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Uranium Price Rise... Still No Need for New Mines

Uranium prices have doubled in the past year and half, rising more steeply than the price for oil or any other metal, including gold. The jump is in the spot market price for uranium oxide, which is also known as "yellowcake," the form of uranium produced at uranium mills and in situ mines. It went from $10/pound in July 2003, to more than $20/pound in October 2004, raising concerns among people in the Eastern Navajo Agency of northwestern New Mexico that long-proposed in situ uranium mines at Church Rock and Crownpoint could possibly become economically viable.

However, based on a review of world uranium market analyses available on the World Nuclear Association (WNA - formerly the Uranium Institute) website at: www.world-nuclear.org, the recent price rise does not appear to reflect either short-term or long-term shortages of uranium to provide fuel for nuclear power reactors. Instead, the price rise seems to reflect the increasing importance of the secondary, or pre-mined and processed market, as sources of uranium for use in the reactor fuel market. This market had previously been supplied almost exclusively by uranium from mines and mills.

As an indication of the adequacy of short and long-term uranium supplies as of 2004, WNA reports indicate that the world uranium supply will remain within 5% of world uranium demand for the next five years, and that demand from new nuclear power stations is not likely to grow significantly before 2010. For the long-term, extensive "recoverable" reserves of unmined uranium remain available. The amount of unmined uranium ore resources, identified as reserves mineable at a cost of $80/pound or less, are more than 50 times the current yearly uranium demand.

Comparison of the enormous amount of recoverable uranium resources identified to global demand leads the World Nuclear Association to state:

"The world's present measured resources of uranium in the lower cost category (3.5 million tonnes) and used only in conventional reactors, are enough to last for some 50 years. This represents a higher level of assured resources than is normal for most minerals."

Data from the 2004 World Nuclear Symposium and the U.S. Department of Energy support this discussion of the future availability of uranium.

Key Lake Uranium Mine, Saskatchewan, CanadaKnown recoverable uranium resources in unmined ore deposits by country as of 2004 are shown in Table 1. The data show that uranium ore deposits yet to be mined contain more than 3,500,000 tonnes ("tonnes," or "metric tons," weigh 1000 kilograms or 2200 pounds, 10% more than a 2000 pound "ton") of uranium. This amount is more than 50 times the 2004 projected uranium demand of almost 70,000 tonnes. Australia (989,000 tonnes), Canada (622,000 tonnes), and Kazakhstan (439,000 tonnes), are the three countries with the largest amount of identified uranium resources. The United States is eighth on the list with 102,000 tonnes of known recoverable uranium resources. For comparison, the Church Rock and Crownpoint uranium deposits hold about 20,000 tonnes of uranium.

Table 1: Known Recoverable Resources* of Uranium in 2003
  TONNES U PERCENTAGE
OF WORLD
Australia 989,000 28%
Kazakhstan 622,000 18%
Canada 439,000 12%
South Africa 298,000 8%
Namibia 213,000 6%
Brazil 143,000 4%
Russian
Federation
158,000 4%
USA 102,000 3%
Uzbekistan 93,000 3%
World total 3,537,000  
SOURCE: "Reasonably Assured Resources plus Estimated Additional Resources - category 1, to U.S. $80/kg U, 1/1/03," from OECD NEA & IAEA, Uranium 2003: Resources, Production and Demand.

This current uranium resource information contrasts sharply with that from 25 years ago when New Mexico was one of the major uranium producing regions in the world. In 1979, U.S. reserves of uranium at the $50/pound cost of recovery were 979,000 tonnes, and New Mexico uranium reserves were 511,500 tonnes, or 52% of that total. Most of those reserves, nine times the 102,000 tonnes currently identified for the U.S., are no longer considered "known recoverable reserves" because they would cost more than $80/pound to produce, the estimated cost of production used in Table 1.

World uranium demand and supply projections are presented in Table 2. That projection forecasts that in 2004, world uranium demand will reach 66,658 tonnes and world uranium supply will reach 66,374 tonnes, leaving a very small supply deficit of 284 tonnes, less that 1% of total world demand.

"SECONDARY" SOURCES OF URANIUM

A major change in the source of world uranium supply in the 21st century will be the extensive use of "secondary sources" of uranium to meet reactor fuel demand. Table 2 shows that in 2004, more than 45%, 30,332 tonnes of the 66,658 tonnes of uranium supplied to reactor operators, came from "secondary sources."

TABLE 2: World Uranium Demand and Supply
  2004 2005 2006 2007 2010 2015
Demand 66,658 68,400 69,600 70,800 74,800 79,400
HEU 10,700 10,600 10,700 11,100 12,400  
US DOE
Inventories
385 1192 1192 1192 2154 2346
Commercial
Inventories
7876 7000 7000      
Russian
Inventories
2900 3500 3800 3900   0
MOX 2500 2500 2600 2800 3000 3600
Uranium
from other
reprocessing
sources
1500 1500 1700 1700 2000 2000
Russian
UET
4250 3650 3300 3000 1500  
Production 36,263 36,575 36,094 42,286 48,014 50,321
Total
supply
66,374 66,517 66,386 65,978 69,068 58,267
Uranium
Shortage
-284 -1883 -3214 -4822 -5732 -21,133
SOURCE: WMA 2004 Symposium at: www.world-nuclear.org/sym/subindex.htm

"Secondary sources" are recycled uranium or previously mined uranium and currently include:

  • blended-down highly enriched uranium (HEU) or "weapons grade uranium;"
  • existing uranium inventories held by corporations or the U.S. and Russian governments;
  • commercial inventories held by reactor owners - stockpiles of previously purchased uranium;
  • mixed (plutonium-uranium) oxide fuels;
  • other sources of reprocessed uranium and
  • uranium enrichment tailings (UET) from Russia.

While extensive supplies of "secondary source" uranium are held by the U.S., Russia and other countries, secondary source uranium has yet to included in WNA projections of future uranium supply. These projections show continued growth in uranium mine production from "primary sources" in the next ten years, with an apparent steep drop off in uranium supplied from "secondary sources" in the near future. For 2010, uranium supply is projected to rise 4% to 69,048 tonnes and uranium demand to rise 11% to 74,800 tonnes, leaving an apparent uranium supply shortage of 5732 tonnes - about 8% of supply projected for 2010. For 2015, uranium demand is projected to rise to 79,400 tonnes and uranium supply is projected to fall to 58,267 tonnes, resulting in projected shortfall of 21,133 tonnes or almost 27%. That projected shortfall is very, very small (less than one percent) when compared to the 3,500,000 tonnes of "known recoverable reserves" shown in Table 1.

The drop in "secondary sources" projected in Table 2 reflects a lack of committed secondary resources, not necessarily a lack of available secondary resources. Currently, a small secondary source is "uranium enrichment tailings" from Russia. Table 3 shows that U.S. UET, as reported by the Department of Energy, contains more than 470,000 tonnes of uranium. Compared to the information in Table 1, this resource is more than 13 times world uranium mine production in 2004 of 36,263 tonnes, and more than seven years of total world uranium demand in 2004 of 66,658 tonnes. U.S. UET contain more than 20 times the amount of uranium in the yet-to-be mined Church Rock and Crownpoint deposits. However, U.S. government policy is to handle UET as wastes, not a uranium resource, and to build multi-billion-dollar conversion plants to remove the depleted uranium and to dispose of that waste through shallow land burial at low-level nuclear waste disposal sites.

TABLE 3: Depleted UF6 Inventory and Storage Locations
LOCATION TOTAL
CYLINDERS
TOTAL DEPLETED UF6
(METRIC TONS)
Paducah, Kentucky 36,191 436,400
Portsmouth, Ohio 16,109 195,800
Oak Ridge, Tennessee 4,822 54,300
Total 57,122 686,500

NOTE: U.S. DOE's inventory of depleted UF6 consists of approximately 700,000 metric tons of depleted UF6, containing about 470,000 metric tons of uranium, currently stored at the Paducah Site in Kentucky, the Portsmouth Site in Ohio, and the East Tennessee Technology Park (ETTP) in Tennessee (formerly known as the K-25 Site). This inventory of depleted UF6 is stored in about 57,000 steel cylinders. The inventory is listed on Table 2.

SOURCE: http://web.ead.anl.gov/uranium/mgmtuses/storage/index.cfm

UET also exists in Russia and other countries with enrichment facilities. As of 2003, Russian UET resources total 500,000 tonnes, containing about 311,000 tonnes of uranium (assuming that one tonne of UET equals 0.62 tonnes of uranium as is the case for the U.S.).

Other "secondary sources" of uranium include uranium previously processed to make nuclear weapons cores or reactor fuel, but never consumed. "Highly enriched uranium" (HEU) is made for use in nuclear weapons and is created when the content of uranium-235 (U-235), the isotope of uranium that is fissionable and therefore necessary to make nuclear weapons and nuclear reactor fuel, is enriched. "Enrichment" describes the process of increasing the concentration of U-235 from 0.7% found in natural uranium. For nuclear weapons, the enrichment is to a concentration of 90% or more. Reactor-grade uranium is only enriched up to three to five percent U-235, and is sometimes referred to as "low-enriched uranium."

Uranium is fed into enrichment plants after conversion from a solid form of uranium oxide to a gaseous uranium compound, uranium hexafloride. Enrichment does not remove all the U-235 from the uranium feed. UET is the by-product of the enrichment of U-235. UET usually retains a U-235 content of 0.2-0.3%, or about 30-40%, of the 0.7% U-235 in natural uranium. If uranium is enriched to produce reactor fuel in a manner that leaves 0.2% U-235 in the UET, approximately 7 tonnes of UET are produced for each tonne of reactor grade uranium (at 3.5% U-235).

Paducah, Kentucky - Uranium Enrichment PlantUET is a form of "depleted uranium." Uranium enrichment tailings in the U.S. are produced as gaseous uranium hexafloride and stored in cylindrical tanks next to the enrichment process buildings. Historically, U.S. uranium enrichment policy has kept the U-235 content of UET relatively high, in the 0.3-0.35% range rather than 0.2-0.25%. As a result, more uranium from mines and mills was needed than would be the case with more U-235 extraction and lower U-235 content of UET.

Highly enriched uranium has been a major source of "secondary" uranium for the past decade. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Russia have been engaged in a nuclear non-proliferation effort designed to reduce the world's supply of HEU by diluting, or "blending down," the weapons grade material into reactor grade material, sometimes called "turning megatons into megawatts." HEU can be blended with other forms of uranium in a series of complex technologies that result in dilution of the concentration of U-235 from the 90% range in HEU down to the three to five percent used in reactor fuel.

The use of "diluted" HEU for reactor fuels during the past decade is reflected in Table 2. The reduction in blended down uranium reflects a projected end of current U.S.-Russian HEU blending agreements, but not the end of HEU supplies. The U.S. and Russia, as well as other nations that have nuclear weapons, continue to retain extensive HEU stockpiles. World HEU stocks at the end of 2003 are reported as 1900 tonnes, of which civil resources total 175 tonnes and military resources total 1,725 tonnes. Of the total military uranium, 300 tons of HEU in Russia are "declared excess" - available for blending down to reactor grade.

How much yellowcake is involved in the production of reactor grade or highly enriched uranium?
  • Enrichment to produce one tonne of reactor grade uranium, at 3.5% U-235, requires approximately ten tonnes of "yellowcake," at 0.7% U-235, and produces about ten tonnes of UET, at 0.3% U-235, as a by-product.
  • Enrichment to produce one tonne of HEU at 90% U-235 requires approximately 360 tonnes of yellowcake and produces about 360 tonnes of UET at 0.3% U-235.

Assuming one tonne of HEU contains the U-235 content of 360 tonnes of "yellowcake," 300 tonnes of HEU contain the U-235 content of 108,000 tonnes of "yellowcake." The "recycling" of the Russian "excess" HEU is the source of 10,000 - 12,000 tonnes of future uranium supply from HEU forecast in Table 2.

The use of uranium enrichment tailings for reactor fuel through the "re-enrichment" of UET is not yet a significant world source of uranium for reactor fuel, except in the Russian Federation. Russia has used "re-enriched" UET for the past five or so years to meet the reactor fuel demand of the domestic Russian nuclear industry. This need arose following the break-up of the Soviet Union for two main reasons. First, Russia was unable to increase its domestic uranium production to meet its domestic reactor needs as Russia has been unable to increase production from either its primary uranium ore deposits at Krasnokamensk in the Chita Region (see www.sric.org/mining/docs/Chitafin.php), or new deposits. Second, Russia lost access to uranium from Eastern Europe, particularly East Germany which closed its uranium mines following German unification, and Central Asia (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), previously controlled by the Soviet Union.

While other sources of "secondary uranium" are also potentially significant sources of uranium supply, this brief discussion shows that UET in Russia and HEU could be major sources of uranium supply for decades to come. Russian UET resources with 311,000 tonnes of uranium, as well as the remaining Russia "excess" HEU with 108,000 tonnes of uranium, could continue to offset demand for primary uranium from unmined ore deposits, and could reduce the likelihood that new mines such as those proposed near Church Rock and Crownpoint in New Mexico would be mined in the future.

Thus, if they were opened, the new mines in New Mexico would reflect not a "need" for that uranium, but a deliberate policy of not using the large amounts of uranium available from secondary sources to supply the U.S. and world uranium market.

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". . . [I]t should be noted that the SEP [Springstead Estates Project] is, at best, in a conceptual stage and that it is totally speculative as to which, if any, aquifer would supply the SEP with water should the housing development ever be built."

— NRC Judge Thomas Moore
October 22, 2004

"Apparently the Government in Washington doesn't care about the health, safety and well-being of the 4,000 people who will be living in the Springstead community within five to ten years. This ruling is another example of how the NRC consistently ignores our communities' concerns about new uranium mining and why the Navajo Nation must step into this fight to protect our people."

— Johnny Livingston, President
Church Rock Chapter



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