Michael Dittmar, Institute of Particle Physics: Peak Uranium 2015

The End of Cheap Uranium

June 17, 2011. Michael Dittmar, Institute of Particle Physics,   Zurich, Switzerland Journal: Science of the Total Environment

This paper concludes that “the end of the cheap uranium supply will result in a chaotic phase-out scenario with price explosions, supply shortages and possible electricity shortages in many countries:
Some highlights from this paper:

Historic data from many countries demonstrate that on average no more than 50-70% of the uranium in a deposit could be mined.

An analysis of more recent data from Canada and Australia leads to a mining model with an average deposit extraction lifetime of 10±2 years. This simple model provides an accurate description of the extractable amount of uranium for the recent mining operations.

Using this model for all larger existing and planned uranium mines up to 2030, a global uranium mining peak of at most 58±4 ktons around the year 2015 is obtained.

Thereafter we predict that uranium mine production will decline to at most 54 ± 5 ktons by 2025 and, with the decline steepening, to at most 41 ± 5 ktons around 2030. These numbers are not even anywhere near the present global usage, about 68 ktons/year, and imply significant shortages over coming decades.

This amount will not be sufficient to fuel the existing and planned nuclear power plants during the next 10-20 years.

In fact, we find that it will be difficult to avoid supply shortages even under a slow 1%/year worldwide nuclear energy phase-out scenario up to 2025. We thus suggest that a worldwide nuclear energy phase-out is in order. If such a slow global phase-out is not voluntarily effected, the end of the present cheap uranium supply situation will be unavoidable. The result will be that some countries will simply be unable to afford sufficient uranium fuel at that point, which implies involuntary and perhaps chaotic nuclear phase-outs in those countries involving brownouts, blackouts, and worse.

Nuclear fission energy in industrial societies is often proposed as a long term replacement for the limited fossil fuel resources and as a solution to the environmental problems related to their use.

However, even 50 years after commercial nuclear fission power began, nuclear reactors produce less than 14% of the world’s electric energy, which itself makes only about 16% of our final energy demand [1].

More than 80% of the 440 nuclear power plants, with a capacity of 374 GWe [2], are operated in the richer OECD countries, where they produce about 21% of the annual electric energy [1]. The relatively small nuclear energy contribution today indicates that even a minor transition from fossil to nuclear fuel for generating electric energy over the next 20 to 30 years would require significant increases in the use of nuclear fuel.

Including the year 2010, a total of about 2.5 millions tons of uranium have been mined and about 2 million tons have been used for electric energy production. Most of the remaining 500 ktons are essentially under the control of the military in Russia and the USA.

The fact that essentially all of Europe’s required 21 ktons/year uranium, [7], must now be imported is worth noting since it demonstrates that uranium, like the fossil fuels, is a finite resource that does not somehow magically appear in greater quantities just because demand pushes its price higher. As with the fossil fuels, the mining data from Europe show that deposit depletion and production declines are unavoidable consequences of finite resources.

Uranium mining in 2010 in the USA and in South Africa provided 1.7 ktons and 0.6 ktons respectively[5], namely about 10% compared to their peak production at the beginning of the 1980’s when 16.8 ktons (USA) and more than 6 ktons/year (South Africa) were mined. in light of the fact that annual production has declined steeply to roughly 10% of the peak level that was achieved in the 1980s, the present RAR numbers do not appear to be realistic (472.1 ktons[7]).


Uranium mining between 1945 and 2005 can be divided into three periods. The first period (1945-1975) can be associated with the rush to fulfill the military uranium requirements during the nuclear arms race. An extraction peak of almost 50 ktons/year was achieved around the year 1959, after which mining declined to about 35 ktons/year between 1965-1975. About 750 ktons of uranium were extracted during that period. The second period (1975-1990) coincided with the time when many civilian nuclear power plants were planned and constructed. This period ended around the year 1990, when annual uranium requirements became larger than the annual extraction. During this period, uranium mining increased within a few years from 40 ktons to a production peak of almost 70 ktons/year around the years 1980/81. A production level of more than 60 ktons was maintained between 1978 and 1986 and a total of 1000 ktons were extracted between 1975 and 1990. During the third period (1990-2005) the construction of new nuclear power plants essentially stopped at a capacity of about 374 GWe, far below the original ambitious plans in many countries from the 1970’s. During this period and due to depletion and environmental reasons, uranium mining stopped in many productive regions and countries in Europe, Africa and North- America. Mining was reduced to an average of about 35 ktons/year, well below the uranium demand of 65 ktons/year, and a total of 500 ktons were mined. During the past five years about 250 ktons of uranium were produced and the fast rising contribution from Kazakhstan from 4.4 ktons in 2005 to almost 18 ktons in 2010 might be used as an indication that a new production period has started.

[1] Data about electric energy production in different countries and from the different sources
can be found at http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/. For the OECD countries the
data are summarized on a monthly basis at http://www.iea.org/stats/surveys/mes.
[2] Data about the world nuclear reactors and their performance are available at the PRIS,
the IAEA data base at http://www.iaea.org/programmes/a2/.
[3] The uranium requirements under the three WNA future scenarios, a slow growth of 1-2%
per year or a decline of -1%/year can be found at http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/
[4] The press declaration for the publication of the 2009 edition of the Red Book contains a
warning statement about uranium shortages and can be found at http://www.nea.fr/
[5] The reported uranium mining results from all countries and for the last few years including
2010 are summarized at http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf23.html.
[6] The 2006 review “Forty Years of Uranium Resources, Production and Demand in Perspective.
The Red Book Retrospective” can be found at OECD bookshop http://www.
oecdbookshop.org/oecd/display.asp?sf1=identifiers\&st1=9789264047662. A free
online version can be found via “Google books.”
[7] The latest 2009 edition of the Red Book from the IAEA and the NEA under
google books or at http://www.oecdbookshop.org/oecd/display.asp?lang=en\&sf1=
[8] The world distribution of uranium deposits from the IAEA database UDEPO can be found
at http://www-nfcis.iaea.org/UDEPO/UDEPOMain.asp. The 2009 status can be found
at the same site under IAEA-TECDOC-1629.
[9] Detailed reports about recent uranium mining in Canada and Australia and further references
can be found in the WNA documents http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/
inf49.html and http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf48.html respectively. Data
from individual deposits are also taken from http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/
inf49i_Canada_Uranium_Mining_Historya.html and [8].
[10] The detailed McArthur River Technical report from 2009 can be found at the website
of CAMECO, the main operator of the mine, under http://www.cameco.com/mining/
[11] The first quarter of 2011 results from the McArthur River mine are reported at http:
[12] More details about plans for future uranium mines in Australia are given in http://www.
[13] The paper “An even bigger hole” from John Busby with many details about the Olympic
Dam project from 2007 with its 2010 update can be found at http://www.after-oil.
[14] See the statements from Vladimir Shkolnik, former energy minister and now Kazatomprom
at the beginning of April 2011 http://oldn.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/
[15] The uranium mines in Kazakhstan and their target plateau production values are listed
at http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf89.html.
[16] The particularity about the Rossing mine are given in the 2009 report IAEA-TECDOC-
1629 page 45.
[17] Details about environmental problems related to the uranium mining in the area of Krasnokamensk
are reported in an article by Heinz H¨ogelsberger http://www.motherearth.
[18] Details about uranium mining in Russia and further references can be found at http:
[19] See the section about new mines in the Red Book 2009 [7] page 54 and the detailed country
reports at the WNA website http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/default.aspx.
[20] See http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf45.html.
[21] The WNA mining forecast estimate can be seen in the Figure at the end of the http:
//www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf22.html report.
[22] The EWG 06 uranium mining forecast can be found at http://www.energywatchgroup.

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