Survey of Energy Resources 2007
Supply and Demand Outlook - the next two decades
Each year, the IAEA provides a range of projections on future nuclear electricity generation, reflecting the inherent uncertainties in estimating future developments. In its 2006 projection for 2030, the range of nuclear electricity generation varied between 3 074 TWh and 5 043 TWh (2005: 2 625 TWh). The corresponding reactor fuel requirements would range between 78 000 tU and 129 000 tU by 2030 (IAEA, 2006).
Uranium resources are plentiful and per se do not pose a limiting factor to future nuclear power development. As so often, the limiting factor is timely investment in new production capacities. The current reactor requirements and uranium production anomaly calls for significant mine development in order to turn 'uranium in the ground into yellowcake in the can'. Given that the lead times for turning uranium in the ground into yellowcake have become much longer than 30 years ago, global reactor requirements will continue to depend on secondary sources for another decade or so.
Current uranium spot prices exceed the US$ 130/kgU threshold used for delineating identified uranium resources by 50%. This price level not only stimulates additional exploration and mine capacity development around the world but also promotes the intensified use of secondary sources, especially in the longer run. The future role of secondary supplies will depend on economics and policy, especially with regard to spent-fuel reprocessing and high-level waste disposal. One exception is inventories. While inventories will continue to be held for security reasons, the vast amounts of the past have declined substantially. Current inventories are estimated to be of the order of 34 000 tU (NEA/IAEA, 2006). HEU from weapons programmes is expected to become available for commercial purposes in due course, but the precise quantities and timing remain uncertain.
Secondary Sources. Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel can contribute to a better uranium demand and supply balance. Annual discharges of spent fuel from the world's reactors total about 10 500 metric tonnes of heavy metal (t HM) per year, approximately one third of which is reprocessed to extract usable material (uranium and plutonium) for new mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. The remaining spent fuel is considered as waste and is stored pending disposal. Currently, China, France, India, Japan, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom either reprocess, or store for future reprocessing, most of their spent fuel. Most countries have not yet decided which strategy to adopt for dealing with their spent fuel. For the time being they are storing it and keeping abreast of developments associated with reprocessing and direct disposal (IAEA, 2007).
The use of MOX fuel reduces the demand for mined uranium. In MOX the fissile isotope U235 is partially replaced by Pu239 from reprocessed spent fuel (or surplus weapons plutonium) and mixed with depleted uranium oxide. Recycling of plutonium reduces the natural uranium needs by approximately 15%, as one tonne of MOX fuel requires recycled plutonium from 6 tonnes of spent fuel. In 2006, approximately 180 tonnes of civil origin MOX fuel were loaded on a commercial basis in Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland, replacing some 2% of freshly mined uranium globally.
Recycling of uranium from reprocessing spent fuel, known as reprocessed uranium (RepU), could further reduce the needs by approximately 10%. RepU is, however, at present generally not recycled for economic reasons, but stored for future use. It currently displaces an estimated 1% of world uranium demand. Changing market conditions could make the use of RepU an economically attractive uranium supply option.
The accumulated stock of depleted uranium tails (the left-over uranium after enrichment) represents a significant secondary source through re-enrichment. Depleted uranium tails usually contain between 0.25% and 0.35% U235 compared with the 0.711% U235 of natural uranium. By lowering the uranium tails, more enriched uranium can be extracted through re-enrichment. The economic value of re-enrichment, however, is a function of the price of natural uranium, the degree of depletion of the tail assays, the available enrichment capacity and the costs of separate work units (SWU) (Neff, 2006). Total inventories of depleted uranium are estimated to represent the equivalent of 565 000 tU or eight years of fuel requirements for the world's current fleet of nuclear power plants.
As with re-enrichment, demand for fresh uranium is affected by the level of enrichment or the level of tail assays. Lowering tail assays from 0.3% to 0.1% would reduce the demand for mined uranium by about 30%. However, the same factors as in the case of re-enrichment govern the actual levels of tail assays.
Primary Uranium Production. Irrespective of the future contribution of secondary sources, primary uranium production capacity has to increase substantially over the next two decades. Based on current, committed and planned additional mining capacities, the Red Book (NEA/IAEA, 2006) assesses a maximum annual production capacity of some 86 000 tU by 2025 (2006: 52 000 tU). This capacity would just meet the reactor requirements of IAEA's Low nuclear electricity projection but would fall seriously below the High projection of 129 000 tU by 2030. However, the Red Book estimates are based on the US$ 80/kgU resource category. At prices above the US$ 130/kgU production cost category and bright demand prospects, additional investments in new mining capacity can reasonably be expected.