Uranium renaissance in the age of green transition
The unfolding global energy revolution is rapidly reviving demand for uranium, the main raw material for nuclear reactors. More and more countries are now recognising nuclear power’s ‘green’ status and this is reviving plans for uranium extraction, which until recently were highly questionable. If the 21st century is to truly go down in history as the era of clean energy, the peaceful atom will be indispensable for this achievement.
A new reawakening of titanium
The 92nd element in Mendeleev’s periodic table is named after the ancient Greek deity of the sky, the father of the other gods and the first ruler of the world, whom only his almighty son Zeus could master. The fact that one gram of uranium contains more energy than a wagon of coal is at least an indication of the power hidden in uranium: the discovery of the radioactive properties of uranium at the beginning of the 20th century was one of the breakthroughs in the history of the relationship between man and the environment.
Until recently, however, the future of nuclear energy was by no means certain. After the 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, some countries announced the curtailment of their nuclear programmes, which had a significant impact on the demand for uranium. Global prices for the “bread” of the nuclear industry were kept low for almost a decade, and several large planned uranium mining projects had to be postponed.
That all changed in 2021: vigorous growth of uranium prices was one of the most notable recent trends in global commodity markets – uranium exchange quotations rose by two thirds in a few months. Prices have not yet returned to the highs of more than $130 per pound of uranium oxide (U3O8) seen in the late 2000s – a pound of uranium is now worth about $50. That’s about double the price of 2018: the prolonged downturn in demand has been overcome.
The renaissance in the uranium market is primarily related to the global energy transition process. The desire of many countries to phase out the use of hydrocarbon fuels, one of the main drivers of increasing global warming, is already fundamentally changing energy markets. The peaceful atom is here to play the role of an old friend because nuclear power generation does not emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide or methane.
In other words, nuclear power is fundamentally consistent with the objectives of achieving ‘net-zero’ carbon emissions by at least the middle of the century which many countries around the world are now pursuing. Russia, China, France, USA and India are just some of the countries planning to make nuclear power one of the key areas in decarbonising their economies in the coming years.
Knowledge is still power
But what about the widespread perception that nuclear power poses potentially devastating threats to humanity? The answer to this question is determined primarily by society’s level of knowledge about the achievements of the modern nuclear industry.
To begin with, harmless doses of radiation are all around us – it is present, for example, in solar radiation and minerals such as granite. Uranium in the Earth’s crust is 500 times more concentrated than gold and twice as much as a common metal such as tin.
“Radioactivity – it’s in the air for you and me. Radioactivity discovered by Madame Curie,” these lines from a song by the famous German electronic band Kraftwerk are a reminder that people were unaware of this natural phenomenon for thousands of years until French physicist Pierre Curie and his wife Maria Skłodowska conducted revolutionary research into uranium compounds, winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903.
The properties of uranium remained a mystery for too long, as it is extremely difficult to obtain this metal in its pure form – its concentration in natural ores is extremely low. That is why originally uranium mining was a typical “dirty” operation, requiring the extraction of huge amounts of rock with negligible content of the precious metal from the subsurface.
A fundamentally different approach to developing uranium deposits is provided by the in-situ leaching (ISL) method developed by Soviet and American scientists back in the 1960s. Today, over 40% of Russia’s uranium is already mined using this technology, and Kazakhstan, the world’s largest uranium producer, uses ISL technology to produce almost all of its uranium.
The processes behind it will be understandable to anyone who can remember the basics of high-school inorganic chemistry. To extract uranium from the subsurface by ISL mining, a weak solution of sulphuric acid is pumped through thin pipes into the uranium-bearing layer, which reacts with the uranium ore to form soluble uranyl sulphate. The resulting uranium-bearing solution is then brought to the surface and enriched to 85% uranium in special plants.
Since the ISL method does not require large-scale mining, the mine area is almost unchanged during the mining process and can be easily reclaimed after mining is completed. Most importantly, the groundwater is not affected during the extraction of the uranium concentrate to the surface – it is protected by several layers of clay from acid and uranium salts. Then, when the pipes are removed, the uranium mining site can be used for any other activity, such as agriculture.
Replenishing the nuclear “club”
The use of the ISL method looks promising for countries where uranium mining has been going on for a long time, as well as for completely new locations on the global nuclear industry map. In Africa, for example, divisions of Rosatom have been exploring the use of ISL technology in Namibia, one of the global uranium leaders, and in Tanzania, where uranium mining has not previously taken place, for some time.
Both of these projects, which started about a decade ago, could now be significantly boosted by the recovery of global uranium prices. Growing demand from the nuclear power sector will allow the two African countries not only to benefit from uranium exports but also to master one of the advanced mining technologies.
Furthermore, the current rules of the game in the nuclear industry imply that the development of uranium deposits must be accompanied by large-scale social investment. In Tanzania’s Mkuju River region, uranium mining has not yet begun, but Mantra Tanzania, part of Rosatom’s Uranium One division, has already implemented several programmes for local communities, such as combating the poaching of elephants.
The list of states that will produce nuclear power for the first time in the coming years is also growing significantly. Turkey, Egypt, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan, for example, are on the list of countries that lack their traditional energy resources or those that need them to grow their economies rapidly.
In the face of soaring world prices for energy such as gas, nuclear power has always maintained one of its main advantages – cheapness. This is particularly important in developing countries, where large parts of the population still lack access to electricity. In Bangladesh, for example, more than half of its 164 million people lack secure power supplies, so the construction of the first nuclear power plant at Ruppur, due to start-up in 2023, will make a huge contribution to the quality of life in this poor Asian nation.
The synergy of big construction projects
The argument against nuclear power is often put forward that it is complicated, expensive and time-consuming. Indeed, it often takes many years from conception to launch: for example, Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, Akkuyu, has been in partnership with Rosatom since 2010, with commissioning expected in 2023. The total cost of this endeavour is estimated at $20 billion – significantly more than the investment required in, say, new gas pipelines.
But those countries who make the fundamental decision to join the world nuclear “club”, as a rule, estimate the economic effect decades in advance. It has been calculated that each dollar invested in the construction of a nuclear power plant adds $4.3 to the national GDP of the country and $1.5 to the country’s budget through taxes. Often the strategic calculations are also driven by demographic considerations: many of the states where new nuclear power plants are being built are having serious problems employing surplus workers.
The cheap energy of the atom makes it possible to rely on it to create new industrial and agricultural jobs within a radius of hundreds of kilometres from the plant. This is the scenario Uzbekistan’s leaders are counting on as they decide to revive plans to build nuclear power plants in the country that existed in the Soviet era. The country’s president, Shavkat Miriseyev, called the cooperation agreement with Rosatom signed in early 2018 historic.
However, the opportunity for massive job creation is already emerging during the construction of nuclear facilities. At the peak of construction of the Ruppur nuclear power plant in Bangladesh, 20,000 people were employed at the height of construction, while the first El Dabaa nuclear power plant in Egypt will require 25,000 workers, 70% of whom will be nationals.
At the same time, Rosatom’s foreign partners have a unique opportunity to enhance the competencies of the national engineering workforce, as the state corporation sends thousands of its specialists to build and commission NPPs. And in Bangladesh, where most of the population works in the agricultural sector, the Russians have set up a training centre to train workers.
The green dilemma
A crucial question for the future of nuclear power today is how to classify investments in peaceful nuclear energy as “green”. For the time being there is no clear decision – the EU, for example, has not been able to give a clear verdict on this for more than a year.
But as global climate problems worsen and the need to provide more and cheaper energy to the economy grows more urgent, the interest in nuclear power is bound to increase.
“The world is going through difficult times in terms of energy volatility. One of the unintended positive consequences of this market volatility is that some people have reconsidered the value of nuclear energy,” said International Energy Agency (IEA) executive director Fatih Birol in his speech at the UN COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow in November.
The next event in the series is due to take place in Egypt in 2022, and the theme of nuclear power as a major focus of the green transition should resonate even more strongly there. The nearly $30 billion El Dabaa nuclear power plant construction project in Egypt has already started, and Egyptian authorities will surely not miss the chance to announce that its four units will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 6%, or 14 million tons.
Similar projects are now being considered by other African countries with growing energy deficits. Those with their uranium deposits are in a particularly advantageous starting position – in the 21st century, this valuable resource should finally work to the benefit of the African economy.