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Uranium and Nuclear Power

Uranium and Nuclear Power

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 10/2006 by Stewart Smith
Worldwide demand for energy will be more than 50% greater by 2030 if governments continue their present energy policies. Australia is a net exporter of energy, and is well placed to meet this demand. Australia has significant reserves of coal, and has 36% of the world’s low cost uranium reserves. This paper focuses on the role of uranium and nuclear power to meet the world’s rising demand for energy.

In 2004, uranium was produced in 19 countries. Just two countries, Australia and Canada, accounted for 51% of world production. Australia has the largest reserves of low cost uranium in the world. At the end of 2004, a total of 440 commercial nuclear reactors were operating, requiring about 67,320 tonnes of uranium. Worldwide, identified resources of uranium are sufficient for some 85 years at current usage rates. Advanced reactor technologies involving the recycling of used fuel could extend nuclear resources for thousands of years.

The process of nuclear fission in elements such as uranium produces heat. In a nuclear reactor, this heat is used to generate steam, which drives a generator to produce electricity. Nuclear fission is an extremely potent source of energy. The energy released by the fission of one kilogram of uranium in a typical reactor is equivalent to that released by about 22,000 kg of coal.

Uranium ore is extracted from the earth in much the same manner as other minerals. The ore is then milled to produce uranium oxide, or ‘yellow cake’. This is the product that Australia exports. However, uranium oxide cannot be simply fed into a nuclear power station like coal to produce steam. It must be first converted into uranium hexafluoride, enriched, and fabricated into fuel rods. There are many different types of nuclear reactors. The paper explains their operation and differences. More recently, advanced nuclear reactors are being developed with commissioning dates from 2015 expected.

Nuclear waste is often cited as the most important unresolved issue concerning nuclear energy. It is claimed that there is a broad scientific consensus that high level radioactive waste can be safely stored in geological repositories. However, critics of this view note the long time frames involved and that geological landforms change over time.

The economics of nuclear power have been well studied. It can be concluded that in a liberalised electricity market, new nuclear power stations are unlikely to be built without some form of government assistance. This is due to their high capital cost, uncertain construction costs, and the fact that private investors are likely to require a substantial risk premium over coal and gas fired power stations to finance at least the first few nuclear plants.

The Commonwealth Government has commissioned two separate reviews into the role of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia. In contrast, the NSW Government has stated that legislation introduced in 1986 prohibiting uranium mining or the construction of a nuclear power station will remain.