December 27, 2022

A Primer on the Positive Long-Term Future of Nuclear Fuel

A report released at the World Nuclear Association Annual Symposium last 2021 projects annual growth in nuclear generation capacity of 2.6%, with that particular capacity reaching 615 GWe by 2040. In 2020, primary uranium supply met only 74% of reactor demand.

This report follows a pattern of similar papers released every two years or so since 1975. It uses publicly available information gathered from organizations active in the nuclear fuel cycle, both members and non-members of the Association, to produce projections for nuclear capacity and uranium production, and it was written with input from over 80 experts from across the global nuclear industry. It provides a range of potential outcomes for nuclear power through 2040 in its three scenarios: Reference, Upper, and Lower.

For this update, the World Nuclear Association reevaluated its proprietary model’s parameters that predict future fuel needs, including thermal efficiency, enrichment levels, fuel burn-ups, and a number of other factors.

The report also includes qualitative consideration of small modular reactors (SMRs), but the model still needs to include their quantitative effects, with the exception of the Russian-designed KLT-40S, of which two are currently operating on the floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov.

The Capacity for Growth

Midway through 2021, the global capacity of nuclear power plants was estimated at 394 GWe (442 units), with an additional 60 GWe (57 units) in the pipeline. Reference Scenario projections place nuclear capacity at 439 GWe by 2030 and an outstanding 615 GWe by 2040, an increase of 2.6% per year. Upper Scenario projections show an increase to 521 GWe by 2030 and 839 GWe by 2040. Over the course of the reporting period, projected capacities rise even in the Lower Scenario.

The estimated global demand for uranium in reactors in 2021 is around 62,500 tU, rising to 79,400 tU (2030) and 112,300 tU (2040), according to the Reference Scenario, while production has dropped significantly from 63,207 tonnes of uranium (2016) to 47,731 tU (2020).

The research states, “The currently weak uranium market has prompted a substantial decline in uranium exploration operations (by 77% from 2.12 billion USD in 2014 to almost 483 million USD in 2018) and the restriction of uranium production at established mines, with more than 20,500 tonnes of yearly production being idled.” It is predicted that uranium production volumes from existing mines will remain stable until the late 2020s before dropping by more than half between 2030 and 2040.

The analysis concludes that secondary uranium supplies will play a smaller and smaller role in the global market over the next few years and that commercial inventories will assist in closing the supply gap in the short term, but the market will continue to be undersupplied for the foreseeable future.

The Future with Mining

The paper also analyzes the demand and supply in the areas of conversion, enrichment, and fuel manufacturing. By 2023, commercial stocks and the ramping up and restarting of current operations will be sufficient to meet near-term demand for uranium hexafluoride, but longer-term growth in conversion capacity is required.

The capacity for enrichment as it currently stands is adequate to meet the needs of the reactor. Due to the flexible nature of centrifuge machinery and the construction periods for nuclear power reactors, the paper finds that growth of enrichment capacity may be carried out in a timely manner, and supply issues are not likely to arise until the latter half of the following decade under the Reference Scenario and this decade under the Upper Scenario.

In contrast to other phases of the nuclear fuel cycle, the fuel fabrication market is more regional in nature than global. This is because fuel assemblies are highly developed and sophisticated items built for use in a specific reactor core. The paper suggests that due to the present geographical change, “fuel vendors may switch from a regional to a more world market approach,” as nuclear fuel consumption is rising in Asia while falling in the West.


It is evident that the positive long-term future of nuclear fuel is highly dependent on the successful development of new nuclear technologies. While current nuclear reactors have demonstrated their potential to generate electricity safely and reliably, there is still room for improvement in terms of efficiency and waste management. New nuclear technologies hold the promise of further reducing the environmental impact of nuclear power while also increasing its economic competitiveness. With the right policies in place, nuclear energy could play a major role in helping to meet the world’s growing energy needs in a sustainable manner.

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