A very long and very wonky post at The Oil Drum explores the possibility of a uranium shortage, coming as soon as 2015, that could cause serious problems for nuclear power plants and for those fighting new uranium mining efforts in Nunn, a tiny northern Colorado community north of Greeley.
The jury is still out with wildly competing analyses. Some experts argue there’s plenty of uranium worldwide. Others express concern that a contract to purchase uranium from dismantled Russian bombs that expires in 2013 provides an estimated 50 percent of American nuclear power plant fuel. Those decommissioned nuclear warheads create about 10 percent of the nation’s electricity.
But the pressure will build quickly to step up mining efforts to meet projected shortfalls:
Clearly, if we were to develop better mining techniques that have acceptable pollution levels and can be used in a wider range of sites, then our ability to extract uranium resources would be improved. As far as I can see, development of additional techniques has not yet happened. Recycled bomb material has been flooding the market for almost twenty years now, keeping uranium prices low. This has deterred investment in better techniques for extracting uranium, both by companies and governments.
The shortfall in supply that seems to be headed our way will be coming very soon — as soon as we become unable to find sufficient recycled bomb material to fill the gap between nuclear reactor needs and current year production, which could be as soon as 2013 (or sooner, if world financial difficulties interfere with imported Russian bomb material before then).
If we need new mines, we should have started years ago, since there is a lag of up to 10 years before a new mine begins operation. If we need new mining techniques, research on these should have started even longer ago. While there may be a whole lot of low level uranium resources “out there,” if we don’t have techniques to economically extract them and also keep pollution in bounds, the resources are not very useful to us. We may someday develop new techniques, but in the meantime, we are likely to have a large supply gap.
Supply-and-demand market forces often dictate that low supplies drastically increase commodity prices. With uranium trading at $47 per pound this week, off from its 20-year high of $135 per pound in 2007, the profit motive is very likely to build to expand domestic mining operations.