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Nuclear Industry Upbeat About Future

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By Richard Johnson
IDN-InDepth NewsReport

LONDON (IDN) - Though it is still too early to assess the full impact of the Fukushima atomic power plant accident in March 2011, the World Nuclear Association (WNA) believes that it will have "very little impact" on global nuclear fuel markets.

In the latest edition of its biennial report, Global Nuclear Fuel Market: Supply and Demand 2011-2030, the WNA believes that it is possible to make some "reasonable deductions". Despite the closure of reactors in Japan and Germany – and slowdowns in some programs in response to Fukushima – the report notes that the global situation for energy supply and demand remains "effectively unchanged".

Developments in the United States, China, India and Russia will remain particularly crucial in determining nuclear energy's overall role in global electricity supply, while prospects for nuclear new build remain strong in China, India, South Korea and Britain, asserts the report.

"Revised scenarios for nuclear generating capacity in individual countries and areas have been incorporated into the report, feeding into three scenarios for world nuclear capacity up to 2030. The scenarios are based on differing underlying economic and political trends but are all described as 'plausible'," informs the report.

The reference scenario, which includes an assumption that most countries will continue with their pre-Fukushima nuclear plans, sees nuclear capacity growing at an average 2.3% per year from its current 364 GWe (gigawatt electrical) to 411 GWe by 2015, reaching 471 GWe by 2020 and 614 GWe by 2030.

The upper scenario sees 416 GWe by 2015, 518 GWe by 2020 and 790 GWe by 2030. Under both scenarios, the figures are slightly lower than in the previous edition of the report published in 2009.

The WNA has also updated the model used to forecast reactor requirements with reassessments of factors affecting nuclear fuel demand. Presenting the report at the WNA Symposium on September 15, 2012, EDF (Electricite de France) procurement manager Anne Chauvin explained that capacity factors, enrichment levels and burn-ups are all trending upwards, and uranium requirements are affected accordingly.

World uranium requirements, currently estimated at 63,800 tonnes Uranium (tU), are expected to grow at a similar rate to nuclear capacity under the reference scenario, reaching 107,600 tU in 2030. There is little change from the equivalent scenario in the previous report, although total requirements under the upper scenario, reaching 136,900 tU per year by the end of the period, are significantly down on the previous forecast, notes the report.

Known uranium resources are more than adequate to satisfy reactor requirements to 2030 and beyond, the report says, but the role of secondary uranium supplies (inventories, stockpile drawdowns and recycled materials) will remain important over the period.

Nevertheless, beyond 2020, there is likely to be a substantial need for new primary sources of uranium supply, the report concludes, likening the magnitude of the build-up needed to meet both the reference and upper demand scenarios to the huge historic production expansions of the 1950s and the late 1970s.

The latest report is a departure from The Global Nuclear Fuel Market Supply and Demand 2009-2030, released in September 2009. It said: "Production of uranium from mines (primary production) has been far below the amount required to fuel the western world's power reactors since the mid-1908s, with so-called secondary supplies – inventories, stockpile drawdowns and use of recycled materials including uranium from decommissioned nuclear weapons – making up the shortfall."

The report warned that the period of primary supply being below annual reactor requirements would have to come to an end with a substantial need for new primary production facilities in the longer term. "Uranium production needs to increase dramatically from its current level," Cameco's Penny Buye, co-chair of the drafting group, told the symposium in September 2009. The market must ensure that conditions be conducive for this to happen, she added.

The need for long term expansion to support reactor requirements also extends to fuel cycle services, said the report. Although conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication capacities appear to be sufficient to cope with demand up to 2020, new investment will be needed to meet demand under the upper and reference scenarios in the longer term, forecast the report.

It explained: New uranium mines take many years to plan and license before they start production. The same is true, to some extent, for new conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication facilities.

Heavy reliance on secondary sources of uranium supply over years had resulted, the report noted, in the industry's supply infrastructure becoming somewhat neglected, and also potentially vulnerable to supply disruptions. "This damage must be repaired over the next period," the report concluded.

Written by a drafting group drawn from member companies of the World Nuclear Association, the report was said to be based on the knowledge and opinion of the whole industry. It used information gathered via questionnaires from WNA members representing all aspects of the fuel cycle across the globe. A computer model was then used to forecast nuclear fuel supply and demand to 2030.

Of the three scenarios presented for world nuclear capacity up to 2030, only the lower scenario saw nuclear generation failing to increase above its 2008 level of 371 GWe. The reference scenario saw an overall 2.2% growth rate reaching 476 GWe by 2020 and 600 GWe by 2030, while the upper scenario saw 558 GWe by 2020 and 818 GWe by 2030. Both reference and upper scenarios were higher than in the 2007 edition of the report, reflecting the emergence of India and China as major nuclear nations.

Uranium resources and reserves

The global production of uranium in 2010 amounted to 53,663 tonnes, of which 17,803 tonnes (33.2%) was mined in Kazakhstan. Other important uranium mining countries are Canada (9.783 tonnes), Australia (5,900 tonnes), Namibia (4,496 tonnes), Niger (4,198 tonnes) and Russia (3,562 tonnes).

Uranium ore is mined in several ways: by open pit, underground, in-situ leaching, and borehole mining. Low-grade uranium ore mined typically contains 0.01 to 0.25% uranium oxides. Extensive measures must be employed to extract the metal from its ore.

It is estimated that 5.5 million tonnes of uranium exists in ore reserves that are economically viable at US$59 per pound of uranium, while 35 million tonnes are classed as mineral resources (reasonable prospects for eventual economic extraction). Prices went from about $10 per pound in May 2003 to $138 per pound in July 2007. This caused a big increase in spending on exploration, with US$200 million being spent worldwide in 2005, a 54% increase on the previous year.This trend continued through 2006, when expenditure on exploration rocketed to over $774 million, an increase of over 250% compared to 2004.

According to knowledgeable sources, Australia has 31% of the world's known uranium ore reserves and the world's largest single uranium deposit, located at the Olympic Dam Mine in South Australia. There is a significant reserve of uranium in Bakouma a sub-prefecture in the prefecture of Mbomou in Central African Republic. [IDN-InDepthNews – October 19, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo: Uranium Glass fluorescing under Ultraviolet light | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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