Helen Caldicott is one of the more notable distorters of truth among Australian “public intellectuals”. Like the Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton, though on a global stage, she appears to rank making an ideological point well ahead of accuracy or acknowledgment of inconvenient contrary evidence. Caldicott’s Wikipedia entry mentions a couple of examples of this propensity:
Her media presence sparked in 1982, when she was featured in the Canadian Oscar-winning documentary If You Love This Planet. Caldicott claimed that the Hershey Foods Corporation produced chocolate carrying strontium 90 because of the proximity of the Three Mile Island disaster to Hershey’s Pennsylvania factory. According to Caldicott, strontium 90 that fell on the Pennsylvania grass found its way into the milk of the local dairy cows. Caldicott provided no evidence to support her claim and specialists in the field consider it an absurd, irresponsible claim. According to EPA reports, Strontium 90 was not among the radionuclides emitted by Three Mile Island as only gases were emitted. …
Caldicott’s investigative writings had the distinction of being nominated and subsequently chosen as Project Censored’s #2 story in 1990. Citing the research of Soviet scientists Valery Burdakov and Vyacheslav Fiin, Caldicott argued that NASA’s Space Shuttle program was destroying the Earth’s ozone and that 300 total shuttle flights would be enough to “completely destroy the Earth’s protective ozone shield”. Once again, this claim lacked any substantial basis in scientific evidence.
In fact, Caldicott is still regaling sympathetic audiences with her Hershey chocolate bar story, as this bizarre transcript from only last month indicates (it’s well worth reading in full purely for the entertainment value):
These materials concentrate in the food chain by orders of magnitude. And you can’t taste strontium 90 in Hershey’s milk. Why do I say that? Hershey’s is 13 miles from Three Mile Island. I have secret documents given to me by a whistleblower from Hershey’s labs. They froze the milk or pow[d]ered it until the radioactive iodine became spent, but many radioactive isotopes got out too. We don’t know the ground measurements around where the cows grazed and produced the milk for the chocolate.
Not surprisingly, Caldicott’s latest book, Nuclear Power is Not the Answer to Global Warming or Anything Else, appears to exhibit the same cavalier disregard for accuracy or evidence. Blogger and frequent Club Troppo commenter Robert Merkel, who knows rather more about matters nuclear than me, reviews Caldicott’s book here. However, I want to concentrate on a specific assertion that Caldicott has repeated in just about all her recent media appearances, namely the claim that there’s not enough uranium in the world to sustain long-term nuclear power.
It’s an assertion now echoed by other nuclear opponents, a very recent example being an article by Chris Harries at Online Opinion only a couple of days ago:
Just like oil, uranium is a non-renewable resource, except there is much less of it. With expected growth in the industry the world’s known uranium reserves are predicted to run out in about 40 years’ time.
Like oil, uranium production will peak, then go into decline, well before it runs out – most likely in about 25 years time. This is within the lifespan of new power plants being built and this is also when uranium prices will shoot through the roof. As with oil, this is when uranium politics will cause much international tension and potential conflict, even warfare.
Even well before that peak, will come another spike. Because there are not sufficient uranium mines open to fuel existing reactors (and it takes at least ten years to get things going), there will be a significant shortfall of nuclear fuel in about 15 years time. This too will push uranium prices through the roof. Again, the financial benefit to uranium producers is obvious.
Harries is a former adviser to Greens Senator Bob Brown, so I suppose we can’t really expect much better. But these claims appear to be simply false as far as I can tell. We should no doubt regard the World Nuclear Association as an equally suspect source as Caldicott or her acolytes, but the following account appears to summarise the real facts accurately (I’d welcome any comment box corrections from readers able to indentify any specific inaccuracies or omissions):
In the years immediately following the discovery of nuclear fission, uranium production was largely directed at nuclear weapons programs. When, in the early 1960s, the potential for electricity production using nuclear power was recognised, known uranium resources were relatively meagre. At that time it was thought that uranium was a scarce commodity. After the first ‘oil shock’ in 1973 there was a major increase in orders for nuclear reactors, as many countries recognised that the nuclear option was a means of satisfying some of their increasing energy demand. Many utilities stockpiled uranium in sufficient quantity to cover the planned life of their new reactors. Uranium prices rose sharply as power utilities competed to obtain adequate supplies.
The increasing demand and rising price stimulated uranium exploration. New deposits were discovered in Australia, North America and Africa. These led to the development of a number of mines, financed primarily by long-term contracts with utilities to supply uranium.
However, expansion of nuclear power was less rapid than had been predicted by many utilities. By the late 1980s large uranium inventories had accumulated in a number of countries. A secondary ‘spot’ market for uranium developed, but the price fell, eventually to one eighth (in constant dollars) of its peak value of the late 1970s.
As a consequence, some uranium mines closed, particularly in the United States, or reduced production, and exploration activity declined. Although uranium mining has continued, a significant portion of reactor fuel has come not from newly extracted uranium but from inventories. Since 1985 Western uranium production has been less than reactor requirements, and by 2000 it had fallen to only half of the annual usage.
According to the summary of uranium resources published jointly by the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD and the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, known reserves of uranium from conventional sources are slightly more than 3 million tonnes. Reactor requirements are fairly steady at about 60,000 tonnes per year. Thus there is about 50 years supply of uranium known at this stage to be available.
This is, however, an oversimplification of the situation. It is now clear that uranium is not scarce and it is known that it averages almost two parts per million of the Earth’s crust. There are substantial resources that are not yet fully proven. These so-called speculative resources are likely to be of the order of 10 million tonnes, about three times the known reserves. While prices remain low, there is no incentive for exploration activities to identify new deposits. Experience with other commodities has shown that increased demand has led to increased prices, and a subsequent increase in exploration and discovery.
Newly mined uranium is not the only source of nuclear fuel. Reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium and uranium for use in new reactor fuel is already being undertaken in a number of countries. This displaces about 2000 tonnes of mine production each year, but the potential for recycling is considerably greater than this.
The utilisation of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from military sources, by diluting it to the low level of enrichment required for civil nuclear reactor fuel, is replacing about over 10,000 tonnes of newly mined uranium each year. However, once again, the potential is somewhat higher. If all of the world’s military nuclear material were to be made available for electricity generation, even more natural uranium could be replaced.
Improvements in reactor design and changes in reactor operation have led to increases in the amount of electricity produced from a given quantity of uranium. These increases have been small compared with the potential that may be realised by new reactor designs.
Prototype breeder reactors, in which fissionable plutonium is produced from non-fissionable uranium (U-238), have been operated for many years. Such reactors can increase the energy available from a given quantity of uranium by a factor of about sixty.
Currently, there is little financial advantage to be obtained from extensive use of recycling, and the breeder reactor technology is not clearly economic. With about fifty years of proven reserves there is no urgency to utilise these approaches to extending uranium resources.
However, it is clear that any concerns regarding the availability of uranium to fuel increased deployment of nuclear reactors are unfounded. Even a significant increase in the use of nuclear power will not cause a shortage of nuclear fuel for several hundred years.
I’m by no means an uncritical advocate of the nuclear power option as a solution to global warming. The danger of nuclear weapons proliferation remains real and serious, as does the risk of unsafe operation of nuclear plants, at least in third world countries where corruption, mismanagement and poor maintenance are endemic problems. And it remains to be seen whether nuclear power will prove economically competitive even with a substantial carbon tax or tradeable emissions permits. But availability of nuclear fuel is clearly not a problem, and the sooner Caldicott’s claims to the contrary are exposed for the nonsense they are the better.