Will European nuclear energy be boosted by green finance?

In La Tribune 18/12/2019

The European agreement on the taxonomy of green economic activities includes nuclear energy in decarbonise energies that can be financed by green investments, with the aim of achieving climate neutrality in Europe by 2050. This is interesting in the perspective of the transformation of nuclear waste into a new fuel and for several thousand years.

Let’s go backwards one minute. Following the tsunami that struck Fukushima, all 37 Japanese reactors were placed under cocoon. Since then, 9 have restarted and 17 are requesting a new start, two have been built. France, Russia and the United States are closing some of them, but building new ones, China is adding 12 reactors to its 47 already operational reactors. In total, there are 443 of them in the world, producing 10% of the world’s electricity.

Kazakhstan produces more than 40% of the world’s uranium

Uranium’s mining production increased until 2016, and has since declined by about 15% to adapt to the decline in demand. Mining with low environmental impact using in situ leaching technology produces more than 55% of the world’s volumes. The world’s leading producer is the Kazakh Kazatomprom, the French Orano comes second and the Canadian Cameco third. By country, Kazakhstan produces more than 40% of the world’s uranium, followed by Canada, Australia, Namibia, Russia and Niger. Each supplies the three major consumers, the United States, France and China. Although its profuse distribution and its banal, even boring market are a guarantee for inexpensive energy for uranium consumers, they have built up material stocks because it is strategic for their energy policies.

As everyone can judge, compared to oil, gas or coal, the uranium market is very simple, we are very far from a geological peak in production and there is little risk of shortage, there are few players, all connected to their own States and to supra-national organisations in charge of tracing the material and controlling surpluses. Trade is therefore all the more mature as investors have few structured products to tie their risk. As a result of an imbelle market, prices are at their lowest, $25 per pound on the spot market and $32 in the long term.

Let us now turn to the future of nuclear power. One of the sexy aspects is the treatment of combustion waste. Depending on the price of enrichment and uranium, a conventional reactor burns between 1% and 5% of its charge. At the end of the cycle, the balance is stored as waste for recycling. This reserve is huge. Indeed, if all the world’s natural uranium resources contained in the earth’s crust, those consumed in conventional reactors, correspond to an electrical reserve of 1, the resources contained in our atomic waste, those that will be consumed in future fast neutron reactors (RNR), represent an electrical reserve of 100.

Waste, a reserve of several thousand years of consumption

This reserve, which is therefore equivalent to several thousand years of our electricity consumption, is not down the mine, but available off the shelf to be transformed into electricity. This is why countries that choose to consume this waste will avoid the extraction and consumption of natural uranium for a period of several millennia.

Russia, China, the United States, Japan and India are developing this RNR sector in various variants. When it is talked about energy and industry in these countries, it is not done as amateurs. In France, several years ago, while we were peacefully discussing with the director of an anti-nuclear NGO the hope of recycling waste via the RNRs, he expressed to me his horror at my formula: “circular nuclear economy”. The logic of his reaction had to be understood: a circular nuclear economy eliminating waste by producing electricity, while reducing dependence on mining uranium, destroyed the raison d’être of his organization.

As a matter of fact, recently, the French RNR research program, Astrid, was abandoned. Will Europe’s green investments allow to finance a vast European research programme to replace it, or will we later have to buy this technology from China, the United States, Russia, Japan or India?