Uranium Resources: Plenty to Sustain Growth of Nuclear Power

Vienna, Austria

Yury Sokolov, IAEA Deputy Director General, Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My colleague Mr. Echavarri mentioned at the beginning of his presentation the world´s growing energy needs and concerns about the security of energy supplies.

A key motivating question is whether there is enough uranium to meet energy needs and security concerns. That´s the question the Red Book answers in detail, based on specific data from countries around the world, plus expert analysis managed by the IAEA and NEA. Let me summarize the basics.

The short answer is: yes, there is enough uranium.

The Red Book uses three types of categorisations for uranium resources.

The first distinguishes conventional uranium resources, where uranium is the main product of extraction operations, from unconventional uranium resources, where uranium is extracted as a minor by-product when extracting other materials.

The second categorisation is based on our level of confidence that the resources exist given how much exploration has been done. This categorisation distinguishes between identified resources, inferred resources, prognosticated resources and others categories.

The third categorization is by extraction cost. I will talk only about uranium that costs less than $130/kg. This is very close to the current spot price of around $112/kg.

First, let me start with conventional resources where uranium is the main product. Total conventional resources are estimated at 14.8 million tonnes.

Among them we are especially confident of 4.7 million tonnes of "identified resources" - those that are basically already "in hand". We know they exist because we can see them in mines that are already dug, or in rock samples that have been analyzed for the next mine, or they can be "inferred" from the surrounding geology.

The remaining part of conventional resources is about 10 million tonnes. With the jargon used by the geologists in the Red Book they are "undiscovered resources", "prognosticated" or "speculative resources," and their estimates are based on limited geological investigations with detailed exploration methods, or on geological knowledge for favourable geological areas. The figure is probably an underestimate as only two-thirds of countries have reported this category. Australia for example, has not.

Finally there are unconventional resources. That´s another 22 million tU. These are associated with phosphates and also fall within the cost category of less than $130/kg.

One important reference point to note is that in the whole 60-year history of the nuclear era through today, the total amount of uranium that has been produced adds up to about 2.2 Mt.

That´s how much there is. How long will it last? If it´s used at the rate we use it today, the answer is that the 4.7 million tU of "identified resources" would last eight to nine decades. The "total conventional resources" of 14.8 million tU, again at current usage rates, would last several hundred years. And if we next add in uranium associated with phosphates, we have enough uranium to last 600 to 700 years. Again this assumes unchanged usage rates and unchanged technology. Both in fact will change, a point I will return to.

Now to the issue of supply security. This map shows the distribution of identified uranium resources. The immediate message is that uranium´s distribution is more diverse than, for example, oil. Significant identified resources are in particularly Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Namibia, Niger, the Russian Federation, South Africa and the United States. The geopolitical distribution of both uranium resources and production significantly reduces the risk of disruption.

The two major producers are Canada and Australia with 29% and 22% respectively of total global production in 2004. Both are OECD countries. Most of other major producing countries – Kazakhstan, Niger, Namibia, Russian Federation and Uzbekistan – add up to less than 10% of the total.

I mentioned earlier that there is plenty of uranium assuming the industry keeps moving ahead with exploration and new mines. The message in the Red Book is that, for the immediate future at least, they are doing precisely that.

A significant number of new mines are already planned. By 2010, new mines are expected in Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Brazil, India and other countries. They would add around 30 000 tU of annual production capacity, about a 60% increase over today’s capacity. The price increases Mr. Echavarri discussed have very much prompted a strong revival of the uranium industry after the extended period of low prices and low activity. Indeed any risk to supply security now comes not from limited resources or political instability, but from possible delays in moving from discovery to production, particularly if demand increases rapidly.

What about increased demand? The Red Book includes two projections through 2025, a high and a low. Both show growth in the world´s installed nuclear capacity: 20% in the low projection and 43% in the high. These translate into uranium production requirements of 80,000-100,000 tU in 2025. Those levels are certainly achievable based on industry expansion activities and plans today. They simply mean that the activities have to continue and the plans have to be implemented.

I want finally to look longer term and address both the possibilities that the demand for uranium will increase substantially and that the technology will evolve substantially. One possible driver of a large nuclear power expansion is the introduction of increasingly stringent environmental constraints on power generation, especially on greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear power, including the fuel cycle chain from mining through waste disposal and decommissioning, has one of the lowest greenhouse gas emission levels of all power generation options – 1-6 gC/kWh of electricity – about the same as wind and solar power and well below coal, oil and natural gas. Given this advantage of nuclear power, a significant tightening of greenhouse gas emission limits creates incentives for an accelerated nuclear power expansion.

The other factor that will certainly change, although we can´t know how much, is technology. Continuing advances in nuclear technology will allow much better utilization of uranium resources. So-called fast reactor designs, that are capable of extracting more that 30 times more energy from uranium than today´s reactors, already exist. Some have been built and operated, although the long period of low uranium prices hasn’t provided much incentive for such reactors. Moreover, such reactors can, in principle, not only provide more effective use of uranium but also incinerate long-lived wastes. At the moment they need to be improved for better commercial competitiveness.

So the summary messages are:

    • There is enough uranium for the foreseeable future.

 

    • Diverse sources of uranium enhance supply security.

 

    • Uranium price increases have increased exploration and production but have little impact on nuclear electricity costs.

 

    • Current expansion of production capacity needs to be continued.

 

  • Exploration, unconventional resources and fast reactors can greatly increase the longevity of nuclear fuel resources.

Thank you.

Last update: 13 November 2014