Digging up the dirt on uranium

Environment and security concerns remain a major issue despite assurances of sufficient supply of uranium for existing and future reactors.

The plan of Areva to develop one of the world's largest uranium mines in Niger was clouded after a coup last week in the African country. Above, Areva's open pit uranium mine in Arlit, Niger.
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A decades-old debate over supplies of fuel for atomic power has been reignited by promises of a global "nuclear renaissance", and is raging as heatedly as ever.

The world is running out of uranium and nobody seems to have noticed, contends the Swiss physicist Dr Michael Dittmar, a researcher at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. "Without access to the military stocks, the civilian western uranium stocks will be exhausted by 2013," he predicts. "It's not clear how the shortfall can be made up, since nobody seems to know where the mining industry can look for more. That means countries that rely on uranium imports, such as Japan and many western countries, will face uranium shortages."

The prevailing view within the nuclear industry is that uranium is plentiful, but Dr Dittmar says this is a dangerous misconception. He forecasts a bleak future for states such as the UAE. "Far from being the secure source of energy that many governments are basing their future energy needs on, nuclear power looks decidedly rickety," Dr Dittmar says. Other experts disagree. The UAE may already have ordered a 25-year supply of fuel for its planned reactors, suggests Dr Robert Hawley, a former chief executive of British Energy, the UK's biggest electricity generator, and Nuclear Electric, the British nuclear power plant operator.

"There is plenty of uranium in the world, and a lot of resources are being discovered, in Africa and elsewhere," he said during a recent visit to Dubai. Currently, Dr Hawley is the non-executive chairman of Berkeley Resources, an Australian firm assessing the feasibility of developing a new uranium mine in Spain. "We are finding fresh ore deposits," he said. The World Nuclear Association, among others, estimates that global proved uranium reserves are sufficient to supply fuel for existing and future nuclear reactors for the next 80 years.

Reserves estimates will increase if uranium prices remain high enough to support exploration, which is at an immature stage worldwide, the association argues. Between 1975 and 2007, the world's known geological uranium resources roughly tripled to 7.8 million tonnes from 2.6 million tonnes, as exploration spending rose. "Increased exploration expenditure in the future is likely to result in a corresponding increase in known resources," the association predicts.

Nevertheless, access to high-quality uranium deposits could be constrained. Last Thursday's coup in Niger, for instance, clouds the plans of the French nuclear group Areva to develop one of the world's largest uranium mines there. The planet's richest known uranium deposits, containing up to 20 per cent uranium, are in western Canada, which has no such political problems. The country's biggest uranium mine, however, has been closed since a catastrophic flood four years ago and is likely to remain so for at least another year.

Meanwhile, environmental protests are dogging new uranium mining projects in Australia, which has the world's biggest known reserves of the radioactive ore. That allowed Kazakhstan to overtake Australia last December as the top global uranium producer. Most of Kazakh ore, however, contains less than 0.1 per cent uranium. If a bottleneck develops for mined uranium, other sources could potentially fill the gap.

Recently the most important source has been the recycling of nuclear material from decommissioned atomic warheads under a series of agreements between Washington and Moscow. By some estimates, 10 per cent of the US electricity supply is fuelled by material from old nuclear weapons, including US and Russian warheads. According to the World Nuclear Association, military material supplies 50 per cent of US reactor fuel, or 13 per cent of worldwide nuclear fuel requirements.

"The United States is dependent on Russia for a significant portion of its nuclear energy. I don't think a lot of Americans know that," says Robert Ebel, a nuclear analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. Unfortunately, the latest "megatons to megawatts" programme expires in 2013. That poses immediate problems for utilities, because nuclear plants buy fuel three to five years in advance. Diplomatic sources have confirmed that negotiations are under way for a successor agreement, but the talks are at an early stage.

Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods to extract more of their energy potential is another option but is expensive and intensely controversial. A handful of countries, notably France, already do this, but the US has eschewed reprocessing since the 1970s over concerns that it could encourage nuclear arms proliferation. The main worry is that plutonium is among the radioactive decay products in spent fuel rods and could be extracted to build bombs. Plutonium is also a component of "mixed oxide" fuel for so-called breeder reactors, which continuously recycle fuel and are many times more efficient than commercial nuclear reactors that use a once-through fuel system.

The French nuclear fuel reprocessing facility at La Hague, however, is guarded by anti-aircraft missiles due to security concerns - a measure that significantly increases the cost of reprocessed fuel, making it uncompetitive with fuel made from mined uranium. Concerns about arms proliferation were heightened last year after North Korea said it was reprocessing uranium. The Stalinist state, which is believed to have tested a nuclear bomb last spring, has withdrawn from the UN Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and does not have a civilian nuclear power programme.

Nevertheless, Washington may be rethinking its stance on reprocessing. Recently, an argument has erupted over whether the underground nuclear storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, should be converted into a fuel reprocessing facility, after the US Congress quashed plans to develop it into a federal nuclear waste repository. As with the discussion of the repository plan, the Nevada reprocessing debate hinges on whether the local business and employment opportunities that would flow from such a programme would outweigh the risks to public safety and security from transporting radioactive material to the state from across the US.

Another concern is whether reprocessing would reduce nuclear waste by as much as 25 per cent, or increase it by contaminating inert material with plutonium. So far, the experts are divided, but Dr Hawley, for one, thinks such concerns are misplaced. "The thing everyone is concerned about is high-level [radioactive] waste," he says. Yet in the UK, a major nuclear power producer, the total amount of such accumulated waste would fill a single concert hall, or 15 double-decker buses.

"At this point, it's perfectly safe to store it above ground, and eventually the fuel rods could be reprocessed," Dr Hawley says. If all else fails, and supplies of mined uranium become scarcer and more expensive, additional natural sources of the metal could become economic to exploit. Jordan is studying the feasibility of extracting uranium from the vast phosphate deposits in its deserts. Morocco pursued that business earlier, but later dropped it as world uranium prices fell in the 1980s and 1990s.

Eventually, uranium could be extracted from sea water, potentially extending nuclear fuel supplies for centuries. Reactors are also being developed to run on thorium, a radioactive metal more common in the Earth's crust than uranium. tcarlisle@thenational.ae