Uranium resources worldwide

By Bruno Comby, President of EFN


When speaking of urnaium resources, one must distinguish between the proven resources (already discovered) and the estimated worldwide uranium reserves

The amount of uranium available also depends on the price one wishes to pay for it.

We are only today in the beginning of uranium exploration, like was the case for oil in the beginning of the 20th century. Most oil fields were then still to be discovered, and at that time both the proven and estimated reserves kept increasing for several decades.

The NEA (Nuclear Energy Agency) is probably one of the most competent sources of information on this topic. The NEA publishes every year with the IAEA a document called the NEA Red Book (Uranium Resource production and Demand).

The numbers below are from the NEA RED BOOK 2004 and are given for U prices up to 80-130 $/kg U (the price of U today on the spot market is about 15-18 $ US/lb U3O8, with 1 lb = 0.45 kg, and 1 kg U3O8 containing about 800 g of U, therefore the price of U today is about 50 US $/kg U).

If we accept to pay a higher price for U than 80-130 $ US/kg, then more resources can be found, the figures below can be expanded, and this would not significantly increase the price of kWh for the consumer (the cost of uranium today is only 5% of the cost of the kWh).


The results are :

PROVEN Uranium reserves worldwide: about 4 million tons (current consumption rate of U worldwide is 60 000 tons per year => proven reserves at 80-130 $/kgU these proven reserves are enough for 65 years of use at the current consumption rate)

ESTIMATED Uranium reserves worldwide: about 16 million tons (current consumption rate of U worldwide is 60 000 tons per year => proven reserves at 80-130 $/kgU these proven reserves are enough for 265 years of use at the current consumption rate)

NON-CONVENTIONAL Uranium reserves worldwide (i.e. uranium contained in phosphates): an ADDITIONAL 22 million tons (representing an additional 365 years of use)

Uranium dissolved in sea water: about 4 billion tons (but more difficult and costly to retrieve)

Therefore, leaving aside the U in sea water, the total ESTIMATED + NON-CONVENTIONAL uranium reserves are enough for more than 600 years of use at current consumption rate using today's reactors and at a cost less than 80-130$/kg U (about twice today's spot price).


Source : NEA/IAEA RED BOOK 2004 (the RED BOOK can be ordered from the NEA - www.oecd.org )



A few implications about the future and the necessity of rapid neutron reactors:

Our world will be running out of oil in a few decades. Without energy, our civilization will not survive. Nuclear energy is the ONLY source of energy which is mature and capable of replacing a significant portion of the large amounts of carbon fuels burnt today. Therefore it is very likely that there will be a considerable expansion of nuclear power in the coming decades, when the flow of oil will be depleted.

It is therefore important to take a look at what could be the duration of uranium reserves in the highly probable case of a "nuclear intensive" scenario ?

When oil starts becoming rare in a few decades, if the nuclear installed capacity was to expand say 10-fold to produce not 7% of the world energy like today but 70% in 2050 and following decades, then the world U reserves which are enough for 600 years today would be reduced to only 60 years, using today's reactors. Even in this "nuclear intensive" scenario, there is no short term risk of U shortage, but still a medium-term shortage, then only one or perhaps two generations of water reactors such as BWR or EPR with a life span of 60 years would operate. With reprocessing and re-enrichment of unburnt U235, perhaps two or three generations of water reactors could operate in large numbers (i.e. with about 4500 reactors worldwide).

In this case, even if there is no short-term risk of U shortage, there is an important medium-term risk (in half a century or so).

Rapid neutron reactors such as MONJU in Japan, BN600 in the CIS and PHENIX in Francea re proven technology. PHENIX for example has been operatinf or more than 30 years, and large industrial prototypes of such reactors such as SUPERPHENIX (1400 MW) have been built and operated successfully (and unfortunately stopped prematurely for strictly political not technical reasons, by the Greens). These reactors burn uranium much more efficiently, making 50 times more energy than today's water reactors from the same amount of natural uranium.

With rapid neutron reactors, the estimated and non-conventional uranium resources are enough for 30 000 years of use, transforming nuclear energy into a sustainable source of energy in the very long term..

Therefore MONJU and other rapid neutron reactors SHOULD CONTINUE TO OPERATE to keep the experience alive and the scientific development of sodium reactors moving forward. Rapid neutron reactors will rapidly become a major energy issue, and will probably be the ONLY SOLUTION, and this equation will need to be solved in very few decades from now.

MONJU MUST CONTINUE and the EFR project (European Fast Reactor, a 1500 MW sodium cooled reactor, successor of PHENIX and SUPERPHENIX) must be launched if our civilization is to survive after a few decades.

It would be absurd to stop MONJU, not develop the EFR and continue speaking of sustainable development. Rapid neutron reactors such as MONJU and the EFR are the key of sustainable development and to the survival of our civilization. For the moment, there is no better alternative after a few decades.

Hydrogen technology should also be developed but is not a solution per se and is not an alternative to such reactors : the fabrication of hydrogen requires huge amounts of energy which, in the long term, can come only from rapid neutron reactors.

Fusion reactors such as ITER should also be developed, but it is still highly uncertain whether such reactors will be commercially feasible.

The only PROVEN and SAFE technology to ensure the survival of our civilization after 2050 are the rapid neutron reactors which should be urgnetly developed - before it is too late.

Other document on the same subject (Pr Cohen is a member of the Scientific Committee of EFN) : Pr. Bernard Cohen's document about breeder reactors