Of the potential fission fuels, uranium is the most practical and inexpensive in the world. Furthermore, uranium has hardly any other practical application besides energy production, so using it for energy does not divert valuable resources away from other applications.
There are more than 430 nuclear power plant units currently in operation in the world. Around half of all the fuel required by these plant units is original production from mining and leaching. The rest is obtained from what are known as secondary sources. These include uranium stocks under the control of governments and power companies, reprocessed uranium, as well as uranium recovered from dismantled nuclear weapons, which needs to be diluted for reactor use.
According to an OECD estimate, the known uranium resources that can be utilized with reasonable mining costs will be sufficient for more than 100 years at the current consumption rate. There are also substantial uranium deposits yet unknown; such deposits are estimated to be many times larger than the currently known resources. Improvements in reactor technology are also expected to enhance the utilization of uranium.
Seawater constitutes an enormous potential uranium reserve. According to estimates, the amount of uranium dissolved in seawater would meet the needs of today’s reactors for 80,000 years. However, separating uranium from seawater is such an expensive process that it is not financially viable at present.
The enormous uranium resources in phosphates are a more realistic option for exploitation. The exploitation of thorium as reactor fuel and the development of fast reactors into efficient energy sources are also feasible options.
Uranium as a source of energy
Uranium is a very energy-intensive fuel. Fuel costs account for only a small share of the production costs of nuclear electricity. Fluctuations in the price of fuel affect nuclear electricity production costs much less than, for example, in the case of electricity produced using natural gas or coal.
One power plant unit at Olkiluoto produces about 7 TWh, or 7 billion kWh, of electricity per year while consuming about 20 tonnes of uranium fuel. To produce the same amount of electricity at a coal-fired plant would require almost two and half million tonnes of coal.