The future of the uranium mining industry will be largely dependent on the price of the commodity and the profitability of uranium mines, while demand for uranium in nuclear power stations and potentially for nuclear weapons remains the main driver for the commodity.
This is according to North-West University Mine Water Research Group head and geography and environmental studies chair Professor Frank Winde, who spoke at the Nuclearisation of Africa symposium in Kempton Park, on the East Rand, in November.
He stressed that the mining of uranium must be analysed in a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis, which had to include all externalised costs, such as its impact on the environment and the health of local communities.
“Consultation must be undertaken widely and not only with the mining industry and scientists, but also with communities that will be affected by uranium mining. There also has to be complete transparency about the details of the development and operation of uranium mining operations with all stakeholders,” Winde contended.
When the issue of uranium mining was being discussed, all parties needed to avoid lobbyism, taking stances based on ideology and raw emotions to ensure that sober, rational conclusions can be reached.
“Parties must present track records and scientific facts, instead of relying on models, predictions and promises to support their arguments. Most importantly, everyone should not discount long-term costs for short-term benefits,” Winde reasoned.
Global nuclear generation capacity is set to grow from its current capacity of 379 gigawatt electric (GWe) to 552 GWe by 2035, which could increase the demand for uranium significantly, says the World Nuclear Association (WNA) in its 2015 Nuclear Fuel report.
WNA director-general Agneta Rising adds that nuclear electricity output is set to increase at a faster rate over the next five years than was the case for the past 20 years.
According to the WNA, there are currently 438 operable reactors around the world, 65 reactors in the construction phase and 165 reactors in the planning phase.
The WNA notes that most of the new demand for uranium will come from Asian countries, including but not limited to China and India, which are spending about $800-billion on reactors in a push for new power plants with lower carbon emissions.
The Nuclear Energy Association states in its 2014 ‘Uranium: Resources, Production and Demand’ publication that, should nuclear capacity be expanded to between 399 GWe and 678 GWe by 2035, uranium requirements will increase from 59 170 t of uranium metal at the end of 2013 to between 72 205 t and 122 150 t by 2035.
JSE-listed investment holding company Oakbay Resources & Energy is also upbeat about the long-term prospects for the uranium industry.
“It is estimated that uranium demand will grow to 266-million pounds a year by 2030, up from the current 140-million pounds a year. Uranium prices are also forecast to rise by 65% to 85% by 2017, as a result of an expected increase in demand and potential supply shortages,” said Oakbay CEO Varun Gupta during a site visit to the company’s Shiva uranium mine, in the North West province of South Africa, in September.
He explained that uranium demand was predominantly driven by its use in nuclear power generation, pointing out that there were about 355 operating nuclear power plants worldwide with 45 to 70 under construction and another 366 either in planning or at proposal stage worldwide.
However, according to Paris-based nuclear energy consultancy Mycle Schneider Consulting’s 2015 ‘The World Nuclear Industry Status’ reports the nuclear industry “remains in decline”.
“The 391 operating reactors – excluding those defined as being in long-term outage – are 47 fewer than the 2002 peak of 438, while the total installed capacity peaked in 2010 at 368 GWe before declining by 8% to 337 GWe, which is comparable to levels last seen two decades ago.
“Annual nuclear electricity generation reached 2 410 TWh in 2014, which is a 2.2% increase over the previous year, but 9.4% below the historic peak in 2006,” the report states.
Creamer Media’s Research Channel Africa’s ‘2015 Uranium’ report states that, although the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident has affected nuclear power projects and policies in some countries, nuclear power remains a key part of the global energy mix. This bodes well for uranium demand, which is expected to continue to increase for the foreseeable future.
The report says several governments have plans for new nuclear power, with big nuclear expansion forecast in China and India. Japan’s nuclear restart will also boost investor confidence in the long-term viability of the global nuclear power industry.
The uranium market is expected to be “adequately supplied” from primary and secondary sources up to 2025, provided that all mines currently under development or planned enter service.
However, beyond 2025, the WNA states that further production will be required to meet nuclear energy demand.
Meanwhile, speaking at the Nuclearisation of Africa symposium, international civil society organisation Mineral Policy Institute deputy chairperson Mia Pepper said that, since the Fukushima incident, the uranium price had fallen sharply from around $100/lb to as low as $25/lb and, at the time, was hovering at about $36/lb.
She noted that Australia possessed 35% of the world’s uranium resources and had three operational uranium mines. These include Ranger mine, in the Northern Territory, and the Olympic Dam and Beverley mines, both in South Australia. Other uranium mines were shut down, owing to low uranium prices.
“Uranium production in Australia in 2015 declined to 5 897 t of uranium, which is a ten-year low. According to Australian research company IBISWorld’s March 2015 market research report, Australia’s uranium mines employed only 987 people, with a negative yearly growth rate of 2.4% in the sector,” stated Pepper.
She commented that the share value of uranium miners in 2015 declined significantly. Uranium miner Energy Resources of Australia posted a half-year net loss of $255-million in 2015, including write-downs of $197-million, while Africa-focused uranium miner Paladin Energy posted a full-year loss of $368.8-million in 2015.
“Several uranium projects have been delayed or abandoned. Expansion plans at the Ranger and Olympic Dam mines have been put on hold as well,” Pepper highlighted.
Further, she noted that local communities in Australia had become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the establishment of uranium mines with companies, such as French nuclear vendor Areva having been forced to abandon uranium projects as a result.
“We have also seen in Alice Springs that uranium miners Cameco and Paladin were forced to withdraw plans to develop uranium mines in the region, owing to local opposition,” Pepper pointed out.
Health and Environmental Concerns
French independent nuclear watchdog group Commission for Independent Research and Information radiation laboratory director Bruno Chareyron stated during his address at the Nuclearisation of Africa symposium that uranium waste material was often highly radioactive because it contained pieces of uranium ore.
“The concentration of uranium in uranium waste rocks can typically be 100 times above the normal concentration levels of uranium that is found in the ground.”
Additionally, Society of Rural Physicians of Canada member Dr Dale Dewar noted during her presentation at the symposium that uranium was a heavy metal with the potential to cause a spectrum of adverse health effects ranging from renal failure and diminished bone growth to damage to peoples’ DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid.
She explained that, because uranium possessed chemical toxicity and radioactivity, assessing the relative contributions of each to its toxic profile was difficult.
However, Dewar stated that the effects of low-level radioactivity included cancer, shortening of life and subtle changes in fertility or viability of offspring, as determined from animal studies and data on Hiroshima and Chernobyl survivors.
“These effects can be delayed for decades or for generations and are not detected in short-term toxicological studies,” she added.
Dewar highlighted that uranium was chemically toxic to the proximal tubules of the kidney, although the damage was reversible, at least in the early stages.
Niger nongovernmental organisation Aghirin'man president Almoustapha Alhacen said during his presentation at the Nuclearisation of Africa symposium on the impact of uranium mining in Niger, that independent campaigning organisation Greenpeace Africa and other international organisations had been reporting regularly on how Areva’s uranium mines and mills had “endangered the people and their environment” in the country.
Niger is the world’s fourth-largest uranium- producing country and, in 2014, retained its position as Africa’s largest uranium producer. The country’s production was 4 057 t in 2014, compared with 4 518 t in 2013.
French nuclear energy giant Areva is a shareholder of the two long-standing uranium mining companies, Société des Mines de l’Aïr (Somaïr) and Compagnie Minière d’Akouta (Cominak).
The Somaïr mine, in the Arlit region, and the Cominak mine, in the Akouta region, were established at the end of the 1960s and both of them are nearing the end of their operational life span. In 2014, Somaïr and Cominak produced 2 331 t and 1 501 t of uranium respectively. Areva and Niger signed a strategic partnership agreement in May 2014, which among other things included a five-year renewal of Somaïr’s and Cominak’s mining agreements.
Alhacen lamented that the exploitation of uranium in Niger since 1968 had serious consequences for the environment, which included depletion of ground water, disappearance of the existing vegetation cover, the total deformation of the landscape with the formation of extracted rock mountains, loss of wildlife, and the dispersion of radiologically contaminated scrap metal and materials in the city of Arlit and the rest of the country.
He also stressed that diseases among uranium mineworkers and local community members were rife, which included congenital malformations and gynecological problems. These diseases Alhacen attributed to contamination from uranium toxicity and radioactivity.