Roadblocks to Nuclear Development
There are however several roadblocks to the development of nuclear energy.
Investments in uranium production are well below the ones in other industries, though they rose significantly during the past decade (Furfari 2007). The price of uranium ranged from 30 to 77 USD/kg in January 2015, after skyrocketing to up to 300 USD/kg in 2007 (Infomine 2014). More recently, the price of uranium has dropped due to the Fukushima incident and the consequences on nuclear electricity production in Japan. Nevertheless, the significant needs of China, India, and to a lesser extent South Korea will push up prices, except if Western Europe (in particular, France) and Japan decide to exit nuclear electricity.
Uranium reserves can be classified by categories of cost of production. Out of the 7.5 million tons of uranium actually identified, 9% cost less than 40 USD/kg to produce, while 23% cost between 130 and 260 USD/kg to produce (IAEA 2014) (Fig. 3.43).
The electronuclear market is not sensitive to the cost of primary materials. The cost of uranium represents indeed only 6% of the costs of production (NEA 2014). So while the cost of extraction can vary a lot and therefore influence the dynamics of the uranium market, it has only a small impact on the final electricity price. This is by far the lowest primary resource to electricity price ratio, with the exception of renewable energies (NEA 2014) (Figs. 3.44 and 3.45).
Uranium reserves represent around 130 years of production at the actual rate, and stand at around 7.5 million tons, or 88 billion tons of oil equivalent (Berkeley 2014), although these reserves are concentrated in Australia (25% of worldwide reserves), Kazakhstan and Africa (Niger, South Africa, Namibia). The ultimate potential of those reserves is not known precisely, as exploration has not been very
Fig. 3.43 Uranium reserves (IAEA 2014)
Fig. 3.44 Nuclear cost of production (NEA 2014)
Fig. 3.45 Cost structure of electricity production (NEA 2014)
active thus far. Furfari (2007) estimates these reserves to amount up to 17 million tons, which correspond to 300 years of production at current pace.
The consumption of nuclear energy varies greatly from one region to another. More than 75% of the consumption is spread between Europe and North America. France corresponds to 17% of worldwide consumption, or 50% of European consumption (Fig. 3.46).
The average consumption per individual shows the energy choice of France, where each individual consumes around 1.4 tons of nuclear energy per year. Of electricity production in the country, 78% is indeed based on nuclear energy. Other regions of the world have more nuanced energy policies, with world average around 0.08 tons/year/individual of uranium. Theoretically, if every country were to consume as much nuclear energy on a per individual basis as France, the current
Fig. 3.46 Nuclear energy production (BP 2014)
Fig. 3.47 Nuclear energy consumption per individual (BP 2014)
worldwide reserves would correspond to only 9 years of electricity production (Fig. 3.47).
The energy choices of China and India could lead to growing tensions around uranium reserves, which could be compensated by very active exploration. So the question of the actual size of the uranium reserves, which today is not a roadblock to its development, could become a challenge in the years to come.
Currently, the main roadblock to a wide deployment of nuclear energy is actually its economic profitability. Investments in nuclear power plants are longterm ones with high capital expenditures. Building a new plant may take several years, and the return on investment is extremely long. On top of these considerations, radioactive waste treatment and safety constraints are important issues which limit investments. These factors have caused the development of the nuclear industry to slow down.
Waste treatment is the primary subject of debates on nuclear energy. Most opponents to the development of nuclear power explain that countries should exit this source of energy because of the world incapacity to handle the waste. Out of all the waste generated by nuclear power plants, the “highly radioactive” one is the main source of concern. It represents around 5% of the total waste and 95% of the radioactivity. There is today no other solution than bury it deep. This waste remains dangerous for the environment during several centuries. Now, the nuclear industry is the only one to actually handle its waste. The total volume of nuclear toxic waste averages every year around 81,000 m3 (World Nuclear 2014). This figure needs to be compared to the 300 Mm3 of total toxic waste produced in OECD countries and for which statistics exist. Nuclear waste thus represents 0.03% of the total waste. The very toxic “highly radioactive” waste remains indeed dangerous during several centuries. Now, recycling and vitrification techniques help deal with the waste. The final stock that cannot be retreated represents around 3 m3 per nuclear power plant and per year (World Nuclear 2014).
Finally, the security of the nuclear installations has been for decades a major concern of the populations. Efforts in this area have been important, and regulation has been further reinforced after the accident of Fukushima. The rate of incidents on nuclear plants is therefore extremely low. The Nuclear Energy Agency (2014) indicates that the non programmed interruptions of nuclear reactors have gone from 1.8 h (for 7000 h of annual operation) in 1990 to 0.5 h in 2010, which corresponds to a 75% drop in the number of incidents in 20 years. This means that there is a non programmed incident in average once every 2 years on a nuclear plant. Of course, most of these incidents have no consequences, even though three major accidents occurred in the history of nuclear electricity: Three Mile Island (1979), Tchernobyl (1986) and more recently Fukushima (2011). The worse accident was the one of Tchernobyl, which appeared to be the result of non controlled tests on the reactor, while most of the securities had been voluntarily turned off.