Chemistry Nexus

by WebElements: the periodic table on the web

Dr. Thomas Neff, a research affiliate at the MIT (Massachussetts Institute of Technology) Center for International Studies states that limited supplies of uranium fuel for nuclear power plants may thwart the renewed and growing interest in nuclear energy in the United States and other nations.

Over the past 20 years, safety concerns and politics dampened all aspects of development of nuclear energy. No new reactors were ordered and there was investment neither in new uranium mines nor in building facilities to produce fuel for existing reactors. Instead, the nuclear industry lived off commercial and government inventories which are now nearly gone. It is stated that worldwide uranium production meets only about 65% of current reactor requirements.

A few years ago uranium inventories were being sold at US$ 10 per pound; the current price is US$ 85 per pound.

Much of the uranium used by the United States comes from mines in Australia, Canada, Namibia, and, Kazakhstan. Small amounts are mined in the western United States, but the United States is largely reliant on overseas supplies. The United States also relies for half its fuel on Russia under a “swords to ploughshares” 1991 deal. This deal is converting about 20,000 Russian nuclear weapons to fuel for U.S. nuclear power plants, but it ends in 2013, leaving a substantial supply gap for the United States.

Further, China, India, and even Russia have plans for massive deployments of nuclear power and are trying to lock up supplies from countries on which the United States has traditionally relied. As a result, the United States could be the “last one to buy, and it could pay the highest prices, if it can get uranium at all,” Neff said. “The take-home message is that if we’re going to increase use of nuclear power, we need massive new investments in capacity to mine uranium and facilities to process it.”

Mined uranium comes in several forms, or isotopes. For starting a nuclear chain reaction in a reactor, the only important isotope is uranium-235, which accounts for only 7 out of 1000 atoms in the mined product. To fuel a nuclear reactor, the concentration of uranium-235 must be 40 to 50 out of 1000 atoms. This is done by separating isotopes in an enrichment plant to achieve the higher concentration, but there is not enough processing capacity worldwide to enrich all the uranium required.

March 21st, 2007

Posted In: Chemistry

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