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Long-Term Shortage

While Germany may be able to get by without nuclear power plants (although its carbon footprint is spreading, and it's already fudging by importing nuclear-generated electricity from France), none of the other countries using or readying for nuclear power can. There's just no alternative. That means the demand for uranium will rise as both the world's economy and its discomfort over fossil fuels grow. And that means profits and political leverage for any country that might dominate the uranium industry.

The World Nuclear Association predicts demand growth of 33 percent from 2010 to 2020 and similar growth in the 10 years that follow. In 2011, the world consumed 160 million pounds of yellowcake uranium.

EU-27 Sources of Uranium, 2010

Figure 9.3 EU-27 Sources of Uranium, 2010

Source: Energy Information Administration. © Casey Research 2012.

By 2024, just 10 years from now, it will be chewing through 200 million pounds annually—if it's available.

At the same time, a supply crunch is building. In 2012, the world consumed 25 percent more uranium than came out of its mines, a shortfall of 40 million pounds (at current long-term prices, about $1.8 billion worth). The deficit is likely to rise to 55 million pounds by 2020. Uranium mines are few and far between. Only 20 countries have even one, and half of global production comes from just 10 mines in six countries. (Sources for the European Union are shown in Figure 9.3.)

In the United States, 100 reactors are burning fuel from 43 million pounds of uranium per year to produce electricity. Supply from U.S. mines is about 4 million pounds, or only 9 percent of what's needed to keep those plants running.

Here's another way of looking at it: The estimated needs of U.S. nuclear power plants between now and 2021 come in at around 275 million pounds of yellowcake. The country's entire inventory amounts to only 120 million pounds.

In the long run, more mining is the only answer. But a new uranium mine is more difficult to bring into production than any other kind of resource. Given the engineering challenges, environmental and safety requirements, and strict permitting, it takes 10 years, minimum, to get from decision to production. New mines are not coming online quickly enough to meet expected growth in consumption. And the world already is using more than it digs out of the ground. In fact, it has been doing so for the past 20 years.

If every uranium mine proposed in the past decade were approved, built, and commissioned on schedule, supplies might be able to keep up. But current uranium prices are too low to entice any company to build those potential mines, and any risk taker that might decide to gamble on rising prices would face the separate risk of regulatory delay. Getting the permits to build a uranium mine is not like standing in line for an hour at the Department of Motor Vehicles. You have to stand in many lines for many years while you wait for decision makers to find the courage to confront the radiation bogeyman.

A shortage is coming, and Putin is preparing to turn it into a cash register and also into a tool of geopolitics. Controlling in-the-ground resources is just part of Putin's plan. Understanding the whole plan requires a brief detour.

Science Lesson

The uranium fuel cycle starts with digging uranium-bearing ore out of the ground and then subjecting it to a chemical process that extracts the uranium oxides (chiefly U3Og). The dried product is a powder called yellowcake. You can guess the color.

Of the uranium atoms in a pile of yellowcake, more than 99 percent are U-238, a barely radioactive isotope that cannot sustain a chain reaction for a power plant, bomb, or any other purpose. Virtually all the rest of the uranium atoms, about 0.7 percent, are U-235 (the number difference indicating three fewer neutrons), which is a somewhat more radioactive isotope that in quantities of just a few pounds can sustain a chain reaction. U-235 has that capability because when an atom of the stuff splits, it flings out neutrons with just the right velocity for splitting any other U-235 atoms they encounter. It's like one drunk starting a fight that spreads through an entire barroom.

To turn the yellowcake into something useful, enough of the U-238 must be separated out so that the concentration of U-235 in the remaining material is:

• 3 to 10 percent for use in a commercial nuclear power plant

• 20 percent for use in certain types of research and medical reactors

• 20 to 90 percent for use in the compact power plants of submarines

• 90 percent for use in weapons

Moving from the 0.7 percent U-235 concentration provided by nature to something higher begins with introducing fluorine to the uranium oxides. That produces uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which at room temperature is a gas.

Next, the uranium hexafluoride gas is pumped through a system that exploits the slight weight difference between an atom of U-235 and an atom of U-238 (whose greater weight comes from its three additional neutrons). There are half a dozen clever techniques for doing this, but only two are in commercial use. One is to spin the gas through a series of ultra-high-speed centrifuges. The other is to pump the gas through a series of ultra me filters.

With either technique, each step in the series yields two streams of gas, one slightly higher in U-235 and one slightly lower in U-235 than the gas that went into the step. After the gas has passed through many centrifuges or through many filters, the process ends with two tanks of uranium hexafluoride. One contains the desired concentration of U-235, and one contains U-238 with traces of U-235 well below nature's 0.7 percent. The contents of that second tank are referred to as tails. For easier long-term storage, the tail gas may be reconverted to a uranium oxide.

For fuel, the final step is fabrication. The enriched gas (with the desired concentration of U-235) is chemically processed into uranium dioxide powder. The powder is compressed into pellets, heated until it coalesces into a ceramic, and then bundled into rod-shaped fuel assemblies tailored for a particular kind of reactor.

The current uranium enrichment capacities of several nations is shown in Figure 9.4.

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