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Energy Industry Gears Up For Nuclear Renaissance

Some 150 new reactors are expected to be built in the next two or three decades, many of them in China, with the number of active plants set to double by 2070.
by Jacques Lemieux
Mcclean Lake (AFP) Canada, July 24, 2007
Twenty years after the Chernobyl disaster poisoned the world's taste for reactors, a French firm is sniffing out fresh uranium supplies in Canada. And the race for nuclear power is back on. After the deadly Chernobyl reactor explosion in Ukraine in 1986 and a lesser scare at the Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania that rattled the United States in 1979, "people were wondering whether nuclear power even had a future," said Yves Dufour, one of the directors of Areva, the world's leading civilian nuclear power provider.

"For 20 years, we've been crossing a desert," the industry's very own "nuclear winter," said Dufour.

The Three Mile Island meltdown apparently harmed no one but shook public confidence in nuclear plants. The fallout from Chernobyl, however, spread widely and affected an estimated five million people.

But now a breath of optimism is warming the sector up, just as it did during the petrol crisis of 1973.

Areva, based in France -- which alone among western countries continued to build nuclear power plants after these scares -- is angling for new uranium supplies for its reactors. Such prospecting declined sharply in the dark days after Chernobyl.

"The nuclear renaissance has become a fact -- it's a certainty," Areva's spokesman Charles Hufnagel told AFP during a tour of this uranium mine that the company is exploiting in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

There are 438 nuclear reactors in 30 countries which provide 16 percent of the world's electricity, according to the latest industry figures.

Most of them were built from the 1960s to early 1980s, and are getting old. Replacing them could answer concerns about the harmful global warming caused by the carbon dioxide (CO2) released by burning fossil fuels.

"Global warming fears, rising fossil fuel prices and surging power demand in the Far East are fueling a new wave of nuclear plant construction," according to a report by the Canadian bank CIBC World Markets.

Hufnagel meanwhile insists economic factors are behind the decisions of countries such as Finland, Britain, Canada and the United States to re-launch nuclear power projects.

The aim is "not only to produce electricity that is cheap but above all at a stable price in the long term," he said. "No country has yet decided to re-launch a nuclear program just to fight against CO2."

"The nuclear renaissance is also a thing of the south, with big countries that also wish to be the leaders of their region," he added, citing the notable examples of China, Brazil and South Africa.

Some 150 new reactors are expected to be built in the next two or three decades, many of them in China, with the number of active plants set to double by 2070.

A scramble has begun to start bagging uranium to feed them. Current uranium production -- after the post-Chernobyl decline in investment in the sector -- can only feed 60 of the existing reactors' capacity.

Much of the rest comes from stockpiles dating back to the petrol crisis and recycled nuclear material from ex-Soviet warheads, Dufour said.

These uranium sources however will soon be exhausted. Mining analyst John Redstone of Montreal-based investment broker Desjardins Securities, says uranium supply falls some 1,000 tonnes short of the current world demand of 66,800.

This is pushing up the price of uranium to new highs, topping 130 dollars per pound compared to less than seven dollars in 2001, he said.

Producers are responding by stepping up their capacity, said Dufour, as well as scouring the planet for new sources of the crucial mineral. "The difficulty for production will be the next three years."

The opening of new mines in Canada starting in 2009 would boost supplies and lessen the strain.

But at today's consumption rate, the proven and probable global reserves of 4.74 million tonnes could feed existing reactors for only 65 years, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Those reserves are found mostly in Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, the United States and South Africa.

Another 10 million tonnes of uranium that are believed to exist would push the deadline into the next century. "But we have to go find these 10 million tonnes," said Dufour.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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IAEA To Visit Japanese Quake-Hit Nuclear Plant, As Car Production Plummets
Vienna (AFP) July 24, 2007
The UN's nuclear watchdog agency said Tuesday it would send a team of experts to Japan in the next few weeks to examine a nuclear power plant damaged during a deadly earthquake on July 16. "The IAEA intends to send a team of IAEA and international experts in the coming weeks" to examine the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant northwest of Tokyo, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement.

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