This option may be even better than breeding fissile 239Pu from 238U by neutron bombardment. It breeds fissile 233U from 232Th, i.e. natural Thorium, which is about three times as plentiful as natural uranium. It seems to have been abandoned, during the Nixon administration, by the US Atomic Energy Authority, because it was not a good source of nuclear weapons material. Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor
A breeder reactor creates fissile isotopes from non-fissile ones. Its fuel is therefore renewable. Fissile isotopes are effective, but very scarce compared with the non-fissile ones -- by a factor of more than a hundred. The resource in fact becomes highly sustainable.
A project funded by the US Government, the Integral Fast Reactor, demonstrated in 1986 that it could be done with greater safety than any existing commercial reactor.
In an act of unconscionable ignorance, the project was closed down in 1994, on the ill-founded belief that it could lead to nuclear proliferation.
France has been bullied by the EU into privatizing EDF, on grounds that amount to claiming that the electricity so produced is so inexpensive that private entities cannot compete. Even with that disadvantage, which ruined Britain's nuclear power projects, EDF now owns "British Energy", and has bought interests in nuclear power plants in the USA.
Nuclear power produced just under 20% of the electricity consumed in the USA in the years 2004..2007.
For each of those years, uranium oxide needed for US nuclear reactors is reported at close to 50 million pounds a year.
That's 25 thousand tons a year, of the oxide. Assuming it's U 3O8 that contains about 21 thousand tons of the uranium element. Trifling compared with the thousands of millions of tons of coal burned, and the even larger quantity of carbon dioxide (more than three times as much as the carbon) produced by it. In fact, every million tons of coal burned produced several tons of uranium and thorium oxide, both slightly radioactive, in the ash.
Natural uranium is more abundant than gold, silver or mercury, about the same as tin and slightly less abundant than cobalt, lead or molybdenum.
The 50 million pounds was natural uranium oxide, unenriched. That's 25,000 tons.
Let Q be the average mass of enriched uranium consumed annually for electricity production, including what accumulates as "waste".
Let e be the proportion of 235U in the total uranium of the fuel rods. It's about 3.6%, so the enrichment factor e for fuel grade uranium is e/0.7, which is near enough .51
It follows that for every ton of reactor uranium, there are at least six tons of depleted uranium, I.e. seven tons were mined and refined to metal. That's if you extracted all of the fissile isotope from the depleted portion.
But in fact, if depleted uranium is 0.3% 235U, it takes six or seven tons of uranium to make one of fuel grade, because only 0.5% of the 0.7% is transferred.
According to the French site
depleted uranium was 0.25% 235U for at least one instance.
So Q is probably about 5 million pounds (or less), i.e. about 2,500 tons.
Let f be the proportion of fissile isotope 235U turned into fission products, actually producing energy. The uranium actually consumed is therefore Q.e.f
(The quantity consumed in the reactors) times
(the enrichment figure) times
(the proportion of 235 U consumed)
Suppose f is as high as 4/5. Then 20% of the USA's annual electricity consumption required about 4/5 times 1/20 of Q. That's one twenty-fifth, 4%, of Q. So the actual amount of uranium consumed, and the mass of the fission products, amounts to only one hundred tons a year.
This process throws away 96% of the fuel rods, and ignores the depleted part of the uranium mined.
Now consider a Fast Breeder Reactor, totally self contained except for importing its first fuel load, and a supplement of natural or depleted uranium. Once every 50 years it would export its tired old fission products for disposal.
These are guesses, and approximate. But they're probably not off by a factor of as much as 2.0
Suppose we used the IFR to convert progressively all of the 238 U to fissile fuel, recycle and fission it.
Annually, depleted uranium = 5/6 of 25,000 tons ~= 21,000 tons.
Spent reactor uranium = 96% of 4,000 tons = 3,840 tons
Total uranium actually consumed for 20% of our annual electrical demand ~= 160 tons.
Suppose we had a number of reactors that converted just enough of the non-fissile uranium into fissile plutonium, and didn't make it available outside of the reactor. See Advanced Reactor Concepts
Such a reactor would produce just enough plutonium in one fuel cycle (several years) to let each fuel rod be reprocessed and replenished with a supplementary charge of depleted or recycled reactor uranium, and continue for another cycle.
In March 1995, approximately 200 Metric Tonnes of U.S.-origin weapons-usable fissile materials were declared surplus to U.S. defense needs.
With the backlog of "waste" from 10 years, and the stocks of depleted uranium from reactor fuel and nuclear weapons manufacture, and of bomb grade enriched uranium and plutonium already declared surplus to our "defense needs", we could supply enough reactors to power the entire USA, hydrogen economy included, for at least a century, without either mining or enriching any uranium. see Updates At the same time, we'd reduce the waste storage problem per gigawatt-year by a factor of 20 in volume, and about a thousand in duration.
The assumptions above as to quantities are probably pessimistic. The amount of depleted uranium available is probably twice what I assume. The amount of plutonium that is unnecessarily still devoted to our monstrous commitment to 'defend' ourselves with nuclear weapons is presumably a military secret.
Finally, if Q= 5 million pounds per year, that's 2.5 thousand tons a year. With the approximate assumptions above, the current annual production of actual fission product waste is one hundred tons a year, and would be five hundred if all of our electricity supply were fast nuclear. Various estimates of our total energy consumption are about six times our electrical energy consumption, which would require sequestering 3,000 tons of fission product waste annually, a decidedly easier job than sequestering thousands of millions of tons of carbon dioxide gas.
Pumping water uphill is incidentally the only way to make use of energy from wind turbines, but you still have the visual pollution of the wind turbines, and the dead bat and bird bodies.
600-foot high wind turbines and their bird slaughter will be less noticeable offshore, until you find that the bald eagle, pelican, osprey, and albatross populations are depleted.
Note the size of the vehicle. This is a Scottish moor.