Sunday, November 21, 2010

First New Uranium Mine in Years

Phase I of the South Texas Palanga uranium mining project has been completed by the UEC (Uranium Energy Corporation) under-budget and on schedule. Phases II and III are expected to be completed in 2011. This marks the first time in several years that uranium demand has allowed for the opening of a new mining facility. Mining operations will commence using in-situ leeching methods, where water that has been acidified with carbon dioxide gas will be pumped into the mining site. This is what allows the uranium to be extracted from the surrounding limestone as the uranium is dissolved in the water when it is pumped out again during mining operations.

The economic activities of the uranium mining industry have been depressed for years because of the lack of demand for nuclear energy in the US since the mid-1980s. In the early 2000s the price of uranium bottomed out and it has only been in the last three years that the uranium market has been showing signs of recovery. As the price of uranium has increased since then, there has been a renewed interest in re-opening old mines and prospecting for new sources of high-grade ore.

Many people raise fears that the world supply of uranium will peak in 80 years. One must keep in mind that this estimate is based on existing production rates of uranium ore and nuclear fuel fabrication. There are many mines across the world that have been forced to close either through political pressure, or because existing world uranium demand could be easily met by a smaller number of mines. The amount of uranium required by most reactor types is quite small, especially when compared to the fuel consumption rates of fossil-fuel generators like coal and natural gas. The fissile isotopes of uranium are extremely compact compared to other energy sources. A single fuel pellet like those used in a nuclear reactor is the equivalent of 1,780 pounds of coal from an energy standpoint. Although hundreds of these pellets are used to fabricate fuel rods in a light water reactor, the amount of uranium required to fuel a reactor is still a rather tiny amount.

In the event of a large build-out of new nuclear reactors, it would not be too difficult to increase the production of uranium ore to meet an increased demand since uranium is such a common element. However, up until now there has been little need to do so. In fact, should the easily recoverable sources of uranium ever run out like the most dire scenario erroneously predicts, existing stockpiles of spent fuel could easily be reprocessed for more fuel. Finally, uranium can be extracted from seawater. Although the cost of recovering uranium from using this method would be roughly ten times conventional mining methods, it would still be economically viable as the operational costs of nuclear electricity generation are relatively insensitive to price increases of fissile material.

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