Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Annex B


  Point 8: "You agreed to provide a follow-up note on the availability of uranium supplies and the implications of moving to poorer quality uranium ores (Q570 Q573). The committee understands that the nuclear industry is itself concerned about a possible lack of availability of good quality uranium ores beyond 2015. It is also interested in the carbon emissions associated with mining and processing uranium ore, as there is some evidence to suggest that such emissions can rise dramatically with poorer quality ores.

  Alan Johnson has also written to you about uranium supplies. As Alan mentioned, DTI has undertaken no studies examining the impact of lower grade uranium ores on carbon dioxide emissions. However, the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and IAEA have done considerable work on uranium resources and their views are well respected internationally. A joint report (Uranium 2003: Resources, Production and Demand), states that:

    "Known conventional resources are sufficient for several decades at current usage rates. Exploitation of undiscovered conventional resources could increase this to several hundreds of years, though significant exploration and development effort would be required to move these resources to more definitive categories. However, since the geographical coverage of uranium exploration is not yet complete worldwide there remains the potential for discovery of new resources that could be exploited."


  The table below gives a view of current understanding of uranium resources.

Known Recoverable Resources* of Uranium
tonnes Upercentage of world
Australia989,000 28%
Kazakhstan622,000 18%
Canada439,000 12%
South Africa298,000 8%
Namibia213,000 6%
Brazil143,000 4%
Russian Fed158,000 4%
USA102,000 3%
Uzbekistan93,000 3%
World total3,537,000
* Reasonably Assured Resources plus Estimated Additional Resources—category 1, to US$ 80/kg U, 1/1/03, from OECD NEA & IAEA, Uranium 2003: Resources, Production and Demand.

  Thus the world's present measured resources of uranium in the lower cost category (3.5 Mt) and used only in conventional reactors, are enough to last for some 50 years. [1]This represents a higher level of assured resources than is normal for most minerals. Further exploration and higher prices can be expected, on the basis of present geological knowledge, to yield further resources. IAEA-NEA figures estimate that with further exploration of conventional resources these might amount to about 14.4 million tonnes, which is over 200 years' supply at today's rate of consumption. This omits unconventional resources such as phosphate deposits (22 Mt) and seawater (up to 4000 Mt), which would cost two to six times the present market price to extract.


  Improvements in reactor design and changes in reactor operation have already led to increases in the amount of electricity produced from a given quantity of uranium. However, these increases have been small compared with the potential offered by new reactor designs.

  Widespread use of fast breeder reactor technology could increase the utilisation of uranium sixty-fold or more. This type of reactor can be started up on plutonium derived from conventional reactors and operated in closed circuit with its reprocessing plant. Such a reactor, supplied with natural uranium for its "fertile blanket", very quickly reaches the stage where each tonne of ore yields 60 times more energy than in a conventional reactor.

  Uranium and plutonium from nuclear weapons that are being dismantled are also now increasingly being used in power reactors elsewhere in the world and this further increases the quantity of fuel available.

  A number of countries view the use of plutonium as a fuel (ie MOX—a mix of plutonium oxide and uranium) as part of their strategy to manage their plutonium stockpile. In the UK, currently only Sizewell B would be capable of using (about 30%) MOX. Newer reactor designs, such as the Westinghouse AP1000, could, however, reportedly operate on up to 100% MOX.

  In addition, Thorium, which is 3 times as abundant as Uranium, can be used in nuclear reactors. Further reducing in the longer term the quantity of uranium used.


  There are a number of sources of information that provide data on carbon emissions from nuclear power stations relative to other forms of energy generation. To take two, the chart below shows the IAEA's assessment of relative emissions from different energy sources.

  The table below was published in "Hydropower-Internalised Costs and Externalised Benefits"; Frans H. Koch; International Energy Agency (IEA)-Implementing Agreement for Hydropower Technologies and Programmes; Ottawa, Canada, 2000. This provides further evidence that the life-cycle emissions impact of nuclear energy is among the lowest of any form of electricity generation.

Emissions Produced by 1 kWh of Electricity Based on Life-Cycle Analysis

Generation option
Greenhouse gas emissions gram equiv CO2/kWh SO2 emissions milligram/
NOx emissions milligram/
NMVOC milligram/
Particulate matter milligram/

2-48 5-603-420 5
Coal—modern plant790-1182 700-32321+700-5273+18-29 30-663+
Nuclear2-593-50 2-10002
Natural gas (combined cycle)389-511 4-15000+[1]13+-150072-164 1-10+
Biomass forestry waste combustion15-101 12-140701-19500 217-320
Wind7-12421-87 14-5005-35
Solar photovoltaic13-731 24-49016-34070 12-190

[1]  The sulphur content of natural gas when it comes out of the ground can have a wide range of values, when the hydrogen sulphide content is more that 1%, the gas is usually known as "sour gas". Normally, almost all of the sulphur is removed from the gas and sequestered as solid sulphur before the gas is used to generate electricity. Only in the exceptional case when the hydrogen sulphide is burned would the high values of SO2 emissions occur.

20 December 2005

1   Reactor requirements are currently about 60,000 tonnes per year. Back

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 16 April 2006