CO2 Emissions Reductions – What History Teaches Us

Historical data show that if a country wishes to cut its CO2 emissions by a meaningful amount it has two options that can be guaranteed to work – expand nuclear or reduce energy consumption. There are as yet no clear instances of a country achieving significant CO2 reductions by expanding intermittent renewable energy.


In this post I use CO2 emissions and other data from BP for the period 1965-2014 to identify cases where a country or a group of countries’ CO2 emissions have decreased by at least 20% over a decade or two and to identify the cause of the decrease. (Note that the BP data include only CO2 emissions from consumption of oil, gas and coal.) It follows on from Euan Mearn’s recent post “CO2 Emissions Reduction, Renewables and Recession”.

Emissions Reduction Option 1 – Expand nuclear:

Of the many countries that have built nuclear plants only France and arguably Sweden have built enough to make a serious dent in their CO2 emissions. Nevertheless they serve as examples of what nuclear does. Figure 1 plots emissions versus the percentage of nuclear energy in France’s total energy consumption since 1965:

Figure 1: CO2 emissions (red, left scale), percent nuclear in the generation mix and carbon intensity (blue & orange, right scale), France

A complicating factor in attributing emissions reductions to nuclear is that most countries started to expand nuclear generation around the time of the 1973/4 and 1979/80 “oil shocks”, which also tended to reduce emissions, although for economic reasons. To Figure 1 I have therefore added a line (orange, plotted inverted) showing the tons of CO2 emitted per ton of oil equivalent consumed in generating electricity, which is a measure of carbon intensity (values were calculated by dividing CO2 emissions by total energy  consumption). The close match between this line and the percentage of nuclear in France’s generation mix shows that the expansion of nuclear has roughly halved France’s carbon intensity since 1970 and that nuclear was indeed the dominant contributor to the ~25% reduction in France’s emissions between the late 1970s and the late 1980s.

Sweden also achieved a 25-30% CO2 emissions reduction over roughly the same period (Figure 2). Here the relationship between the reduction and nuclear expansion is less obvious, but nuclear probably made a significant contribution:

Figure 2: CO2 emissions (red, left scale), percent nuclear in the generation mix and carbon intensity (blue & orange, right scale), Sweden

Emissions Reduction Option 2 – Reduce Energy Consumption

Nuclear expansions can be planned, but reductions in energy consumption have historically been caused by unplanned economic downturns. Probably the best example is the economic collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, which led to a ~25% decrease in energy consumption and a ~40% decrease in CO2 emissions in the East Bloc countries by the late 1990s:

Figure 3: CO2 emissions and total energy consumption, Soviet Union & Former Soviet Union

A more recent example is provided by the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), which between 2007 and 2014 reduced their combined energy consumption by about 15%, or more correctly had it reduced for them by a combination of indebtedness and the 2008/9 global recession. This reduction in energy consumption was accompanied by a ~30% drop in combined CO2 emissions:

Figure 4: CO2 emissions and energy consumption, “PIIGS” countries

Most European countries have in fact recorded emissions reductions that coincide with reductions in total energy consumption in recent years (the only countries outside Europe that have are the US and Japan, but the reductions here are minor). The question is whether these reductions were caused by reduced energy consumption or by increased renewables generation, or maybe by a combination of both. Performing a country-by-country evaluation was not possible, so I short-circuited the process by constructing two XY plots with all the European countries lumped together.

Figure 5 compares the decrease in emissions, measured as the difference between 2014 and the highest emissions year going back to 2004, against the decrease in total energy consumption over the same period. The two are quite strongly correlated (R squared = 0.65, increasing to 0.77 when Portugal is discarded. Note also how a 10% reduction in consumption generates a ~16% reduction in emissions, indicating that some kind of amplification mechanism is in operation, although it’s not clear how it works. This effect is also seen in Figures 3 and 4):

Figure 5: Percent reduction in total energy consumption versus percent reduction in CO2 emissions, 22 European countries

Figure 6 now compares the emissions reductions shown in Figure 5 against the increase in the percentage of renewable energy (excluding hydro) in the generation mix. This plot is similar to the one Euan Mearns presented in the first Figure of his recent post and like Euan’s plot it also shows no correlation (R squared = 0.00):

Figure 6: Increase in percentage of renewables in energy mix versus percent reduction in CO2 emissions, 19 European countries (Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia not plotted owing to incomplete data)

These results create at least a strong presumption that the recent CO2 emissions reductions in Europe were dominantly a result of reductions in energy consumption caused by the 2008/9 global recession and the European debt crisis, and that renewables made no significant contribution. This is potentially bad news for renewables aficionados and also for Europe as a whole, because it suggests that the only way Europe can make further dents in its CO2 emissions is by further collapsing its economy.

There is. however, one country that claims to have reduced its energy consumption by other means – Denmark (Figure 7). Since 2006 Denmark has reduced its total energy consumption by 20%, and once again the reduction looks much like a response to the 2008/9 global recession:

Figure 7: CO2 emissions and energy consumption, Denmark

The Danish Energy Agency, however, attributes it to taxation:

Energy taxes on electricity and oil were introduced in Denmark in 1977. Since then the taxes have been increased several times and taxes have also been put on coal and natural gas. In 1992 the taxes were supplemented by CO2 taxes. The exact impacts of the energy taxes on Danish energy consumption cannot be measured, but there is no doubt that the taxes have had a big impact on energy consumption.

Although it doesn’t help much if the DEA is correct. Punitive taxation is just another form of economic hardship.

A final question is how much of the 34% reduction in Denmark’s CO2 emissions since 2006 can be attributed to its expansion of wind capacity over this period. By assuming zero emissions for wind and plugging in the Volcker-Quaschning kgCO2/kWh estimates for oil, gas and coal to the BP annual energy-by-source data I came up with an estimate of 17%, or half of it. This estimate must, however, be taken with a grain of salt. Denmark is able to generate as much wind power as it does only because it can export its surpluses to Scandinavian reservoirs via the Nordic grid. Denmark also assumes that most if not all of its wind generation is consumed domestically while in fact maybe as little as half of it is.

Summary of Findings

This brief review of historical data teaches us the following:

1.  Any country that wishes to do so can make substantial cuts in its CO2 emissions by replacing its fossil-fuel generation with nuclear generation. Another advantage of “going nuclear” is that development can be planned in advance to meet a specific emissions target. The danger is that another sudden burst of anti-nuclear hysteria could bring the program to a halt at any time. Public and governmental attitudes towards nuclear have not been completely rational in recent years.

2.  Substantial cuts in emissions can also be made by reducing energy demand. However, the reductions that have so far occurred have been dominantly a product of varying degrees of economic collapse, and while many governments pontificate about the urgent need to save the planet from global warming none of them are presently prepared to collapse their economies to save it.

3.  With the arguable exception of Denmark no country has yet succeeded in significantly reducing its emissions by expanding intermittent renewable energy generation, and neither history nor Denmark (which is a special case) gives us any guidance on how intermittent renewable energy might be expanded to the point where it does achieve signficant emissions reductions. But previous Energy Matters posts here, here, here and here suggest that it can be done by keeping enough load-following capacity to fill demand when the wind doesn’t blow and/or the sun doesn’t shine. The problem with this option is that the generation system becomes progressively more inefficient and more costly as more renewable capacity is added until eventually a point is reached where it threatens to bring on economic collapse all by itself.

In summary, history brings us back to square one. Barring major and presently unforeseen advances in technology the only practicable option for reducing CO2 emissions is nuclear.

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50 Responses to CO2 Emissions Reductions – What History Teaches Us

  1. Peter Lang says:

    ‘Reduce energy consumption’ is not realistic over the long term. Per capita energy consumption has been increasing since primitive man and the trend will not reverse. (Primitive Man = 8 MJ/d per person; Technological Man = ~900 MJ/d per person).

    Countries may temporarily improve energy efficiency faster than per capita energy consumption increases, but that is temporary.

    Another way is to reduce the proportion of high intensity industries in a country and let other countries make the products that have high energy intensity, then import the products with the high embodied emissions. That benefit is also temporary because it’s just an accounting fix, it penalises the producing nations and they will not stand for being blamed for high emissions forever.

    So the only proven way that will work for ever is to transition electricity to nuclear and transport fuels to being produced from low emissions electricity and seawater:

    Interesting post by Roger Pielke Jr.: “Reality Check”
    and the paper: “An evaluation of the targets and timetables of proposed
    Australian emissions reduction policies

    See section “Methodology and Evaluation” The message is that the only way to achieve large reductions in emissions is dramatically reduce the emissions intensity of the energy technology. That means replacing fossil fuels with nuclear (renewables cannot do the job as has been explained ad nauseam on previous posts)

  2. Dave Rutledge says:

    Hi Roger,

    Great post.

    “Punitive taxation is just another form of economic hardship.”

    A great quote. Regressive too.


    • Olav says:

      Beeing a taxpayer I do not look at high energy taxes as bad at all. The society needs the money from fuel and electricy taxes. Less than half of us pay significant income tax. But almost all of us pay directly or indirectly fuel and electricity tax. If that money is retrived from payroll taxes only it will be much worse for people who pays income tax.
      Looking at the graps in Rogers exellent post I see that Norway is at bottom in renewable increase as it is wery hard to increase electricity production from renewables when already at 100% hydro. Building wind el production for export will not fly economically unless the willingness to pay very high price for balancing service is there. Production cost for wind energy is 5p+ a Kwh and I have not seen that level in Norway this year. most of the time it is 1p a KWh or even less. Off cause when price is high in Denmark now and later in UK an Germany with interconnectors in place is better prices a possibility. Interconnectors expansive as they are needs a high high usage to be profitable which again results in low priced flow.
      Norway is also wery low at CO2 reduction compared with others as we have no “low hanging fruit” as coal plants to close and the oil fields are getting older needing more energy (gas power) to retrieve a decreasing production. New field (Sverdrup) was last year decided to be powered with Hydro el from shore. This year low oil price may have made this decition less likely today. Deciding power solution for oil fields are after all a company decition. Government can put preassure and intencives but they can not roll over companies as that will result in oil beeing left in the ground.

      • A C Osborn says:

        Sorry, but this does not compute in the UK, the tax goes as subsidies to Rich Land Owners in the UK, Wind & Solar constructors and Energy Companies, who are mostly NOT in the UK.

  3. Hugh Sharman says:

    Stunning analysis, Roger!

  4. roberthargraves says:

    Euarn Mearns, Roger Andrews,
    Can you two please make presentations at the upcoming Paris talks?

  5. In the previous analysis I proved that the 2008-2009 drop in emissions for Germany was not down to wind (as it was mostly built) and not down to solar (as it was mostly yet to be built). I do not like repeating posts but a snippet is below

    “…most of Germany’s wind generation had already been in by 2007 (~40000 GWh/yr). From 2007 – 2010 it was practically static…So for emission reductions around 2008, changes in wind are not in play.

    Solar… real growth spurt is from 2009. 2009 is considered by the Agora institute to be the minimum of CO2 emissions from the electricity sector in Germany. If you were being cruel…. all the capacity additions… since 2009/2010 have done nothing to reduce CO2 emissions”

    • Germany is an interesting case that I should probably have discussed in the post, so let me rectify the omission:

      Along with many other countries Germany expanded nuclear in the 1970s and 1980s but a complicating factor makes it difficult to see exactly what impact it had. Germany’s flat emissions since the 2008/9 recession, however, are at least partly attributable to the decreased percentage of nuclear in the energy mix after 2010.

      The complicating factor is that the graph includes energy consumption and emissions for East Germany before it reunified with West Germany in 1990, which is why the impacts of the nuclear expansion in West Germany are hard to isolate. The decrease in emissions between 1990 and ~2000, however, is acknowledged to be largely a result of shutdowns or modernization of inefficient East German coal plants.

      • Leo Smith says:

        You should look at Switzerland too.

        half nuke, half hydro. Doesn’t get much better than that.

      • Thanks roger.

        It is correct that after 2008/9 you have the nuclear question at play. However wind production was flat in this period to 2010 so not really in play. Solar can on leaps and bounds after 2009. Clearly we can say that the decline in nuclear and ~rise in emissions has not been offset by solar.

        • Roger Andrews says:

          My understanding is that a lot of Germany’s surplus midday solar gets exported to neighboring countries, destabilizing the grids in those countries to the point where they are now reported to be installing phase shifters to block German solar imports. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

    • roberto says:

      “If you were being cruel…. all the capacity additions… since 2009/2010 have done nothing to reduce CO2 emissions”

      According to a recent study by a scientist at the Global Energy and Climate Program, Stanford university, the GLOBAL PV installations have not yet saved a single gram of CO2!… it doesn’t take rocket science to understand that an exponential increase of the installations (as has been taking place so far for PV globally) and the 1-3 year energy pay-back time of the different PV technologies combine in such a way that it will take a few ore years before any CO2 is actually saved.

      More than 2/3 of the global PV modules are made in China/Taiwan… where about 60% of the electricity is coal-based… if one then installs the said modules in a “sunny” country like Germany or the UK it clearly will take more than 3 years to recover the energy, and the emissions as well.

  6. Rob says:

    I see no prospect of a big nuclear expansion even in the UK
    The UK nuclear industry has a history of delays mistakes and projects massively over budget.
    We have run down the UK industry to such an extent we are being dependant on
    foreign technology.

    Innovation is destroyed by a 10 year Generic Design Assessment costing billions
    It is ironic that the GDA probably takes longer that would to design a reactor from scratch.

    Nuclear in the UK looks pretty grim

  7. roberto says:

    Interesting “position paper” of the European Physical Society:

    • Take out the Motherhood and Apple Pie stuff and it pretty much echoes what we on Energy Matters have been saying:

      • Jacob says:

        “Take out the Motherhood and Apple Pie stuff and it pretty much echoes what we on Energy Matters have been saying”

        Take out the Motherhood and Apple Pie stuff and it pretty much says nothing at all.

  8. roberto says:

    The laws of physics revisited…

    “having large base-load plants is a PROBLEM not a solution.”


    • Leo Smith says:

      Indeed. If, as I, suspect they are saying nuclear and (intermittent) renewables don’t make sense, they are completely right.

      Once you decide on nuclear there is no point whatsoever in wasting money on renewables.
      They simply add cost and make the dispatch problem worse.

      The ideal solution is nuclear and hydro, but in the absence of that gas is an alternative but it has to be allowed to charge viable amounts of money to run peaking only type plant at low duty cycles.

  9. Ed says:

    From your previous articles I thought that your position is a) climate change is not real and b) you want your energy bills to be as low as possible. Therefore Nuclear is not needed, is a waste of money and you don’t want to pay for it, by your reasoning !

    This article seem to be at odds this. Are you coming to my way of thinking, per chance? ie that climate change is irrelevant and that we need to invest in our energy security even if it means paying a little extra on our bills now.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Intrinsically nuclear should be far and away the cheapest way to generate electricity, especially at today’s interest rates.

      It has been made artificially expensive by piling a massive and largely uneceessary regulatory burden on it.

  10. Peter Lang says:

    WNA challenges industry to change energy scene by 2050

    Opening the World Nuclear Association’s 2015 Symposium in London, the WNA Director General outlined what was needed to achieve the International Energy Agency’s main scenario to address climate change concerns, limiting warming to 2°C by 2050. Allowing for 150 GWe nuclear retirements by 2050, it would require 680 GWe new build by then to achieve 17% of electricity from nuclear power – about 8000 TWh/yr. But this assumes that energy and process-related emissions could actually be cut by 60% in that time frame by using renewables and CCS, which is at best optimistic. Therefore a more reasonable target is to build 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity by 2050 and achieve 25% electricity contribution then from about 1250 GWe of nuclear power capacity – about 10,700 TWh/yr. Such a rate of construction is far from unprecedented, and involves cranking up to emulate the industry’s new build performance achieved in the 1980s, from about 2025.

    To achieve this there needs to be a level playing field for all low-carbon technologies, valuing not only environmental qualities, but also reliability and grid system costs. Electricity markets must recognize and reward the benefits of nuclear base-load. In relation to regulatory processes, we need to enhance standardization, and harmonise and update global codes and standards. Finally, an effective safety paradigm must involve confidence in management of nuclear technology and operations, achieving stakeholder trust.
    WNN 10/9/15. World energy needs & NP

    What they don’t mention is that the way to get an accelerating roll, out rate, as was the case in the 1970/s, is to reduce the cost nuclear power, especially of small modular nuclear reactors (SMR). The catalyst to starting a long term sustainable rate of cost reduction – with learning rates up to 10% doubling of capacity and generation – is to start removing the impediments that are blocking progress, This can begin by IAEA and its member countries reconsidering the allowable radiation limits. The USA started this in January and it will run for 18 months. Other countries and IAEA need to pick up the baton. This is the catalyst that is needed to start on the road to the massive cost reductions that can be achieved over the decades ahead as we eventually replace all the existing designs. More on how to achieve the cost reduction in this here:

    How to get to nuclear cheaper than fossil fuels

  11. Peter Lang says:


    I agree with most of what you say (but not all). I was involved in policy analysis leading up to and through the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and following the debate ever since. I am well aware of the political origin of the UNFCCC, IPCC, Agenda 21 and the 2C limit. Unfortunately, the politics of all the AGW/CC issues are real. They cannot be dodged or changed easily by logic, rational analysis, evidence or advocacy based on rational analysis. So, as someone said on a recent thread, perhaps it was Euan or you, we just have to keep working and also we have to be realistic about how scaremongering is very effective politically.

    I disagree with this bit of your comment:

    The problem with it is that without fast breeder reactors the world runs out of uranium by 2069.

    I disagree for two reasons:

    1. We will move to breeder reactors when they produce electricity more cheaply than thermal reactors. I agree they are decades away from being commercially viable so they can roll out rapidly across the word. I can provide more on this if you want to discuss it further.

    2. I disagree with the analyses that assume the current known reserves will not increase. (e.g. Australia’s uranium reserves double over about a decade). The reserves increase as exploration continues (and as prices increase). The rate of exploration depends on the price projections. I know you know all this, I am writing it for others. The quantity of uranium (not including thorium) in the upper continental crust that is likely to be at concentrations sufficient to be economically mined in the future is sufficient to supply ALL the world’s ENERGY for 10 billion people at the current USA per capita energy consumption rate for many thousands of years. Therefore, I strongly disagree with repeating the statement that there is insufficient uranium. The anti-nukes run off with it and repeat it endlessly. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by continually repeating it. [I can post the basis of estimate if you want me to].

    • Peter Lang says:

      Here is a quick and unchecked estimate of the number of years uranium in the upper continental crust at eventually extractable concentrations when used in breeder reactors could power our world with 10 billion people consuming the same average per capita primary energy consumption as the USA used in 2011.

      TW-years of electricity from uranium in the Upper Continental Crust

      I’ve made an estimate of the TW-years of electricity that could be generated from uranium in the Upper Continental Crust, assuming 0.1% can be extracted eventually (this may be optimistic). I have not included uranium in sea water or thorium. My estimate is 6.75 million TW-years of electricity by using the uranium in FNRs. I estimate 10 billion people could be supplied at the 2011 US rate of total primary energy consumptions per capita for 24,000 years.

      Mass of Continental Crust (CC) = 2.171E+22 kg [1]
      Mass of Upper Continental Crust, including sediments = 8.141E+21 kg [1]
      Uranium concentration in the Upper Continental Crust = 2.8 ppm [2]
      Heat Content (energy density), in FNR = 28,000 GJ/kg [3]
      Convert MJ to kWh @ 33% efficiency = x 0.0926 [3]
      USA Total Primary Energy Consumption per Capita (2011) = 296.5 GJ/per person
      Convert ½ the electricity to transport fuels and other energy @ 33% overall loss

      TW-years of electricity generation from uranium possibly ultimately extractable from the Upper Continental Crust:

      Mass of Continental Crust 2.171E+22 kg
      Mass of Upper Continental Crust, including sediments 8.141E+21 kg
      Uranium concentration in the Upper Continental Crust 2.8 ppm
      Uranium in the upper continental crust, mass 2.280E+16 kg
      Proportion that could be extracted ultimately 0.001
      Uranium ultimately extractable 2.280E+13 kg
      Energy density, in FNR 28,000 GJ/kg
      Energy content (thermal) 6.383E+17 GJ
      Conversion: MJ to kWh @ 33% efficiency: x 0.0926 0.0926
      Electrical energy (MWh) 5.910E+16 MWh
      Electrical energy (TW-years) 6.747E+06 TW-y

      Years of energy supply for 10 billion people at 2011 US per capita energy consumption rate (ignoring energy conversion losses):

      Energy content (thermal) 6.38E+17 GJ
      conversion to electricity @33% efficency 2.13E+17 GJ
      Total Primary Energy Consumption per Capita, USA 2011 296.4648 GJ/person p.a. [4]
      World Population (10 billion) 1.00E+10
      Total primary energy consumption for 10 billion population 2.96E+12 GJ
      Years of energy available excl. conversion from electricity) 7.18E+04 years
      Energy conversion to transport fuels, say 33% 2.37E+04 years


      This is is a quick (and unchecked) estimate of the number of years uranium, in the upper continental crust at eventually extractable concentrations, when used in breeder reactors could power the world with 10 billion people consuming the same average per capita primary energy consumption as the USA used in 2011. The estimate is 24,000 years.


      [1] Peterson, B. T. and Depaolo, D. J. (2007), Mass and Composition of the Continental Crust Estimated Using the CRUST2.0 Model

      [2] Chemical Composition of Continental Crust and the Primitive Mantle

      [3] WNA, (2010) Heat values of various fuels

      [4] EIA, Total Primary Energy Consumption per Capita

      Constructive critique welcome. This is a quick calculations unchecked by anyone, so I could be major errors. Please let me know if you find any.

      • Leo Smith says:

        IIRC David Mackay came up with something between 3,000 and 10,000 years.

        Enough time to get fusion working perhaps 😉

        • Peter Lang says:

          Leo smith. Thanks. Excellent reminder. I’d forgotten that one. There are many other roughly similar estimates.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Couple of points.

      I think that thermal reactors could withstand at least a tenfold increase in the price of uranium before becoming uneconomic with today’s fossil prices. At that price point uranium extraction from even seawater is viable.

      And at that sort of pricing breeders become cost effective too.

      I may be out by a factor but the principle is sound: there is plenty of uranium. What matters is whether it’s economically extractable. And the economics of nuclear power are not critically dependent on the raw cost of uranium ore.

      Which means that the industry can withstand the sorts of price rises that bring huge unexploited reserves into play.

  12. Ed says:

    Hi Peter. You have presented loads of figures and calculations. My initial concern is with your statement ” assuming 0.1% can be extracted eventually”. Can this be done at an energy profit ? ie is the ERoEI less than 1. ?

    It reminds me of the statement “If you could extract 0.1 of the gold in the oceans, you would be the richest person on Earth.”

    Have I missed something, Peter ?

    • Peter Lang says:

      I agree that my assumption that 0.1% of the 2.8 ppm of uranium in the Upper Continental Crust will eventually be economically extractable is not well justified But it is not simply a pure guess. I considered at the proportion of granitic rocks that is in aplite dykes and other types where uranium is concentrated (from memory, I think it was aplite and others I don’t recall now but I haven’t checked back on that stuff which I did years ago).

      The main point to understand is that both exploration methods and extraction methods are always improving. We’ve come a long way since the Gold Age and Copper Age in our ability to extract minerals. Uranium is now being extracted by remote leaching with no mining involved and virtually no disturbance at the surface. Who can guess what extraction methods will be possible in 100 years time, let alone 1000 years or 10,000 years from now. We’ll very likely be starting to use fusion inside a century from now. So, even if my estimate is out by one or two orders of magnitude, the times scales are so far out that you can reasonable say nuclear fuels is effectively unlimited. Nuclear is sustainable, but renewables most definitely are not. That’s the important point that the renewables energy advocates need to grasp. If they can’t accept it, I’d suggest the label of Denier and flat-earthers really belongs to those who keep using the term, would you agree?

      Roger may offer a comment on my assumption that o.1% of uranium in the Earths Upper Continental Crust is at concentrations that will eventually be economically recoverable.

      • Peter: I can say pretty much what I like about uranium resources without fear of comeback because I will be long gone by the time any final numbers start coming in (this applies to my global warming predictions too). So here’s my assessment.

        Mining uranium at very low concentrations may one day become economically feasible but not for a long time yet. In the meantime my 2,820GW of nuclear LWR capacity – which will cut global CO2 emissions by only 30%, note – will be gobbling up uranium at a rate sufficient to deplete the world’s known, inferred, projected, possible, postulated and absolute-last-squeal-out-of-the-pig resources within about 50 years. There is no chance that the super-low-grade resources in the Earth’s crust will make any significant contribution to uranium supply before then.

        • Peter Lang says:


          In the meantime my 2,820GW of nuclear LWR capacity – which will cut global CO2 emissions by only 30%, note – will be gobbling up uranium at a rate sufficient to deplete the world’s known, inferred, projected, possible, postulated and absolute-last-squeal-out-of-the-pig resources within about 50 years. There is no chance that the super-low-grade resources in the Earth’s crust will make any significant contribution to uranium supply before then.

          This reminds me of the ‘fact’ I learnt around 1963 or so that “the world has only 11 years of oil left”. 🙂

          You did not mention how you arrived at your assessment. I am using data from WNA and my assessment is that exploration will increase reserves faster than we consume uranium in Gen 3 reactors, for at least a hundred years and probably much longer. This is ample time for breeder reactors to become mature and commercially viable, just by the normal responses to markets.

          Here’s my assessment:

          How long will world uranium reserves last if used in Gen 3 reactors?

          According to WNA “Supply of uranium , economically recoverable resources at up to US $260/tU increased by 50% in 8 years from 2005 to 2013 as a result of increased rate of exploration. For this analysis I’ll assume a doubling of resources is achievable every 15 years (if demand is sufficient to support the exploration).


          Reserves in 2015 = 6 MtU
          Reserves double every 15 years
          Gen 3 reactors require 200 tonne natural uranium per GWy
          Reactor capacity in 2015 = 400 GW (it’s actually 380 GW)
          Reactor capacity doubles every 15 years
          Total capacity reaches 2820 GW in 2057
          Average capacity factor = 85%


          Uranium consumption in 2057 = 479,400 t/a U
          Cumulative uranium consumption, 2015-2057 = 9.055 Mt/a U

          Reserves in 2015 = 6 MtU
          Remaining reserves in 2057 = 19.1 Mt U


          Therefore, by 2057, remaining uranium reserves are projected to increase from 6 to 19 Mt U while consumption increased from 68,000 to 479,400 t/a.

          By 2100, remaining reserves are projected to have increased to 53 Mt U.

          Based on the assumption that reserves can be increased at the same rate as achieved from 2005 to 2013 (if there is sufficient demand) it suggests that uranium reserves are sufficient to meet your nuclear capacity growth rate in Gen 3 reactors.

          I accept, that my assumptions may not be valid. But even at half the assumed rate of increase in resources that can be achieved, I suspect the uranium reserves at <US $260/kg may be sufficient for well over 100 years. Breeder reactors will be commercially viable long before the world runs out of uranium.

          • You did not mention how you arrived at your assessment.

            It’s all here:


          • Peter Lang says:

            [Repost with corrected formatting; Euan, could you please delete my previous attempt to post this comment]

            Roger Andrews:

            Thank you. Good post. I am a recent follower of Energy Matters and hadn’t seen it before. I understand what you’ve based your assessment on and the underlying assumptions. I’ll extract some of it below and then show why our assessments differ. The following are selected sentences from your post and rolled into one quote.

            Known uranium resources therefore top out at 9.2 million tons. How long do they last under the nuclear decarbonization scenario?

            Until 2048. They will in fact be exhausted before the decarbonization target is met.

            Higher uranium prices will of course stimulate exploration and lead to the discovery of more uranium. As to how much more, OECD/NEA estimates that there are 10,400,500 tons of undiscovered uranium resources in the world

            Adding it to the 9.2 million tons of known resources yields 19,600,500 tons of uranium, which I’ve rounded up to 20 million tons for convenience.

            I’ve assumed that the 10.8 million tons of undiscovered resources is added to inventory at the rate of 200,000 tons/year beginning in 2015 and ending in 2068:


            The difference between yours and my assessment is that your assessment is based on the assumption of 20 million tonnes of uranium that will eventually be recoverable with just 200,000 tonnes being added to resources per year. But that does not take into account that exploration and mining techniques will continue to evolve so that in the future we’ll be extracting uranium from much greater depth than we are now and at lower concentrations. As WNA says:

            The price of a mineral commodity also directly determines the amount of known resources which are economically extractable. On the basis of analogies with other metal minerals, a doubling of price from present levels could be expected to create about a tenfold increase in measured economic resources, over time, due both to increased exploration and the reclassification of resources regarding what is economically recoverable.

            Reasonably assured and inferred resources at <US $260/kgU increased by 50% from 2005 to 2013 due to increased exploration

            Exploration will inevitably ramp up as demand and prices ramp up. Given the history of how the known resources and reserves of non-fossil fuel minerals have increased over time, I see no reason to expect that uranium will not do so too. Australia had a ban on iron ore exports until about 1958 because we believed we did not have enough for even our own steel needs. Now look at our resources and reserves. We went from negligible known iron ore to near unlimited iron ore in the space of a few decades.

            I understand your conservative assessment and I fully recognise why the uranium and nuclear industry have to be very conservative with their estimates. However, I don’t believe they are realistic.

            I have a question for you. There is about 23 Eg U (23 x 10^18 g U) in the upper continental crust. What proportion of this do you expect would be concentrated in deposits at high enough grade to extract in 100, years and 200 years from now? (The concentration at Olympic Dam has 2.5 million tonnes U3O8 at 0.026% grade. )

        • Peter Lang says:

          For other readers who my not read the WNA post, I’ll add a couple of quotes:

          Supply of Uranium
          (Updated September 2015)
          • Uranium is a relatively common metal, found in rocks and seawater. Economic concentrations of it are not uncommon.
          • Its availability to supply world energy needs is great both geologically and because of the technology for its use.
          • Quantities of mineral resources are greater than commonly perceived.
          • The world’s known uranium resources increased by at least one-quarter in the last decade due to increased mineral exploration.

          From the chart, reasonably assured and inferred resources at <US $260/kgU increased by 50% from 2005 to 2013 due to increased exploration And:

          The price of a mineral commodity also directly determines the amount of known resources which are economically extractable. On the basis of analogies with other metal minerals, a doubling of price from present levels could be expected to create about a tenfold increase in measured economic resources, over time, due both to increased exploration and the reclassification of resources regarding what is economically recoverable.

          This is in fact suggested in the IAEA-NEA figures if those covering estimates of all conventional resources (U as main product or major by-product) are considered – another 7.3 to 8.4 million tonnes (beyond the 5.9 Mt known economic resources), which takes us past 200 years’ supply at today’s rate of consumption. This still ignores the technological factor mentioned below. It also omits unconventional resources (U recoverable as minor by-product) such as phosphate/ phosphorite deposits (up to 22 Mt U), black shales (schists – 5.2 Mt U) and lignite (0.7 Mt U), and even seawater (up to 4000 Mt), which would be uneconomic to extract in the foreseeable future, although Japanese trials using a polymer braid have suggested costs a bit over $600/kgU. Research proceeds.

          For my assessment, I assumed resources in 2015 are just 6 Mt U. However, those listed here total 40.9 Mt on land plus 4000 Mt in sea water.

          I think it is fair to assume that uranium resources will not be a limiting factor for well over 100 years.

        • roberto says:

          “In the meantime my 2,820GW of nuclear LWR capacity – which will cut global CO2 emissions by only 30%, note – will be gobbling up uranium at a rate sufficient to deplete the world’s known, inferred, projected, possible, postulated and absolute-last-squeal-out-of-the-pig resources within about 50 years.”

          They may gobble up whatever uranium is left in the continental crusts, but they won’t affect much of the concentration of uranium in the oceans’ waters…

          … a total of 360 thousand zettajoules!

          This very recent paper

          … shows that extracting a large chunk of it (30~60%!) is getting closer and closer, thanks to modern genetic engineering techniques.


    • Peter Lang says:


      Here’s another estimate of around 10,000 years from researchers at:

      Global Environmental Climate Change Centre, McGill University
      Naval Research Laboratory, retired
      Engineer Emeritus, AECL
      Argonne National Laboratory, retired

      Nuclear Fission Fuel is Inexhaustible

      Abstract: Nuclear fission energy is as inexhaustible as those energies usually termed “renewable”, such as hydro, wind, solar, and biomass. But, unlike the sum of these energies, nuclear fission energy has sufficient capacity to replace fossil fuels as they become scarce. Replacement of the current thermal variety of nuclear fission reactors with nuclear fission fast reactors, which are 100 times more fuel efficient, can dramatically extend nuclear fuel reserves. The contribution of uranium price to the cost of electricity generated by fast reactors, even if its price were the same as that of gold at US$14,000/kg, would be US$0.003/kWh of electricity generated. At that price, economically viable uranium reserves would be, for all practical purposes, inexhaustible. Uranium could power the world as far into the future as we are today from the dawn of civilization—more than 10,000 years ago. Fast reactors have distinct advantages in siting of plants, product transport and management of waste.

      • Jacob says:

        You’re wasting you time debating uranium reserves. The chances of a massive nuclear build up are null. It’s fossil fuels all the way down, for the next 50-100 years.

  13. Owen says:

    There is another option – import all your electricity and you will have zero emissions in electricity

  14. Owen says:

    Incremental fuel savings due to wind just 2% in the Irish system

    The problem seems to be wind saturation point is reached very quickly in the Irish system so although Ireland intends to install 2-3GW more wind, it will have zero effect on emissions

  15. Another option is to make gas cheaper than coal for power gen – US since 2008, UK in nineties

  16. Kent Hawkins says:

    I believe I can explain the Denmark case. It probably still reports emissions in two ways and the one most prominent and picked up on shows notable reductions but is not the real emissions story. For more detail see my MasterResource post in 2010 at

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