In the overheated commodities markets, it is easy to overlook uranium. But the uranium price is flying high. From around US$10/lb U3O8 through the 1990s, the price has risen sharply since late 2003 to US$37.50 (in early 2006).
Canada is the world’s largest uranium miner and a large net exporter. It produced 13,676 tonnes of U3O8 worth Cdn$800 million in 2004, mainly from the McArthur River and McClean Lake mines. This was 29% of the uranium mined in the world (47,430 tonnes of U3O8). Canadian reserves (reasonably assured resources plus estimated additional resources) at 509,000 tonnes U3O8 are 12% of the world total; Australia has double that.
By far the largest consumers of uranium today are the nuclear power generators. There are 441 operating nuclear power plants in the world producing 2.6 trillion kWh or 16% of global electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA) (www.world-nuclear.org). Many reactors are slated for refurbishment. About 77,200 tonnes of U3O8 are required for plants now operating. As well, 24 plants are under construction, another 40 are planned and 73 have been proposed.
Eighteen of the reactors operate in Canada (16 in Ontario, and one each in Quebec and New Brunswick), generating 85.3 billion kWh or 15% of the nation’s electricity, requiring about 1,900 tonnes of U3O8 in 2006. Nuclear energy represents half of Ontario’s power use. This proportion is likely to increase, as the provincial government has recently come down in favour of expanding nuclear and renewable energy, at the expense of coal-fired plants. Bruce Power and the Ontario government announced last October a plan to refurbish the four reactors collectively called “Bruce A”–two now closed and two in operation–at a cost of $4.25 billion.
Reactor technology advances
All nuclear plants in Canada use Candu reactor technology, designed by the crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), based in Mississauga, Ont. These heavy water-type reactors use natural uranium (containing around 1% U235 isotope) as opposed to enriched (4% U235). Candu reactors are also located in Korea, Argentina, India, Pakistan and China, with one being completed in Romania.
Candus and all other nuclear power plants operating today or under construction use ‘generation 2’ technology, according to Pat Tighe, vice-president of marketing and business development for AECL. “The two major differences with each generation,” says Tighe, “are that thermodynamics are improved (they run more efficiently at higher temperatures and pressures), and the safety and security programs move to a higher level.”
Three levels of safety systems are dedicated to preventing or containing any leaks. “In generating 370,000 GW-hours of nuclear power [in the world since the 1950s], there have only been two significant incidents–Three Mile Island [N.Y.] and Chernobyl [Ukraine],” says Tighe. “We have never had a significant issue in Canada.”
Reactors of the Chernobyl type exist only in Russia; since the accident, they have been closed or changed, and are all being phased out. Since the U.S. terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, there have been significant security improvements to plants around the world, with increased onsite security staff and restricted access to the sites.
Canadian power plants create less than 3,000 tonnes of spent fuel per year. About 2 million used fuel bundles have been accumulated so far from nuclear power generation in Canada, containing 36,000 tonnes of uranium. Packed tightly, this would fill five hockey rinks, from the ice to the top of the boards.
What happens to this radioactive waste? It currently goes into storage pools for eight to nine years to cool, and then is moved to above-ground dry storage in concrete-lined facilities at the plant site, where it could stay for up to a century. Canadian solutions for long-term storage are being studied by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) (www.nwmo.ca), with extensive public consultation. The NWMO was set up in 2002, and is funded by Canadian nuclear power companies. Its final report, issued in December 2005, recommended an “adaptive phased management” approach. This includes moving all the spent fuel to a centralized shallow storage facility available in about 90 years, and later moving it into a deep depository, at a site to be determined over the next 30-60 years. Future generations will decide when to close the depository, and the nature of ongoing monitoring.
“AECL has spend a lot of money in the last 10 years associated with the deep geological storage of spent fuel,” says Tighe. “We are satisfied that the engineering and science of the solutions are well known and established. It is now a process of gaining public acceptance.”
Most uranium is purchased on long-term contracts. An October 2004 WNA report, Uranium Markets, explains: “Because of the cost structure of nuclear power generation, with high capital and low fuel costs, the demand for uranium fuel is much more predictable than with probably any other mineral commodity.” The price will probably continue to rise for a couple of reasons.
The demand is expected to remain the same or increase. New technology will allow the same amount of electricity to be made from less fuel. However, mine production supplies only 55% of the fuel demanded by current nuclear generators, with the rest made up of stockpiled uranium increasingly supplemented by ex-military material, as the stockpiles are now almost gone. That ordnance will eventually be used up as well.
Energy is a charged subject. Do we continue to allow the demand for energy to increase, or should we stress conservation? Do we close old-technology hydrocarbon-fired plants, or do we build newer, cleaner ones? Is nuclear energy environmentally friendly because it emits virtually no greenhouse gases, or are we passing on the problem of spent fuel storage to our children’s children? It will ultimately be up to the public to decide, hopefully armed with all the facts.
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