SHANGHAI (Reuters) - High uranium prices will spur exploration that could more than triple known global deposits, avoiding a shortage as China ramps up its nuclear capacity, a top executive with the International Atomic Energy Agency said.
Yury A. Sokolov, the agency’s deputy director general, said new technologies could also help boost reactor efficiency, curbing growth in fuel demand even when output expands.
“High prices stimulate exploration. If you explore more, you will find more — in Africa, Australia, maybe some additional resources in China,” he told Reuters in an interview late on Monday on the sidelines of a nuclear conference.
“There are some programs for uranium (deposits) to grow to 16 million tons and even more, depending on additional resources,” he said, adding that the total could rise as high as 22 million tons.
At present there are 4.7 million tons of the metal available in deposits worldwide, he said, enough to power current nuclear programs — which consume 70,000 or 80,000 tons annually — for several decades.
Spot prices for uranium ore concentrate, or yellow cake, have surged on the back of renewed interest in nuclear energy, seen by proponents as a means of countering high oil prices and cutting global carbon dioxide emissions.
Prices hit a record high of $136 a pound at the end of June, up from $7 in 2000, but have since retreated to $75.
But Sokolov said uranium price fluctuations would not significantly affect nuclear power plants, as natural uranium accounts for only 5 percent of final energy production costs.
“Uranium fuel accounts for 15 percent of the total cost in nuclear plants, and natural uranium only accounts for one-third of the fuel cost,” he said.
In comparison oil and gas prices make up 70 percent of the final cost of any energy they produce, he said.
“This is the advantage of nuclear power.”
Sokolov also said he expected safety and efficiency gains from the next generation of nuclear reactors — known as “pebble bed” plants, which use gas as a neutron moderator.
South Africa and China are both pushing development of the experimental technology, though neither have yet started construction of a commercial plant.
“This is our future,” Sokolov said of the plants, after meeting Chinese and South Korean delegates at a conference.
Sokolov said the pebble bed reactor would increase the ratio of electrical output to thermal output to 50-60 percent, from 33-35 percent, and could make the use of uranium more efficient, extending the life of the fuel.
The gases do not dissolve contaminants or absorb neutrons as water does, so the core would have less radioactive material and be more economical than a light-water reactor, he said.