Introduction to Uranium
(October 25, 2007)
A typical pellet of uranium weighs about 7 grams (0.24 ounces). It can generate as much energy as 3.5 barrels of oil, 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, or 1,780 pounds of coal.
What is uranium?
In its pure form, uranium is a silvery white metal of very high density
-- even denser, than lead. Uranium can take many chemical forms, but in
nature it is generally found as an oxide (in combination with oxygen).
Triuranium octoxide (U
3O8) is the most stable form of uranium oxide and
is the form most commonly found in nature.
Uranium has the highest atomic weight of the naturally occurring
elements. In the actinide series of the periodic table it has the symbol
U and atomic number 92. It has 92 protons, 92 electrons and either 145
or 146 neutrons. Uranium atoms that contain 146 protons are referred to
as the "uranium 238 isotope" (238U) and constitute 99.3% of naturally
occurring uranium. Uranium atoms that contain 145 neutrons are
referred to as the "uranium 235 isotope" (235U) and are weakly
radioactive. The 235U isotope makes up the balance (0.71%) of naturally
occurring uranium. Its nucleus can be made to split (or fission)
inside a nuclear reactor with the release of great quantities of energy
which can be used to generate electricity.
Uranium decays slowly by emitting an alpha particle. The half-life of
uranium-238 is about 4.47 billion years and that of uranium-235 is 704
million years, making them useful in dating the age of the Earth.
The 1789 discovery of uranium in the mineral pitchblende is credited to
Martin Heinrich Klaproth, who named the new element after the planet
Uranus. Eugène-Melchior Péligot was the first person to isolate the
metal, and its radioactive properties were uncovered in 1896 by Antoine
In 1993 the USA and Russia entered into the so-called
"Megatons-to-Megawatts" agreement whereby each country would dismantle a
significant fraction of its nuclear weapons and recycle the contained
Highly Enriched Uranium (approximately 90% 235U) to Low Enriched Uranium
(4-5% 235U) for use as fuel in nuclear power reactors. To date this
program has converted the uranium in approximately 11,000 nuclear
warheads into reactor fuel.
Where is uranium found?
Uranium is one of the most abundant elements found in the Earth's crust.
It can be found almost everywhere in soil, rock, rivers and oceans.
Traces of uranium are even found in food and human tissue.
It is 500 times more abundant than gold and it is as common in the
earth's crust, often in association with tin, tungsten and molybdenum
and is commercially extracted from uranium-bearing minerals such as
The concentrations of uranium vary according to the substances with
which it is mixed and where it is found. For example, granite, which
covers 60% of the Earth's crust, contains approximately four parts of
uranium per million, i.e. 999,996 parts of granite and four parts of
uranium. When uranium is present at concentrations exceeding
approximately 500 parts per million (0.05%) it can be economically
recovered at today's market prices.
Whether uranium can be mined is a function of many factors including
geological setting, extraction method, market prices and social and
Supply of uranium
World uranium production is dominated by Canada and Australia which,
together, produce about 51% of annual mine supply. These two countries
are followed by Kazakhstan, Niger, Russia and Namibia. These six leading
producers account for approximately 84% of worldwide mine production.
In 2006, world production of uranium was 40,000 tonnes U.
Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan are estimated to account for over half
of the world's resources of uranium, which are estimated to total
approximately 4.74 million tonnes. Australia has approximately 30% of
World resources, Kazakhstan 17% and Canada 12%.
Demand for uranium
Many industrialized nations are heavily dependent on nuclear power
generation, with nuclear electricity representing a major component in
such countries as the United States (20%), Germany (30%), Japan (34%),
Hungary (36%), Sweden (46%), and particularly France (78%) and Lithuania
(80%). Worldwide, there are 443 nuclear power reactors operating in 31
countries with total installed capacity of 370,000 MWe. The scale of the
world's nuclear industry is considerable and growing.
Primary uranium production filled only about 62% of world reactor
requirements during 2006. The balance was made up by secondary supplies
including: re-enriched depleted uranium; reprocessed used fuel; and
blended down highly enriched uranium (HEU).
Concerns over the global oil supply and global warming have renewed
interest in nuclear energy as it is a carbon-free source of electricity
with no CO
2 emissions. Other factors that are In addition, improved
reactor performance, extended fuel cycles, increased generating capacity
and reduced operating costs are also contributing to a revival in
As of January 2006, there were 24 reactors under construction, 41
planned (approved and funded) and another 113 proposed (intended but not
approved or funded). New construction is currently concentrated in Asia
with China and India in the forefront.
Power uprates have been granted for reactors in many countries,
including Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and the United
States. In the USA such uprates have added 3,000 MW of new generating
capacity which is equivalent to the output of three new reactors. Many
reactors are having their operating licenses extended by an additional
20 years; over three-quarters of USA nuclear plants have received
20-year license renewals or are in the process of having their
As secondary supplies of uranium decrease and as new reactors under
construction come on stream, the demand for primary uranium will rise
appreciably and temporary shortages may result. Although known world
resources of uranium are more than adequate to fuel the world's reactors
for several decades, the licensing, construction and commissioning of
new uranium mines is a lengthy process (5-10 years), making it essential
that exploration and mine development now proceed expeditiously.
Where are uranium deposits located?
Uranium deposits are found all over the world. The largest deposits of
uranium are found in Australia, Kazakhstan and Canada. High-grade
deposits (>20% U3O8) are only found in Canada.
What is Uranium used for?
The principal use for uranium is in nuclear fuel for power generation.
Approximately 16% of the world's electricity is generated from nuclear
reactors, and it is growing in popularity given declining fossil fuel
supplies and increased pressure to use cheaper, cleaner (i.e.
low-carbon) forms of energy.
By the time it is completely fissioned, one kilogram of uranium can
theoretically produce about 20 trillion joules of energy (20×10
12 joules), or as much electricity that 1,500 tonnes of coal could yield.
Commercial nuclear power plants generally use uranium whose 235U isotope has been enriched to around 4-5%. CANDU heavy water reactor, however, have traditionally used natural uranium whose 235U
isotope concentration is 0.71%. Fuelling of heavy water reactors with
uranium that has been slightly enriched to approximately 0.85% is now
underway and significantly reduces fuel costs. Fuel used in nuclear
submarine reactors is typically highly enriched to 90-95%
235U. In a breeder reactor, uranium-238 can also be converted into plutonium through the following reaction: 238U (n, gamma) -> 239U - (beta) -> 239Np - (beta) -> 239Pu.
How do you find uranium deposits?
Today's exploration activities are much more complex than in the past,
for the surficial, easily-discovered deposits have, for the most part,
been located. With the highest-grade deposits buried in deep rock
formations, advanced technologies like satellite imagery, geophysical
surveys, multi-element geochemical analysis and computer processing must
be employed. Once geologists locate a prospective deposit, detailed
geological and economic evaluation of the grade and characteristics of
the ore body must be completed.
Once a deposit with sufficient reserves is discovered mining engineers
develop a mining plan to extract the ore. If the project looks
promising, environmental impact assessments and the public consultation
process begin so that applications can be made for regulatory approvals
and necessary licenses. When permits and licenses are in place, mine
development and construction of surface facilities, including mills to
extract the uranium, access roads, utilities and worker facilities, can
begin. The timeline from discovery of an ore body to electricity
production can span many decades.
How is uranium mined?
Uranium ore is removed from the ground in one of three ways depending on
the characteristics of the deposit and the value of the uranium (as the
price of uranium rises, formerly uneconomic deposits may become
economic). Uranium deposits close to the surface can be recovered using
the open pit mining method, while underground mining methods are used
for deep deposits. Given the right hydrology and geology, the ore may be
mined by in situ recovery (ISR) leaching; a process that dissolves the
uranium by circulating oxygenated solutions through the uranium-bearing
rock formations. In 2006 worldwide production of uranium came from
underground (41%), open pit (24%) and ISR mines (26%). As mentioned
earlier, uranium frequently occurs as a trace element in other mineral
deposits such as copper, gold or phosphates. Approximately 9% of the
2006 worldwide uranium production originated from such by-product
Open pit mining
When uranium ore is present within 100-200m of the surface, it is
typically extracted with open pit mining techniques. Open pit mining
begins by removing overburden (soil) and waste rock that overlies the
ore body to expose the uranium mineralization. Then a pit is excavated
to access the ore. The walls of the pit are mined in a series of benches
to prevent them from collapsing. To mine each bench, holes are drilled
into the rock and loaded with explosives, which are detonated to break
up the rock. The resulting broken rock is then hauled to the surface in
large trucks that carry up to 200 tonnes of material at a time.
When an ore body is located more than 100 metres below the surface,
underground mining methods are necessary as the costs to remove the
overlying rocks (overburden) would be prohibitive. For example, Cameco's
McArthur River ore body is located more than 500 metres below the
surface and is mined using an underground mining method. The first step
in underground mining is to access the ore. Entry into underground mines
is gained by digging vertical (or inclined) shafts to the depth of the
ore body. Then a number of tunnels are cut around the deposit. A series
of horizontal tunnels, called drifts, offer access directly to the ore
and provide ventilation pathways. All underground mines are ventilated,
but in uranium mines, extra care is taken with ventilation to minimize
the amount of radiation exposure and radon inhalation. In most
underground mines the ore is blasted and hoisted to the surface for
milling. At McArthur River, due to the potential for radiation exposure
from the high-grade ore, processing systems must ensure worker safety.
As a result, the ore is processed underground to the consistency of fine
sand, diluted with water and pumped to the surface as a slurry or mud.
The slurry is trucked to the Key Lake site for milling.
In situ Recovery
In certain sandstone deposits geological and hydrological conditions
allow uranium to be dissolved directly by pumping an oxygenated
lixiviant underground where it dissolves the uranium, pumping it back to
the surface, extracting the dissolved uranium in ion exchange columns
and recycling the barren solution back underground to repeat the
process. With this in situ recovery (ISR) process there is limited
surface environmental disturbance. Leaching is another word for
dissolving and 'in situ' means in the original position or place. A
majority of the uranium produced in the USA, Kazakhstan and in Western
Australia is produced by this environmentally benign and comparatively
After being in a nuclear reactor for approximately 18 months, a portion
of the nuclear fuel must be replaced with new fuel. The used (spent)
fuel contains upwards of 95% of the 235U that was in the fresh fuel,
plutonium (created when 238U absorbs a neutron) and actinide wastes from
the fission process. Reprocessing is the chemical separation of spent
fuel into these three components. The 235U can again become reactor
fuel. The plutonium can be blended with natural UO2 to create mixed
oxide fuel (MOX), a fuel used in some reactors in Belgium, Germany,
France and Switzerland. The actinide waste is placed in secure storage
for eventual permanent disposal in an underground repository.
While the costs of reprocessing outweigh its benefits at the present
time, Russia and some European countries reprocess used fuel for
environmental reasons or as a result of political policy. As well,
countries like Japan are turning to reprocessing because they lack
domestic fuel sources and wish to be energy independent.
How is nuclear fuel waste handled?
Radioactive waste is generally divided into three categories depending
on its level of radioactivity: low, intermediate and high-level waste.
Low-level waste includes slightly contaminated clothing and items that
come from nuclear medicine wards in hospitals, research laboratories and
nuclear plants. Low-level waste contains only small amounts of
radioactivity that decays away in hours or days. After the radioactivity
has decayed, low-level waste can be treated like ordinary garbage.
Intermediate-level wastes mostly come from the nuclear industry. They
include used reactor components and contaminated materials from reactor
decommissioning. Typically these wastes are embedded in concrete for
disposal and buried in licensed landfills.
High-level waste primarily generally describes used fuel from nuclear
reactors. Used nuclear fuel assemblies are removed from a reactor and
placed into large water-filled pools for 10-20 years. The water provides
shielding from the radiation and cooling to remove the heat, which
continues to be generated by the radioactive material. When the
radioactivity and its associated heat have diminished, the fuel is
transferred to canisters for above-ground, medium-term, dry storage. The
nuclear industry and government authorities are evaluating long-term
storage of high-level waste. While spent fuel is safely stored at
nuclear plant sites today, the storage facilities were never intended
for permanent storage. Countries operating nuclear power reactors are
conducting extensive studies on how high-level wastes should be
disposed. Research indicates the ideal permanent storage disposal is in
deep underground caverns (or repositories) in stable geological
At present, no country has constructed a repository, although
considerable research is underway on a variety of different geologies.
Belgium, for example is studying permanent disposal in a clay formation.
The US is investigating the suitability of the volcanic tuffs of Yucca
Mountain in Nevada. The site received government approval in 2002 and is
now in the multi-year process of licensing application. Finland is the
closest to implementing disposal of high-level
Nuclear Industry in Argentina
Argentina is a leading Latin American generator of nuclear power. The
country embarked on ambitious nuclear energy and technology development
programs in the mid-1950s. These programs encompassed the exploration
and mining of uranium, development of a complete nuclear fuel cycle,
construction and operation of nuclear reactors, production of medical
isotopes and the design and manufacture of industrial irradiators.
Argentina's pioneering nuclear program led to development of indigenous
technologies for uranium enrichment and used fuel reprocessing.
Argentina created the National Commission for Atomic Energy (CNEA) in
1950 to coordinate its diverse nuclear activities, including the mining
and processing of uranium. CNEA owns minority stakes in companies that
produce heavy water, refine and enrich uranium and manufacture reactor
fuel elements, Zircaloy cladding and fuel assemblies. Uranium
exploration and mining are now primarily private sector activities, but
CNEA does retain responsibility for nuclear R&D and the
environmental restoration of former nuclear sites. In 1994 the
government set up Nucleoeléctrica Argentina S.A. (NASA) to take over
ownership and operation of the country's power reactors from CNEA and to
oversee expansion of the reactor fleet. A 1996 law allowed the
privatization of NASA, but this has yet to occur. Both CNEA and NASA
report to the Secretary of Energy within the Ministry of Planning,
Investment and Services. An autonomous Nuclear Regulatory Authority
(ARN) regulates all nuclear industry activities including radiation
protection and nuclear safety, physical protection and safeguards.
Argentina's nuclear power program is centered on heavy water reactors
fuelled by natural uranium. Two nuclear power plants are in operation:
Atucha I, a 360 megawatt (MWe) net pressure heavy water reactor (PHWR)
which has operated since 1974, and Embalse, a 650 MWe CANDU reactor that
was connected to the national grid in 1983. Their combined output now
satisfies approximately 10% of the national electricity demand.
Argentina pioneered the use of slightly enriched (0.85% 235U) uranium
fuel rather than natural uranium (0.71% 235U) in its heavy water
reactors, a change that doubled fuel burn-up and reduced operating costs
Uranium Exploration and Production in Argentina
Forty years of CNEA-sponsored uranium exploration that included limited
airborne geophysical and radiometric surveys led to the discovery of
several uranium districts, such as Sierra Pintada (Mendoza), Don Otto
(Salta) and Cerro Solo and Cerro Condor (Chubut). CNEA produced uranium
from several deposits through conventional underground or open-pit
techniques. The collapse of worldwide U3O8 prices in the 1980s and
Argentina's multiple financial crises led to the abandonment of uranium
exploration and mining by CNEA in the late 1990s.
CNEA conducted exploration at both a regional and local scale through
the early 1990s with the support of IAEA Technical Cooperation projects,
but a majority of the country remains under-explored (or unexplored)
and its true resource potential remains to be evaluated. No systematic
exploration was conducted in many promising areas, such as Rio Negro
Between the mid-1950s and 1999 the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) reports that Argentina's cumulative uranium production totalled
2,509 tU from seven open pit and heap leaching production centres.
Annual production averaged 30 tU through 1976, rising to approximately
140 tU annually during the 1976-1988 period (with a peak production of
187 tU in 1980). Argentina has had no uranium production since 1999.
Argentina uranium resources listed in the joint OECD Nuclear Energy
Agency-IAEA "Red Book" (Uranium Resources, Production and Demand 2005)
total only about 15,000 tU, although CNEA estimates that there are
55,000 tU contained in "exploration targets." Establishing the true
resource base must await completion of more detailed exploration by
private sector companies using modern technologies and current geologic
Exploration for new uranium deposits is currently focused on provinces
that had historic production (Mendoza, Chubut, Salta) as well as others
that have good geological potential (e.g. Rio Negro, Jujuy, Catamarca).
Mining of uranium by means of in-situ (or solution) leaching technology
has never been attempted in Argentina. In-situ recovery (ISR) has many
benefits over the conventional open pit or underground mining methods
previously used by CNEA, including minimal environmental impacts,
appreciably lower capital and operating costs and greater public and
stakeholder acceptance. Uranium occurrences in Patagonian provinces
appear to have the ideal geological and hydrologic properties that would
permit exploitation with the ISR technique.
In the absence of any domestic uranium production, Argentina fuels its
two heavy water reactors with uranium imported primarily from Europe and
Canada. Approximately 125 tU are required annually, an amount that
will likely increase to 215 tU in 2010 following commissioning of the
Atucha II reactor (assuming reactor load factors of 90%, burn-ups of 8
GMD/tU and natural uranium fuel).
Future Plans for the Argentine Nuclear Industry
Argentina has one of the largest and most important Latin American
economies with a gross domestic product (GDP) that has risen by 8-9%
annually since 2003. This high level of economic growth has led to a
corresponding increase in the demand for electricity, a majority of
which (approximately 55%) is now generated in natural gas-fired thermal
plants. The balance of the country's electricity originates from
hydropower (35%) and nuclear (10%). An energy crisis in 2004 led to
imposition of economic controls that kept energy prices low, caused
energy demand to outstrip supply, and threatened to stifle the country's
nascent economic recovery. Capital investment in new generating
capacity dried up. The return of political stability and robust
economic growth has caused electricity demand to increase by
approximately 3% annually since 2005. Argentina's electricity
production is now largely privatized and has an installed generation
capacity of approximately 35 GWe. Private and state-owned companies
produce electricity in a competitive, mostly-liberalized market with
about 11% of the country's generation originating from autoproducers and
private generators. Nuclear power generation opened to private
investment, but memories of the country's 2002 default on its $155
billion sovereign debt and the large capital investment needed for new
reactor construction ($4-6 billion per nuclear station), have not yet
attracted foreign investment, thereby leaving operation of the existing
and planned reactors with NASA.
Argentina is a signatory to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and established voluntary
emissions targets ('Federal Emissions Goals') related to GDP and
macroeconomic scenarios. The federal government recently promulgated
national energy policies that encourage greater use of hydropower and
nuclear energy to achieve these targets and to mitigate problems of
urban and industrial air pollution.
Argentina has made nuclear energy a priority to meet its energy needs
and to sustain economic growth. In an August 2006 policy statement it
announced an 8-year, $3.5 billion strategic plan for the country's
nuclear power sector that included the following components: complete
construction of the 80% built, 745 MWe Atocha II power reactor,
reactivate the 200t/y Arroyito heavy water production plant, extend the
operating life of the Embalse reactor for an additional 25 years, and
initiate feasibility studies to start construction in 2010 of one, and
possibly two, 740 MWe CNADU-6 reactor(s) at Embalse. After a twenty
year hiatus Argentina proposes to resume uranium enrichment at its
Pilcaniyeu complex in Neuquén Province using its indigenous SIGMA
advanced diffusion enrichment technology. The government will also
support commercialization of the CAREM, a small, Argentine-design
modular, 25-100 MWe light water reactor which is designed for operation
in remote areas or small cities. By doing so Argentina will remain a
country that is recognized as having the right to enrich uranium along
with other leading nuclear powers including, for example, Brazil, USA,
Russia, France and the UK .
The federal government, through CNEA, has recently signed an agreement
with the Salta Province government to study re-opening of the Don Otto
mine which was shut down in the 1990s due to depressed uranium prices.
It also supports reopening the Sierra Pintada mine and exploration in
Catamarca province to make the country self-sufficient in uranium.
Resumption of national uranium production is a government priority and
consistent with its policy to encourage growth of nuclear power
generation. Domestic production is also desirable to ensure the
country's energy security and independence, particularly in light of its
limited fossil fuel resources.
Investment Climate and Legal Framework for Prospecting and Exploration
The Argentine government's aggressive strategy to open mineral
exploration and development to private investment in 1992 prompted a
tremendous expansion in the sector. A new and highly competitive fiscal
and legal framework for mining investment was the key to this
transition. The cornerstones of the new framework are: the Mining
Investment Law (1993), which offers investment schemes and guarantees
fiscal stability of the tax burden, the Federal Mining Covenant (1993),
which defines consensus policies between federal and provincial
authorities, and revisions to the 1887 Mining Code which now
incorporates provisions of the Law of Environmental Protection for
Mining (1995). The 1877 Mining Code acts as a management framework for
the coordination of national and provincial powers in issues such as
mineral tenure, environmental regulation and uniformity of application
of mining regulations. Procedural rules are, however, entrusted to
provincial authorities, all of which have uniformly adopted the
concession system to grant mineral rights to the private sector.
The 1877 Mining Code is the principal federal regulation that governs
mining activities and contains regulations for the general extent of
concession, technical requirements, concessionaire obligations and
concession limitations. Modernization of the country's mining legal and
investment regulations and policies allowed Argentina to incorporate
many characteristics of other successful mining legal regimes. These
include regulations on the security and transferability of title,
modernization of mining cadaster, concession access, transparency and
accountability in the licensing of mineral concessions, and
specification of mining right obligations. Exploration concessions --
provided that certain requirements are met -- are now perpetual.
Filings for prospecting and exploration rights are now simple and
inexpensive and limitations on prospecting and exploration of uranium
and minimum investment requirements have been removed.
Argentina's environmental legal framework does require some
strengthening to include specific goals and measures and technical
guidance to protect the environment in the various phases of mining
(exploration, production, decommissioning). Other issues that should be
addressed include financial assurance, closure planning, public
participation, and measures and actions to minimize adverse
Consistent with its decision to transfer all nuclear activities to the
private sector, the government recently announced national treatment of
uranium mining and policies to encourage investment of foreign and
domestic capital into such activities. However, each Argentine province
has its unique concession regulations and mining procedural laws that
require understanding and interpretation. Concession authorities are
placed under different jurisdictions on each province, thereby making
concession proceedings and environmental approvals dependent upon
provincial jurisdictional authorities.
Uranium mining and nuclear power generation are open to full private
ownership. There are no restrictions on the participation of local
and/or foreign private companies in uranium exploration or production or
in the export and sale of mineral output at world market prices.
Uranium had been classified as a strategic mineral, but the 1990s
revisions to the mining code downgraded its status to a common mineral.
The Argentine senate is now considering legislation that would
re-categorize uranium as "strategic" and prevent its export "...so long
as the amount that the country needs for operations is not being met..."
and require all sales to be made to CNEA at market prices. The
likelihood of this legislation becoming law is unknown.
Argentina has replaced its history of institutional instability with
full-fledged free enterprise, programs of economic reform and an
unparalleled privatization program, especially in mining and electrical
power generation. It liberalized its economy to encourage domestic
growth and to attract foreign investment, particularly in the energy
field. Its foreign investment policies are very progressive and
pro-business and authorize, for example, the equal treatment of foreign
and local investors and repatriation of capital and profits without
government pre-approval. Argentina has entered into Bilateral
Investment Treaties (BITs) with all of its trade and investment partners
to protect against capital movement restrictions and expropriations and
to resolve investment disputes.
According to the World Bank's latest "Doing Business" survey, Argentina
in 2007 ranked 109 out of 178 nations surveyed in "ease of doing
business." This survey, which considers issues such as starting a
business, employing workers, dealing with licenses, registering
property, getting credit and protecting investors, attributes this low
showing to a punitive tax system, delays in legal reforms and a lack of
reforms in the insolvency process.
Worldwide Uranium Market
The world's 443 operating nuclear reactors generate 370 GWe of
electricity annually which corresponds to 16% of worldwide electricity
production. A new 2007 report from the IAEA, entitled Energy,
Electricity and Nuclear Power for the Period up to 2030, forecasts an
approximately 2.5%/yr increase in nuclear generation to 447-679 GWe by
2030. This increase is fuelled primarily by burgeoning demand from
emerging Asian economies as well as concerns about security of energy
supply and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The IAEA notes
that 16 of the 31 new reactors under construction at the end of 2006
were mostly in China and Asia. China, which currently derives less than
3% of its energy from nuclear, forecasts a five-fold increase in
nuclear generation by 2020 and India plans an eight-fold increase by
Uranium requirements for the world's nuclear reactors in 2006 are
estimated by the World Nuclear Association (WNA) to be 64,200 tU. This
demand is forecast to rise to 64,700 tU in 2010, to 81,000 tU in 2020
and finally to 109,100 tU in 2030 based on assumptions of new reactor
builds, fuel management (tails assays) strategies and anticipated mine
production capabilities. World primary uranium production, however, has
averaged only 40,000 tU annually over the last few years and filled
only 62% of reactor requirements in 2006. The gap between uranium
demand and primary uranium supply (24,200 tU for 2006) has been met by
uranium from secondary supplies, including the downblending of
ex-military supplies of Russian and USA Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU),
reprocessing of used nuclear fuel, re-enrichment of depleted uranium
tails, and liquidation of utility and US Department of Energy surplus
inventories. Secondary supplies of uranium will diminish over time and
are forecast to play a decreasing role in fulfilling reactor fuel
Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan are the major producers of primary
uranium and accounted for about 60% of the world's primary uranium in
2006. Production primarily came from underground (41%) and open pit
(24%) mines, with lesser amounts from by-product operations (e.g. from
phosphate, gold, base metal mines)(9%) and ISR (26%). The Red Book
reports Identified Resources that can be recovered at a cost less than
US$130/kg (or approximately US$50/lb U3O8) total 4.74 million tU, or
approximately 75-80 years' production at current rates of consumption.
Thus, there are very adequate known supplies of uranium to support the
plans for new reactor construction and operation. However, development
of these Identified Resources will be dependent on regulatory and
environmental considerations, financing, amenability to economic mining
methods and political factors.
Consideration of primary uranium production from new and existing mines,
as well as available secondary supply sources, indicates that there
should be adequate supplies of uranium to meet the fuel demands from the
world's expanding fleet of reactors. Commissioning of new mines is a
time-consuming process subject to regulatory delays, stakeholder
challenges, fiscal policies in the host countries and market conditions.
The thirteen-fold increase in world uranium price from 2003 through
mid-2007 has prompted a flurry of new exploration activity throughout
the world both by juniors and major players. The production from these
new sources will be needed to meet the uranium fuel demands of the
world's expanding nuclear fleet staring in the 2015-2020 period.
Written by Dr. Clifton Farrell