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Earth Power Hardware

CERN Physicist Warns About Uranium Shortage 581

eldavojohn writes "Uranium mines provide us with 40,000 tons of uranium each year. Sounds like that ought to be enough for anyone, but it comes up about 25,000 tons short of what we consume yearly in our nuclear power plants. The difference is made up by stockpiles, reprocessed fuel and re-enriched uranium — which should be completely used up by 2013. And the problem with just opening more uranium mines is that nobody really knows where to go for the next big uranium lode. Dr. Michael Dittmar has been warning us for some time about the coming shortage (PDF) and has recently uploaded a four-part comprehensive report on the future of nuclear energy and how socioeconomic change is exacerbating the effect this coming shortage will have on our power consumption. Although not quite on par with zombie apocalypse, Dr. Dittmar's final conclusions paint a dire picture, stating that options like large-scale commercial fission breeder reactors are not an option by 2013 and 'no matter how far into the future we may look, nuclear fusion as an energy source is even less probable than large-scale breeder reactors, for the accumulated knowledge on this subject is already sufficient to say that commercial fusion power will never become a reality.'"
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CERN Physicist Warns About Uranium Shortage

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  • I mention this (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Profane MuthaFucka ( 574406 ) <> on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:28AM (#30129254) Homepage Journal

    Everytime nuclear fission comes up as a possible viable alternative. Peak Uranium is as real as peak oil, and it's here now.

  • Re:I mention this (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Profane MuthaFucka ( 574406 ) <> on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:29AM (#30129280) Homepage Journal

    And oh yea, we should be investigating Thorium reactors. Thorium is plentiful in the Earth's crust. That's a better way to go than uranium.

  • by BadAnalogyGuy ( 945258 ) <> on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:32AM (#30129332)

    Peak Oil was really just the beginning. If nuclear energy were to take off, we would be out of uranium before the first year was over. This points to a deadly flaw in the use of natural resources as the basis for energy sources. If you have to mine it, drill it, or harvest it, you will always run the risk of running out of it.

    This is why there are only a handful truly renewable resources. Solar, for as long as we really need to care about, is going to be around forever. Fusion, if effectively harnessed, could provide a very good power source without the pollution of fission and the only input is hydrogen (or even heavier elements). Gravititic potential energy is another largely untapped resource. While some forms of this like dams and tidal generators have been developed, there is literally an unlimited amount of energy in the form of space-time bending due to gravity.

    We're so far behind the energy resource curve that it is only a matter of time before we end up in the dark.

  • Re:I mention this (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LSD-OBS ( 183415 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:35AM (#30129378)


    Fund. Fucking. Thorium. Fuel. Cycle. Research.


  • Re:I mention this (Score:5, Insightful)

    by HangingChad ( 677530 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:36AM (#30129428) Homepage

    And oh yea, we should be investigating Thorium reactors.

    That's fine, but our entire nuclear energy infrastructure is built around uranium. It's not like you can put different fuel in a reactor and just carry on with the plants online today.

    This is going to be interesting.

  • Re:I mention this (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Profane MuthaFucka ( 574406 ) <> on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:39AM (#30129452) Homepage Journal

    Building an all-new infrastructure vs. not and running out of fuel.

    It's an easy decision, and a painful one too.

  • by mellon ( 7048 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:40AM (#30129474) Homepage

    That last part is why. :'|

  • Re:I mention this (Score:3, Insightful)

    by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:43AM (#30129522) Homepage Journal

    1 Where have not been any new Uranium mines opened in many years because of the low demand and price. In fact a lot of uranium mines have closed for that very reason.
    2. We have not used much of the stockpiled Plutonium of which there is a a good amount.
    3. We have a lot of un reprocessed nuclear fuel which contains a lot of usable fuel.
    4. We are not using breeder reactors on a large scale which will greatly increase the supply of nuclear fuel.
    Peak Uranium will happen but we also can use Thorium as a fuel and even peak Thorium might happen but with breeder reactors and fuel reprocessing we should have at least a century or two of nuclear fuel to get us to workable fusion and solar.
    Personally I am a big fan of OTEC as well as nuclear. Wind I worry about the environmental impact of extracting that much energy out of the weather system. I know a lot of people dismiss that but then a lot of people used to think of Hydroelectric dams as the perfect clean source of energy but look at the impact they have.

  • Non-issue (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BlueParrot ( 965239 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:44AM (#30129536)

    Areva quotes their fuel costs as roughly 17% of total cost of nuclear power with half of that being the cost of the uranium ( rest being enrichment and fuel-rod fabrication )

    This means that even if uranium costs were to double the cost of nuclear power would increase by less than 9%.

    Conversely for the price of nuclear power do double from uranium costs alone the cost of uranium would have to increase 10 times. Long before that happens it would become economical to build fast breeder reactors and they only need a fraction of the fuel other reactors do.

    Also at such high uranium prices it would start being economical to extract uranium from sea-water, effectively making uranium availability a non-issue for thousands of years.

  • by agentgonzo ( 1026204 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:44AM (#30129542)
    When the first started building nuclear reactors in the 60s (is that correct? I wasn't around then) they imagined that they'd be able to produce so much electricity so cheaply that they wouldn't need to charge for it and electricity would be free.

    Look how that panned out.

  • by SatanicPuppy ( 611928 ) * <> on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:48AM (#30129602) Journal

    Exactly. I'd like to think we weren't so naive anymore. There is a cost to everything, and a downside to every type of energy generation.

  • by SatanicPuppy ( 611928 ) * <> on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:53AM (#30129660) Journal

    No, I know it's do-able, and I've actually been agitating in that direction for a long time. Re-enriching nuclear waste makes more sense (to me) than dumping tons of usable, highly radioactive, quarter-spent fuel in landfills that no one wants within a million miles of their house.

    But the problem is mainly that re-enrichment is frowned upon because it creates tons of weapons-grade plutonium, so the only plants we have are clunky, inefficient, research plants. We'd have to redesign them for commercial use.

  • Well (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ShooterNeo ( 555040 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @11:54AM (#30129690)

    Nuclear's a dying industry, and not for the reason commonly cited.

    Fact is, it is ALREADY much more expensive to build new nuclear reactor capacity than it is to put up new windmills (which are in turn much more expensive than natural gas or coal)

    I suspect that even when you factor in the cost of storage, as long as you use something like a compressed air cavern for storage, then wind is still cheaper.

    I predict that less than 10 new nuclear fission plants for commercial power generation will ever be built in the United States over the rest of human history.

  • Re:I mention this (Score:4, Insightful)

    by confused one ( 671304 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @12:00PM (#30129786)
    There's no uranium shortage. There's a U235 shortage. Sure, our infrastructure, such that it is, is based for the most part on U235 cores. It's not terribly difficult to use mixed oxide as a supplement in an existing reactor, once you have the Pu239 or U233; so, the existing reactors are not left out in the cold (I meant that as a pun). But considering the U.S. infrastructure is 30-40 years old, and we need to start building new(-er) reactors to supplement and replace those, it would be a good idea to design some of those to use the alternatives: U238 is available in fairly large quantities (Hell, we have it in south central Virginia) and Thorium 232 is available in larger quantities. Both yield fissionable fuels in "breeder" reactors.
  • Re:I mention this (Score:2, Insightful)

    by XSpud ( 801834 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @12:14PM (#30129966) Homepage
    Most of the solar radiation we collect will eventually end up as heat anyway - it's just that we'll use it to do something useful before it ends up as heat.
  • Re:I mention this (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @12:20PM (#30130076)

    Actually, while we might not run out of sun, we could definitely run out the materials used to capture solar energy. That is, the raw materials used to manufacture solar energy devices. It's already a problem with our current solar cell technology.

  • by gtall ( 79522 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @12:32PM (#30130214)

    We can attribute the lack of progress on breeder reactors to Jimmy Carter when he killed the Clinch River breeder reactor project. The anti-nuke crowd proclaimed this a great victory....errr...or something.

  • Re:I mention this (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mrdoogee ( 1179081 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @12:32PM (#30130216)

    I'm just glad that out corporate overlords at ExxonMobil made it for us. That's a load off my mind.

  • Re:I mention this (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Again ( 1351325 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @12:34PM (#30130252)

    Solar power IS nuclear power, we've just offshored the actual reactor. Some loss of energy occurs during transport, though.

    If we run out of Sun, running my hairdryer is going to get really low on my list of priorities, really fast.

    Wait... I thought Oracle was fixing that.

  • by RAMMS+EIN ( 578166 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @12:59PM (#30130578) Homepage Journal

    ``Would you rather have 100 tons of waste annually from a thermal reactor plant, or 2 tons from a breeder reactor? It's radiocative either way.''

    Well, there's radioactive, radioactive, and radioactive, so saying "it's radioactive either way" is not very informative. How dangerous is it and how long will it stay that way?

    I am sure that virtually everything I will come into contact with during my entire live will be radioactive, but it will probably emit so little radiation that I don't bother even thinking about it. Similarly, a small amount of highly radioactive matter doesn't bother me a lot, either; it will decay in a flash and then life will be back to normal.

    What I am bothered by, though, is the idea of creating large amounts of material that will be dangerous long after we are gone. Past generations haven't made my life miserable by making my world a nuclear/toxic/what-have-you waste dump, and I'd like to not do so to the generations that come after me, either.

  • by HungryHobo ( 1314109 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @01:06PM (#30130670)

    From a quick reading he does hand wave quite a bit.
    Anything that's not a full scale commercial enterprise doesn't exist and never will.... research is pointless.
    For the uranium from seawater thing he talks about the cost of the experiment rather than any kind of estimated costs of large scale extraction.

    It seems to boil down to "we're not getting much uranium out of the ground right now while prices are low and we have massive stockpiles keeping prices low.... hence somehow people won't start mining more as the price of uranium goes up again....."

  • Nope (Score:3, Insightful)

    by zogger ( 617870 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @01:17PM (#30130792) Homepage Journal

    There are numerous ways to make PV cells [], including the much cheaper dye based [], and they keep coming up with new ones all the time, and we just won't run out* of materials to make solar thermal [] collectors, which among other uses (direct hot water use, direct hot air use, direct pure fresh water production, cooking, food drying and storage, etc) can be used in concentrator arrays to drive steam plants, or anything else you might need a source of "wicked freekin hot" for.

    *if we did run out of normal materials, that means we have run out of most everything then, you won't be building nuthin', so the point would be moot.

      You can make solar thermal from such a wide variety of stuff it ain't funny. Example, here's a simple do it in one weekend project, just from junk our landfills are full of or you can go scrounge someplace, an old refrigerator, a sheet of glass (like some used store glass), an old hot water tank and some plumbing fixtures will make you a hot water heater.

    I like solar the most out of all the energy choices we have now (generally speaking) because it scales so well, and can be configured to do so many things, from DIY made out of scraps like I outlined above, all the way to large scale commercial uses. It is our only practical fusion power, and will probably *be* our only practical fusion power for a LONG time.(and biofuels are solar fusion power as well so I include them) It is also the one that lends itself best to decentralization of energy production and allows the energy consumer to actually have a power source paid off, and not be stuck renting the infrastructure and then paying for the fuel and their never ending need for profit from bigelectrico or bigliquidfuelsco forever and ever and ever.

    The other reason I like it so well..and this is really stupid hideous wars will be fought over solar tech. Which is something I just *wish* the all pro nuke and pro oil crowd would acknowledge is a really major "cost" of their pet methods today.

      Uranium tech and petroleum tech..wars in the past, wars today and threats of even larger and nastier wars in the future over access to supplies and who gets someone else's "permission" to use this tech or access supplies/raw materials.

        The sooner we get away from those two war creating sources (and coal) the better, IMO, for the safety and security of the human species (and all the other species).

  • Re:Well (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ShooterNeo ( 555040 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @01:22PM (#30130856)

    In the long run, nuclear fission reactors will still be pretty dangerous. If not carefully run and monitored, they can blow or be deliberately detonated to contaminate a vast area.

    That danger factor means that we can't ever have totally automated plants, and we can't lower the cost of building a reactor by deliberately cutting corners where we don't think it will matter.

    Solar is going to be the only main source of power in the long run. It's entirely conceivable to make a factory that can make solar panels in a completely automated manner, and installation and maintainance is optional : nothing catastrophic will happen if you stop maintaining your solar plant, or cut corners wherever you can. Parts of it will just go dead.

    Yeah, storage is currently a problem : but solutions like the compressed air caverns and electric car batteries will eventually eliminate this problem. Eventually it'll be possible to churn out cheap solar panels and storage for basically nothing.

    And in the long, long run it'll be space based power : no more problems with storage. I think even for our distance descendents, it'll be a lot easier to park solar sheets in space than to run a fusion reactor (except, of course, for interstellar expeditions into the dark...those will need portable power systems of some sort)

  • Re:I mention this (Score:3, Insightful)

    by LSD-OBS ( 183415 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @01:36PM (#30131038)

    I think the parent might be talking about the fact that it's exactly because you can't breed useful weapons-grade fissile material from thorium that the technology has not been pursued...

  • Re:Iran tried. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by AndersOSU ( 873247 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @01:40PM (#30131112)

    Iran didn't try to build a breeder reactor. Iran has a small research reactor and a conventional Russian designed LWR. We also just found out about an enrichment facility.

    The US does have nukes in a handful of NATO countries - there are a couple of reasons for this. First, the whole reason NATO exists is so Russia doesn't decide to invade Europe, having nukes in Italy reinforces this position. Secondly, it reduces the number of nuclear states - on one hand if the nukes are under the state's control it's a tad disingenuous to call them a non-nuclear state, but on the other, it reduces or eliminates the motivation for that state to develop the knowledge necessary to build it's own devices. Furthermore, I imagine we know where all "our" nukes are, and were war to break out with Italy, they wouldn't retain nuclear capability for long.

    No one's threatening to invade the US because we spend about as much money on defense as the rest of the world combined. Not that that gives us the moral high ground, but it puts us squarely on the practical don't-fuck-with-us ground. We're also not seriously contemplating building breeder reactors or even nuclear fuel repossessing because of a combination of domestic social pressures, to avoid sending the "wrong" signals to foreign governments, proliferation concerns.

  • by LordVader717 ( 888547 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @01:51PM (#30131260)

    Hey. I've got a brilliant Idea. Let's construct a thermonuclear fusion reactor at the center of the solar system. We will collect the radiation energy with photovoltaic cells pointed to the sky. As there are no moving parts, it wouldn't require much maintainence either. Why hasn't anybody implemented such a brilliant idea?

  • by LordVader717 ( 888547 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @02:17PM (#30131764)

    Reactors produce radioactive waste which would be a significant hazard leaked into the environment. Neither product is inherently safer, and has to be handled and stored with utmost care.
    The advantage of fast-breeders is that they produce only a tiny fraction of waste that other designs do. In other words, we could switch to breeder reactors and produce significantly less waste than we do today. In fact, by reprocessing fuel we could completely alleviate expansion of future waste, and we would still only have the waste problem from the last 40 years that we're stuck with.

  • Re:3% growth (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Zalbik ( 308903 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @02:25PM (#30131918)

    Do that calculation again, and instead of assuming zero growth. Do it assuming 3% growth, because that's the average.

    That's the average right now. There is no way that humanity will be able to maintain that average over the next 200 - 300 years.

    If we attempt it, that will likely solve the growth problem right there (war, famine, disease, general Malthusian badness).

  • Re:3% growth (Score:3, Insightful)

    by David Jao ( 2759 ) <> on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @02:27PM (#30131956) Homepage

    Do that calculation again, and instead of assuming zero growth. Do it assuming 3% growth, because that's the average.

    No energy source whatsoever in the physical universe can accommodate perpetual 3% growth. Therefore the demand to accommodate 3% perpetual growth is unreasonable.

  • Ya (Score:3, Insightful)

    by zogger ( 617870 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @06:31PM (#30136236) Homepage Journal

    Ya, read about that, sort of a giant pie in the sky boondoggle. The people there, Africa in general, should get the power anyway.

        That and other reasons are why I am way more in favor of individuals (and small co-ops) doing it themselves and owning the means of production and routing around obscene middle man costs and the vagaries of geopolitical reality that can impact your delivery. Europe has already gone through that with Russian natgas, and man boy howdy do I remember the OPEC embargo and the tanker war shortages. Then just last year we had the fast rise of gasoline and diesel from those dogpuke investment banker wallstreet speculators, who nailed both food commodities and energy *at the same time*.

    If you make your own power onsite..electricity and transportation fuel, whether that is electricity as well or some liquid biofuels (or maybe hydrogen in the future from water) you won't be boycotting yourself or charging yourself an extra fat skim.

    DE-centralization and the open-sourcing of energy producing tech should be the next great step for people. The collective "we", all the people on the planet, been held in perpetual economic bondage and gross physical peril by centralized and politicized energy supply and delivery. The cost in money is too great, the cost in lives and misery and health is much much worse. the cost of future conflicts going really bad becvause of nuke tech is..insane, just crazy.

    There are no "solar proliferation" issues really, not like nukes, and as we see, there is no safe way to have nuke power without having weapons potential, so it will always be contentious. And we already know people fight over oil, heck, japan attacked the US in ww2 over access to oil, we finally ended the war with nukes. Just that should have been enough to tell humanity we had really screwed up and we should have been looking for alternatives right back then, not still floundering around like we are today "thinking" about it.

    If we run superinsulation [] at our home and business energy needs one way, then run onsite made power at it from the other direction..eventually those two things cross, poof, energy independence, a *sweet thing indeed*.

    And the really cool part is, it IS possible today, with no new tech having to be invented or produced, so those who want to..can already. Yes, it is still "early adopter" phase, but it got good enough awhile back, it is doable today.

  • by David Jao ( 2759 ) <> on Tuesday November 17, 2009 @06:33PM (#30136264) Homepage

    How long will billions of years of uranium last? 250 years? 300? (I haven't run the numbers, but what I can tell you is that the emeritus professor from Stanford is wrong (or irrelevant) because his starting assumptions are wrong)

    If you run the numbers then 1 billion years' supply under present consumption rates lasts for 635 years under 3% growth. But, your numbers are just as wrong and irrelevant as those of the calculation that you are accusing, since there is absolutely no reason why historical growth trends must continue to be the case indefinitely into the future.

    For comparison, the entire mass-energy resources of the observable universe will be depleted in 5000 years under the (plainly untenable) assumption of perpetual 3% growth.

  • Re:Well (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sunspot42 ( 455706 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2009 @04:21AM (#30140978)

    You aren't factoring in the cost of liability insurance for nuclear power plants and nuclear waste dumps.

    Oh, that's right - nuclear power plants don't really pay all that much for liability insurance. Why is that? Oh yeah, because the government doesn't require them to - I think the pool they do pay into is currently sitting on a pitiful $10 billion in cash, which could easily be wiped out by a single nuclear accident. So, why aren't they forced to carry at least a few billion in coverage per-plant, the way most drivers are forced to carry liability insurance? Because even the nutbags at AIG wouldn't write such a policy - the damage a nuclear power plant or waste dump could cause if it goes all China syndrome could easily run into the tens or perhaps even hundreds of billions of dollars. Per-plant. The biggest "too big to fail" financial services companies couldn't hope to absorb that kind of loss.

    If nuclear power plants were required to buy private liability insurance on the private market, providing them will full coverage for the potential damage they could do, and the government required the insurers to have enough assets to cover any potential payout, the entire nuclear power industry would be shut down overnight. The only way they could afford the premiums would be to jack the cost of power way, way, way up, enough to cover billions, tens of billions or even hundreds of billions of liability per-plant . Rates would skyrocket so high just about every alternative would become cheaper.

    There's no such thing as a free lunch. Unless you're a nuclear power plant, in which case the taxpayers are ultimately on the hook for any of your screwups. They are yet another "too big to fail" institution that will end up costing the taxpayers dearly someday.

    Shut them all down and replace them with pretty much anything but nuclear power. Preferably starting with conservation, the #1 renewable energy "resource".

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