Monday, February 08, 2010

The Uranium Rush.

Last year Kazakhstan became the world's largest supplier of uranium, overtaking Australia and Canada, at 14,000 tonnes, or one fifth of world production. As supplies of oil are being sought in increasingly inhospitable regions of the globe to meet rising demand against finite supply, the hunt is on for uranium in the face of an emphasis to turn-away from fossil-fuel based power stations and toward nuclear. The statistic is often given that there is about 40 years worth of of uranium left, and this is the duration therefore of the provision of nuclear power.

In fact, there is much more uranium around than that, and the use of thorium and "waste" transuranics would see the industry continue well beyond the foreseeable future, including potential technology that actually destroys nuclear waste and turns it into useful energy. The EROEI of all the other energy sources that must be employed in the fabrication of nuclear fuel rods/pellets and the power plants themselves must be considered too in the necessary book-keeping exercise of viability. Ultimately, it is hoped, much of the energy for these tasks might be supplied in the form of nuclear electricity.

In Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, are plans to begin mining uranium, which is there in quantity. Niger too, is to receive 1 billion Euros worth of investment to open a uranium mine. The price of uranium is a strong driving force which rose from $10 a pound during the decades where "nuclear" was perceived as anathema, to $137 a pound two years ago. Given the current spot-price of unenriched uranium is $42 a pound, a majority of mining projects are now seen as viable.

Presently, America and Russia meet a fifth of world uranium demand in the form of decommissioned nuclear weapons, taken from the stockpile amassed during the nuclear arms race of the cold war. Without them, it is likely that the demand simply can't be met. Africa is also an easier place to operate in, as the regulations are rather less rigorously enforced. For example, radioactive shovels were found in sale in the local market in Arlit, a company town adjacent to the Areva uranium mine, in Niger. Indeed, Niger is the sixth largest uranium producer in the world and may well increase its ranking. Areva has implemented a plan to stop radioactive waste rock and scrap metal from getting into the local community, but the problem is clear.

Namibia and Malawi are also in the sights of new investors, and the situation has been aptly summarised: "Getting a mine going in Texas takes two bookshelves full of authorisations. In Africa you give a shovel to a guy on $2 a day and you've mining uranium."

Related Reading.
"The great uranium stampede," By Danny Fortson.


Anonymous said...

Arlit was a radioactive place long before humanity had any idea about radioactivity.

energybalance said...

Sure, there's a lot of uranium there. Long before we knew what an atom was!