Monday, July 16, 2007

Massive Hike in Uranium Prices.

"Yellowcake", an impure form of uranium oxide (U3O8) which is processed into nuclear fuel, is now trading at a record spot market price of $138 a pound, up from $120 a pound in May. Since the equivalent price was just $7 a pound in 2001, the implications for the costs of expanding nuclear power are obvious. The huge price hike in uranium has attracted at least two dozen mining companies to the uranium mines in the high-desert of New Mexico during the past couple of years, who are reviving old claims, "searching filing cabinets for forgotten geological maps and hiring old timers who know the land," according to John Indall, a Santa Fe lawyer for the Uranium Producers of America.

It is the opinion of William von Till, chief of the Uranium Recovery Branch at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) based in Washington, that the huge price increases in yellowcake are driven by a sanguine view among the energy markets that nuclear power is on the edge of a renaissance and that perhaps 28 new reactors will be commissioned over the next two years, with dozens more planned-for across the world during the next decade. The US is fortunate in having access to its own reserves of uranium, and presumably Canada will continue to supply uranium to the US from its own markets. As a world average, it is reckoned there is something like 40 - 50 years worth of uranium to keep current demand satisfied, but of course this window will narrow if more nuclear power is implemented, as seems likely. There is undoubtedly more uranium in the world to be got if poorer deposits are mined and processed, and I have pointed out before that other resources, e.g. oil and gas, which are employed to extract it, are likely to run-short before the uranium does. Hence the amount of recoverable uranium is not the decider over the long-term future of nuclear power, which is a highly contested issue, especially over the matter of the longer-term disposal of the consequential nuclear waste that will be produced.

Since the US has substantial supplies of uranium, this may place it in a strong position to ramp-up its share of nuclear power, both as a proposed antidote to global warming and to aid in securing its energy supplies, notably by avoiding an over-reliance on imported oil, especially from the Middle East. The US uses relatively more oil for heating buildings than is the case in European countries, whose dependency on oil is predominantly for refining it into fuel for transportation but also as a chemical feedstock for industry. Not that the US is a car-poor nation, and I recall that there is something like a 50:50 split between the proportion of the 22 million barrels used daily in America (one quarter of the world total output) to provide fuel and for other purposes such as space- heating in buildings and as a raw-material for industry.

Unless nuclear-power is used on a large-scale to make hydrogen (which I doubt will happen for many reasons alluded to in other postings here on "Energy Balance") as an "oil replacement", this does not assist directly with the fuel issue nor with the matter of how to run our oil-dependent industries in the Oil Dearth era, but at least it might help keep the lights on (and with far less CO2 emissions than from an equivalent generating capacity of coal- or gas-fired power stations), especially in the US if there is plenty of uranium to be got there. Actually the oft-cited figure of 40 - 50 years "world supply" of uranium is a bit ingenuous, since the reserve is not distributed equally across the world and when the chips are down I imagine that, as is the case with all resources (oil and gas and coal included), some people will be better off than others. In the UK, our indigenous energy resources are rather limited, other than coal, which we will probably need to start digging-up on a massive scale and soon.

New Mexico has by far the greatest reserve of uranium in the US (although there is plenty but more dispersed, elsewhere) and is thought to amount to 600 million pounds. Now this does sound like a huge resource, but let's plug some very rough numbers in to see what this means.

I shall assume that the amount of energy that can be obtained from one tonne of uranium-235 is equal to that from burning two million tonnes of coal (which is about right). If a 1 GW coal-fired plant uses 3.5 million tonnes of coal per year, then its uranium-fired equivalent would get through 3.5/2 = 1.75 tonnes of uranium-235 annually.

However, that it obtained by separating the U-235 (0.7%) from the bulk (99.3%) U-238, and so to get that amount of U-235 would require 1.75/0.007 = 250 tonnes of natural uranium. So that's 2205 lbs/tonne x 250 tonnes = 551,250 pounds per 1 GW reactor. So to run that putative generation of 28 new reactors would need 551,250 x 28 = 15.4 million pounds of uranium, and so (cancelling the millions) that could be done for 600/15.4 = 39 years from the New Mexico deposit.

So long as the existing 104 US reactors can still be fuelled from Canadian or other existing sources of uranium, the whole show could carry on for about 40 years or so, or longer if new sources of uranium are found. But, going back to my earlier point, well before 40 years have elapsed, worldwide conventional oil will have essentially gone, and there is already a depletion in US home-gas production (in the UK we passed ours in 2005), so how will the uranium be extracted? From beginning to end the procedure needs fuel and electricity. Surely, this means that processing even a healthy reserve of uranium as this appears to be will ultimately depend on e.g. imports of oil from Canadian or Venezuelan tar-sands, and of foreign gas too, unless all the electricity is made from coal. Indeed, coal could also provide the fuel from CTL (coal to liquids) processes, but this rather spoils the advantage of "CO2-free" nuclear, doesn't it? It might be necessary to "feed-back" some of that nuclear-electricity to extract and process the uranium into nuclear fuel, but other elements, trucks and diggers etc., would need another means for propulsion. Supplying water may be another issue too in arid, desert regions.

It is a complex balance sheet.

Related Reading.
(1) "Boom times for uranium mines," by William M. Welch, USA Today:

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