the richer ores in the rocks
that are easiest to extract are becoming scarce.
As a result, for each pound of uranium
extracted more greenhouse gases are generated, adding to the CO2
emissions of nuclear power. However, he believes, in the overall
comparisons of various energy systems the increase is only marginal.
“The future of nuclear power clearly
remains contested and contentious — and therefore difficult to forecast
accurately. While some optimists remain eternally hopeful, reality
appears to be relegating nuclear power to the uneconomic category of
“Overall, there is a strong case for the
abundance of already known U resources, whether currently reported as
formal mineral resources or even more speculative U sources, to meet the
foreseeable future of nuclear power. The actual U supply into the market
is, effectively, more an economic and political issue than a resource
constraint issue,” Mudd says.