With the global commitment to work towards net zero emissions being reaffirmed, the realisation that the world must transition to using the lowest carbon sources is gaining traction, World Nuclear Association senior communication manager Dr Jonathan Cobb tells Mining Weekly.
He points out that expert bodies, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency, have concluded that the most effective way of achieving this is through a substantial increase in nuclear generation worldwide. Consequentially, there would be a greater demand for uranium.
According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA) website, the current global demand for uranium is about 68 000 t/y. The vast majority is consumed by the power sector, with a small amount used for medical and research purposes, as well as naval propulsion.
Currently, conventional mines – openpit and underground – produce about 46% of uranium, with about 50% from in situ leach, and 4% recovered as a by-product from other mineral extraction.
Secondary supplies account for the equivalent of about 12 000 t/y. This dropped in 2014 when supply of blended-down, Russian high-enriched uranium to the US ceased.
A significant secondary supply of uranium is provided by the decommissioning of nuclear warheads by the US and Russia. Other sources of uranium include government and utility stockpiles, as well as a very large amount of depleted uranium left over from historic enrichment, which can be re-enriched with more efficient processes. Additionally, a small amount is derived from recycled uranium from reprocessing used fuel.
After the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011, operating global nuclear capacity was reduced. However, Cobb reports that, since that time, electricity generation from nuclear plants worldwide has increased every year for the past seven years.
Asked about the current global crisis, Cobb notes that the coronavirus is clearly having a short-term impact on economic activity and an immediate effect on oil prices, particularly in relation to reduced demand from the transport sector.
However, he suggests that the longer-term trend of an increased demand for cleaner electricity generation sources, such as nuclear and the uranium to fuel it, is likely to continue beyond the short-term impact of the virus.
Cobb also mentions that there are barriers preventing nuclear energy from being deployed to its full potential, consequently stunting uranium demand. He adds that there should be a level playing field in energy markets to allow for different forms of generation and more adaptable energy mixes.
There should be harmonised regulatory practices to provide a more internationally consistent, efficient and predictable nuclear licensing regime. There should also be an effective safety archetype focused on genuine public wellbeing where the health, environmental and safety benefits of different energy sources are better understood and valued.
According to the WNA website, countries closely monitor the distribution of their uranium so that it is not used for military purposes and most have safeguards to prevent military use.
Among uranium-exporting countries, Australia and Canada have some of the strictest conditions pertaining to uranium use. These safeguards – inspections and accounting procedures – ensure that the uranium is used for peaceful purposes only and is not diverted for military purposes or used to advance the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Bilateral agreements to this effect are instituted between the governments of these two countries and the country wishing to import their uranium before sales contracts are completed.
Such agreements supplement the application of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards administered under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan are now the world's major producers and exporters of uranium. In addition to providing further diversification and strength to their domestic economies, it affords all three countries a voice in the framing of international nuclear policies and safeguards. It also reduces the need for buyers to seek uranium from countries with less effective safeguards.
“Looking forward, our most recent ‘Nuclear Fuel Report’ showed more positive trends in all scenarios for future demand, compared to the 2017 edition of the report,” concludes Cobb.