Ad hoc Expert Group on Limits to the Development of Nuclear Energy (LIMITS)

The renewed interest in including nuclear energy in the energy mix of many member countries raises the question of what raw material limits there are to nuclear energy growth. At present, nuclear power plants provide 6% of the world's energy supply, 16% of the global electricity supply and 23% of the electricity generated in OECD countries. The installed nuclear capacity will need to be increased significantly if nuclear energy is to make a significant contribution to future energy systems. Such growth would increase the demand for uranium and a number of other natural resources required to support the construction and operation of power plants and their associated fuel cycle facilities. The goal of the Ad Hoc Expert Group on Physical Limits to the Development of Nuclear Energy is to analyse and document the physical limits, if any, arising from a possible significant increase in nuclear energy generating capacity.

The group's preliminary method for addressing the topic has been to examine the resource requirements arising from a hypothetical tenfold expansion of nuclear generating capacity. In the course of making environmental production declarations (EPD) for nuclear facilities constructed in the 1970s in Sweden and the United Kingdom, raw material requirement data (g/kWh) for the full life cycle of nuclear energy systems were compiled. The Swedish and UK data have been used to calculate the requirements that a tenfold increase in nuclear capacity would entail. In comparing these projected requirements to global resource estimates and production, it appears that the only raw material that might be in short supply in a hypothetical overnight tenfold expansion of nuclear energy is uranium.

Since EPDs place minimum limits on materials included in the analysis, an examination of other sources of raw material input data, with a focus on specialty material requirements in fuel manufacture is required. Once a complete list of critical material requirements is compiled, simulations of the impact on raw material requirements under more realistic scenarios of nuclear capacity development will be performed.

It is also important to consider new reactor designs currently on the market as well as those being designed. Recognising that there may be commercial sensitivities associated with the publication of raw material requirements for different reactor designs, a generic assessment of material requirements of these modern systems compared to those of the 1970s will be undertaken with input from nuclear power plant vendors.

A report summarising the findings and conclusions of the study is planned for 2009.

Related links

Last updated: 7 April 2008