Even if nuclear power were safe enough: peak uranium

Nuclear power advocates face an increasingly tough sell in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown, but it’s likely that the controversy will be endless as long it centers on what an “acceptable” level of risk might be in order to proceed with a nuclear-powered future.

Fortunately for those put off by the prospect of such a future, it’s not necessary to gear up and make a big case against it. All that’s needed is to invite advocates to make their case quantitatively. It fails on its own terms.

Usually, the sell for nuclear power presents it as a remedy for CO2 pollution and fossil fuel depletion, envisioning a world where nuclear power is the main source of energy. Let’s say for sake of argument that this project gets the green light. How do they go about making it happen?

The basic measurements:

With the resulting requirements:

  • Required number of 1 GW plants: 17,428 (550,000 PJ demand / 31.56 PJ per plant)
  • Total cost: $52.29 trillion (17,428 plants * $3 billion each)
  • Uranium oxide for whole fleet: 3,488,741 metric tons per year (17,428 plants * 200 metric tons per year)

And with these starting conditions:

  • Current number of nuclear plants worldwide: 440

  • Uranium oxide estimated reserves (IAEA known recoverable resources): 6,306,300 metric tons

Also, the buildout. To complete the project by, say, mid-century:

  • Plants built: 447 per year (17,428 plants / 39 years)
  • Cost: $1.34 trillion per year (447 plants * $3 billion)

A nuclear-powered future, then? Yes, if we build more than the total number of currently-existing plants every single year at $3 billion apiece. We’d never reach the required 17,000 plants, however, since after about 5,000 of them were built and running, the 6.3 million metric tons of world uranium reserves would be exhausted!

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