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This OPEC Strategy Could Boost Uranium Prices Next Year

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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Confidence in Nuclear Power is on the Rise Again

The Nuclear Energy Institute announced a September telephone survey in a press release suggesting almost two thirds of U.S. adults favor the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity in the United States.

This latest survey found that Americans strongly favoring nuclear energy outnumber those strongly opposed by a two-to-one ratio, 29% versus 14%.  The new numbers improve on a poll conducted in September 2011, six months after the Fukushima accident, when 62% of American favored nuclear energy, with 35% opposed.

Nuclear Power Plant Cooling Towers
Cooling Towers of a Nuclear Power Plant.

The new survey shows confidence is improving.  Just over three quarters of respondents agree that nuclear energy facilities operating in the United States are ‘safe and secure,’ while only 19% think they are not. Eighty percent of Americans opposed to 16% believe “we should learn the lessons from the Japanese accident and continue to develop advanced nuclear energy plants to meet America’s growing electricity demand.”

In a shock to the political system and the anti nuclear crowd a large majority (81%) of those surveyed favor the renewal of operating licenses of facilities that continue to meet federal safety standards, while 74% believe electric utilities should prepare now so they will be ready to build new nuclear power plants in the next decade if needed.

The U.S. is not alone.  New nuclear plants are coming in Asia and even in Europe.  Nuclear generating capacity is projected to grow 38% in the next eight years.  These kinds of numbers wake up the uranium commodities speculators – even while the market is in the doldrums.

Lately the sellers have been uranium producers and traders that own some supply.  The buyers are almost entirely utilities and other traders.  Some folks think owning some uranium is a good idea, a kind of way to hold the value of one’s money together. Uranium is now down to well under $50 per pound (453.6 grams).

Meanwhile the brokers are encouraging buying.  Morgan Stanley is looking for uranium to get to nearly $70.  It might take 5 or more years.

Against that is the technological march.

Uranium Equities’ (UEQ’s) PhosEnergy demonstration plant uses a refined ion exchange process to recover uranium from phosphate streams from the production of phosphate-based fertilizers.

The UEQ demonstration plant is contained inside two shipping containers allowing for easy mobilization and transport.  One shipped from Australia to the U.S. where it was commissioned in May. Four ten-day tests were completed between June and August using phosphate streams from two different fertilizer facilities.

Inside the PhosEnergy Unit
Inside the PhosEnergy Unit.

The PhosEnergy demo achieved consistently high uranium recovery of over 90%, with the chemistry of the phosphate stream unaffected except for the removal of uranium.  UEQ describes as the results as “exceptional.” The concentrated product from the operations was shipped to a uranium production facility and can be used to make a “saleable product”.

The PhosEnergy operating costs are currently estimated to be $25-30 per pound of U3O8, with capital costs of $100 per pound of annualized nameplate capacity.  Even at todays under $50 price this is quite attractive for what is now a production problem.

UEQ’s managing director Bryn Jones described the completion of the plant’s first operating phase as a major milestone in the commercialization of the process, to be followed by an engineering study expected to begin in the final quarter of 2012.

In a brief look back, the phosphate industry has had a uranium component that was a major source of uranium production in the 1980s, but the solvent extraction process used back then had become uneconomic by the 1990s and production ceased.

That means uranium from phosphates now represents a large stranded resource waiting to be developed.  How large is a good question.

Meanwhile the uranium extraction from seawater is making strides. Seawater contains an estimated 4.5 billion metric tons of uranium, diluted down to a minuscule 3.3 parts per billion. The idea of extracting uranium from seawater is an idea decades old, but the materials and processes to do so may finally be economically viable.

Uranium Gathering Plastic
Uranium Gathering Plastic Preparation.

Here the technology is plastic that’s irradiated, and then chemicals with an affinity for uranium are grafted onto it. The material is woven into 60-meter-long braids, and these are anchored in seawater at least 100 meters deep. The braids are chained to the ocean floor and allowed to float passively in the water, like an artificial kelp forest. After about 60 days, the boat returns and pulls in the adsorbent materials – now sporting a healthy yellow tint from the uranium. The plastic is then brought back to shore, and the uranium is eluted off.  It works and is simple in concept.

Erich Schneider, a nuclear engineer at the University of Texas at Austin explains, “You get between 2 and 4 grams of uranium sticking to this stuff per kilogram of plastic. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it all adds up.”

Schneider’s promising economic analysis of this system at the recent American Chemical Society conference has the adsorbent harvesting 2 grams of uranium per kilogram of plastic, and each braid is reused six times (with a 5 percent drop in performance each time).  These parameters have been achieved in the real world by Japanese researchers.  This puts the cost at $1,230 per kilogram of uranium, about a factor of 30 more expensive than traditional mining.

Costas Tsouris, a chemical engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, does marine testing of the newest uranium extraction materials and says his group has already seen a doubling of the 2 grams per kilogram of adsorbent in real-world trials. That rate “is the maximum observed so far,” he says.  That takes 30 times down to 15 times.

Schneider adds that 6 grams per kilogram is well within reach, and reusing the braids 18 times instead of six is likely also on the horizon.  Fifteen times drops to 5 now.

Schneider explains the easiest way to bring down costs would be to find cheaper chemicals for the adsorbent preparation process. For example, dimethylformamide is used to wash the polymers before they go into the ocean and represents as much as 10 percent of the total system cost. Researchers are looking for a cheaper but similarly effective chemical.

Increasing the surface area of the polymer to allow more uranium to stick to it would also bring costs down, as would harvesting and selling some of the other elements such as vanadium, that inevitably join uranium on the braids. The result of such improvements would mean lowering the cost to about $300 per kilogram of nuclear fuel.

That seems like a very high price, but in the calculation of utility rates from uranium-powered nuclear energy the fuel cost is a minuscule portion.

The question then whether there would be enough at a time the old atomic bombs have been mostly cycled through the civilian nuclear reactors is, “will there be enough?”

With the great looking mine in Canada and other properties that could get up and running the answer is, very likely.  Timing might be an issue, but that’s what the market is for, leveling that out.

Suppose none of the alternatives can be marketable against fossil fuels in consumer prices.  The salvation then for the CO2 crowd is fission.  Uranium has most of the bureaucratic OK in hand.  Thorium could close the gap in less than a decade.

The problems won’t be the fuel, it will be the bureaucracy and using the opportunity in the used fuel.

By. Brian Westenhaus

Original Article: Will There Be Enough Uranium for Generating Electricity?

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Leave a comment
  • James on October 05 2012 said:
    Thorium is a proven nuclear fuel that produces very little waste and can burn all the present waste plutonium.
    The world might be a little safer without all that waste plutonium laying arround.
    If we are to build new reactors then I think we should build reactors that use thorium and cannot melt down because thorium cannot reach critical mass.
  • Neil on January 04 2013 said:
    Nuclear power will never come back again, it is too expensive already.

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