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Limited supplies of fuel for nuclear power plants may thwart the renewed and growing interest in nuclear energy in the United States and other nations, says an MIT expert on the industry.
Safety concerns dampened the of development of nuclear energy over the last 20 years, which means no new reactors were ordered. Nor was investment made in new uranium mines nor in building facilities to produce fuel for existing reactors. Instead, the industry lived off commercial and government inventories, which are now nearly gone.
That shortage of uranium and of processing facilities worldwide leaves a gap between the potential increase in demand for nuclear energy and the ability to supply fuel for it, says Thomas Neff, a research affiliate at MIT's Center for International Studies.
Worldwide, uranium production meets only about 65 percent of current reactor requirements, according to Neff.
"Just as large numbers of new reactors are being planned, we are only starting to emerge from 20 years of underinvestment in the production capacity for the nuclear fuel to operate them," Neff says.
For example, only a few years ago uranium inventories were being sold at $10 per pound; the current price is $85 per pound.
Demand in the United States, combined with plans for more nuclear power in China, India and Russia could further complicate matters, Neff says, leaving the
United States as the "last one to buy, and it could pay the highest prices, if it can get uranium at all," Neff said. "The take-home message is that if we're going to increase use of nuclear power, we need massive new investments in capacity to mine uranium and facilities to process it."