A worldwide emphasis on nuclear power, which indicates the inauguration of 250 new nuclear power plants, to add to the 440 currently operating, has caused a hike in the price of uranium by almost a quarter in the past three months, and a new analysis predicts it will rise by a further three quarters (a doubling overall) over the next two years. To provide the uranium fuel, a host of new relatively small mining and production companies has emerged on the market, and whose share values have rocketed. Britain has murmured in the positive about a new generation of nuclear power stations, in particular as the current family are due for retirement and decommissioning by around 2022, but no firm programme has been described, or even the type of reactors that will be used. It is my understanding that they will be fission reactors based on enrichment of natural uranium in uranium-235, rather than fast breeders, which convert the majority of uranium (uranium-238) to plutonium-239 as a fuel. As I have pointed out in recent postings, this is actually a very wasteful use of uranium, since it "throws away" 99% of the resource (which becomes "depleted uranium"), but there are serious safety issues attending fast-breeders reactors based on uranium/plutonium, and breeding uranium-233 from thorium might be the better way to go.
While uranium remains relatively abundant as a resource, there is less fiscal incentive to adopt an entirely new technology based on thorium, although India with its huge reserves of thorium, is taking serious steps to use this as the fuel for its own nuclear programme. Depending on precise figures, there may be around 70 years worth of uranium resource in current holdings, including the known deposits in Canada, Kazakhstan and Australia, and those in armouries of nuclear warheads, containing heavily enriched uranium (that's 90% uranium-235, not the mere 3.5% contained in nuclear fuel) and weapons grade plutonium (that's pure plutonium-239, free from other isotopes, otherwise a smaller bang is got from a nuclear detonation!). Uranium is ubiquitous at around 2 -3 parts per million of the Earth's crust and soils, particularly those associated with phosphate minerals, can contain from 50 - 1000 ppm (0.1%) of uranium, hence as the price rises, more will be found. The difference between a reserve and a resource, is that the resource is that portion of the reserve which is economically extractable at any given time of writing. As the cost of a commodity increases, then so does the amount of its resource, bearing in mind that other resources, e.g. oil and gas, are used-up in extracting uranium and other fuels, nuclear or not.
The uranium price is forecast to reach $90 per pound by the middle of 2007, and $115 per pound by the end of 2008, according to a report produced by Resource Capital Research. In 2003, the market value of uranium was just $11 per pound. The delay in production at the Cigar Lake mine in Canada means that it is not expected to come on-stream until 2010, which was supposed to account for 40% of all new output within the next three years. A group of 65 new Australian mining firms have seen their shares leap by 53% over the last three months, amounting to a total increase in value of 186% over the past 12 months. Very nice too - I wish I had bought into some of them!
Mining uranium has environmental consequences, beyond those of the nuclear power it is intended to fuel. Friends of the Earth is campaigning against new schemes such as Olympic Dam (also known as Roxby Downs), which by 2013 could become the world's largest producing uranium mine. Mining uranium in Australia is further sensitive because many of the uranium deposits are located on land inhabited by aboriginal groups, and efforts to install a new uranium mine at Jabiluka in the Northern Territories were halted in the light of opposition from environmental and aboriginal groups.