Where Do We Stand On Uranium In The Post-Pandemic Energy World?

The Uranium Committee  of the Energy Minerals Division of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists just released their draft 2020 Annual Report last week and the prices and supplies of U look pretty good.

The Uranium Committee monitors the global uranium industry activities, rare earth metals, and the production of electricity from nuclear power, because these drive uranium exploration and development in the United States and overseas. [Full Disclosure – I am a member of the Committee’s Advisory Group]

Modern technological societies require a lot of rare metals, such as lithium, cobalt, vanadium and neodymium, and uranium if you have nuclear power. In fact, there are 35 minerals that are critical to our society. Unfortunately, we don’t produce many of them in the United States, but are dependent on other countries like China for our supply.

This has been a recognized problem for years, but has become especially worrisome after this this pandemic has shown the flimsiness of our supply chains.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) re-introduced her American Mineral Security Act specifically to strengthen those efforts. The bill, which was somewhat bipartisan, attempts to rebuild the domestic mineral supply chain through geological surveying, forecasting, workforce training, research and development, recycling, and a more efficient permitting process.

But uranium seems to be doing pretty well. The United States has more nuclear power plants than anyone else, and is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30% of worldwide nuclear generation of electricity.

Our 96 reactors produce 20% of our own nation’s electricity, and requires about 25,000 tons of U each year to do so. In contrast, 624,000,000 tons of natural gas is used to generate 34% of our electricity, and 750,000,000 tons of coal for 30%. 1,000,000,000 tons of petroleum (7,200,000,000 barrels) fuels our transportation sector, the energy equivalent of 1,500,000,000 tons of coal.

But do we have enough U in North America to fuel our own nuclear future until that happens?

Fortunately for us and our northern neighbor and closest ally, the highest-grade U deposits in the world are found in the Athabasca Basin of Saskatchewan in Canada, often referred to as the “Saudi Arabia of Uranium”. And new deposits in this basin keep being discovered.

But a new U.S. uranium district has been identified in the eastern Seward Peninsula of Alaska on the eastern margins of McCarthy Basin. Thorium and rare-earth elements have been discovered in the surrounding igneous rocks, making it key to loosening China’s grip on our technological future.

Even Virginia has a huge untapped U deposit. Uranium supplies have not been a major issue since Canada and Australia have great sources and are close allies.

Uranium is leached from the original ore, either from crushed ore rock at an above-ground facility or directly underground by in situ leaching, to form U3O8 yellowcake (see figure above).

According to the United States Energy Information Administration, the USA produced a total of 170,000 lbs of U3O8 (65.4 tU) of uranium concentrate from all domestic sources in 2019, 89% less than on 2018, which itself was 33% less than in 2017. 2018 production was primarily from six facilities: five in-situ leach plants in Nebraska and Wyoming (Crow Butte Operation, Lost Creek Project, Ross CPP, North Butte, and Smith Ranch-Highland Operation) and one underground mine.

At the beginning of 2020, two conventional uranium mills – Shootaring Canyon Uranium Mill in Utah and Sweetwater Uranium Project in Wyoming – were on standby, and the White Mesa Mill in Utah was no longer producing uranium.

There’s lots and lots of U in the world, and more keeps being discovered. U resources increased about 25% over the last decade, which has kept prices low. We get most of our U from other countries, a diversity that serves us well in most thongs. But the sudden sight of our supply chains vulnerabilities in this pandemic has made some think that we should secure uranium from domestic sources.

We are also working hard to make extraction of U from seawater the real future of the U supply beyond this century, although it is a decade or two away from becoming economic. At that point, U supplies would last for billions of years, in effect, making nuclear completely renewable.

Uranium has outperformed major commodities this year, even as the energy sector has suffered from the coronavirus pandemic. MarketsInsider shows that a significant rise in uranium prices has been underway since the pandemic began, up to $34 from $24 per pound of U3O8, a price that had been pretty stable for over a year.

The uranium industry was excited last year about the Administration’s support of Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 that would protect the U.S. uranium mining industry. A White House task force is recommending that the federal government buy more uranium from domestic producers, mainly as a way to revive the U.S. uranium mining industry and in part as a way to address security concerns, although according to Sharon Squassoni at George Washington University those concerns are not warranted.

DOE might even create a new national uranium stockpile.

With these higher prices, many international companies are resuming extraction operations. Numerous discoveries of high-grade uranium deposits have been made in Canada and new low-grade deposits are under development in Argentina and Peru. The main Australian uranium mines in South Australia have resumed operations and mines in Western Australia are preparing to resume operations An undeveloped, new uranium “roll front” district has been identified in the eastern Seward Peninsula of Alaska with thorium and rare-earth elements.

Research funding by university and industry remains low in the United States, but state geological surveys (e.g., Wyoming and New Mexico) and the U.S. Geological Survey are moving forward with robust research on uranium and rare earths.

There is general agreement that substantial uranium (and thorium) will be available to fuel the United States as the world’s largest fleet of nuclear power. Although a few more reactors are scheduled for retirement on economic grounds and low-priced natural gas, the other reactors are operating even more efficiently, producing more power than before.

In addition, two new reactors are being completed in Georgia. Following a 30-year period during which no new reactors were built in the United States, it is expected that these two Vogtle units will come online soon after 2020.

Since mid-2007, there have been 16 license applications to build 24 new nuclear reactors, most of which are of the new small modular reactor (SMR) design.

So it seems that we have more uranium (U) than we need for hundreds of years of nuclear power as a big chunk of our energy generation. Which is critical, since we need to double nuclear power to address climate change and replace coal, even as we ramp up renewables.

Together with the fact that the nuclear industry has dealt with the pandemic better than most sectors, both uranium supply and nuclear power should not be much affected in the post-pandemic world.

Nuclear waste will last a lot longer than climate change

Preface.   One of the most tragic aspects of peak oil is that it is very unlikely once energy descent begins that oil will be expended to clean up our nuclear mess.  Or before descent either.  Anyone who survives peak fossil fuels and after that, rising sea levels and extreme weather from climate change, will still be faced with nuclear waste as a deadly pollutant and potential weapon. 

According to Archer (2008): “… there are components of nuclear material that have a long lifetime, such as the isotopes plutonium 239 (24,000 year half-life), thorium 230 (80,000 years), and iodine 129 (15.7 million years). Ideally, these substances must be stored and isolated from reaching ground water until they decay, but the lifetimes are so immense that it is hard to believe or to prove that this can be done”.

Below are summaries of two articles on nuclear waste.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Ro, C. 2019. The Staggering Timescales Of Nuclear Waste Disposal. Forbes.

This most potent form of nuclear waste needs to be safely stored for up to a million years. Yet existing and planned nuclear waste sites operate on much shorter timeframes: often 10,000 or 100,000 years. These are still such unimaginably vast lengths of time that regulatory authorities decide on them, in part, based on how long ice ages are expected to last.

Strategies remain worryingly short-term, on a nuclear timescale. Chernobyl’s destroyed reactor no. 4, for instance, was encased in July 2019 in a massive steel “sarcophagus” that will only last 100 years. Not only will containers like this one fall short of the timescales needed for sufficient storage, but no country has allotted enough funds to cover nuclear waste disposal. In France and the US, according to the recently published World Nuclear Waste Report, the funding allocation only covers a third of the estimated costs. And the cost estimates that do exist rarely extend beyond several decades.

Essentially, we’re hoping that things will work out once future generations develop better technologies and find more funds to manage nuclear waste. It’s one of the most striking examples of the dangers of short-term thinking.

Fred Pearce. 7 March 2012. Resilient reactors: Nuclear built to last centuries. New Scientist.

All nuclear plants have to be shut down within a few decades because they become too radioactive, making them so brittle they’re likely to crumble.

Decommissioning can take longer than the time that the plant was operational.  This is why only 17 reactors have been decommissioned, and well over a hundred are waiting to be decommissioned (110 commercial plants, 46 prototypes, 250 research reactors), yet meanwhile we keep building more of them.

Building longer lasting new types of nuclear power plants

Fast-breeders were among the first research reactors. But they have never been used for commercial power generation. There’s just one problem. Burke says the new reactors aren’t being designed with greater longevity in mind, and the intense reactions in a fast-breeder could reduce its lifetime to just a couple of decades. A critical issue is finding materials that can better withstand the stresses created by the chain reactions inside a nuclear reactor.Uranium atoms are bombarded with neutrons that they absorb. The splitting uranium atoms create energy and more neutrons to split yet more atoms, a process that eventually erodes the steel reactor vessel and plumbing.

The breakdown that leads to a reactor’s decline happens on the microscopic level when the steel alloys of the reactor vessels undergo small changes in their crystalline structures. These metals are made up of grains, single crystals in which atoms are lined up, tightly packed, in a precise order. The boundaries between the grains, where the atoms are slightly less densely packed, are the weak links in this structure. Years of neutron bombardment jar the atoms in the crystals until some lose their place, creating gaps in the structure, mostly at the grain boundaries. The steel alloys – which contain nickel, chromium and other metals – then undergo something called segregation, in which these other metals and impurities migrate to fill the gaps. These migrations accumulate until, eventually, they cause the metal to lose shape, swell, harden and become brittle. Gases can accumulate in the cracks, causing corrosion.

A reactor that does not need to be shut down after a few decades will do a lot to limit the world’s stockpile of nuclear waste. But eventually, even these will need to be decommissioned, a process that generates vast volumes of what the industry calls “intermediate-level” waste.

Despite its innocuous name, intermediate-level waste is highly radioactive and will one day have to be packaged and buried in rocks hundreds of meters underground, while its radioactivity decays over thousands of years. It is irradiated by the same mechanism that erodes the machinery in a nuclear power plant, namely neutron bombardment.

Toxic legacy

Nuclear waste is highly radioactive and remains lethal for thousands of years and is without doubt nuclear energy’s biggest nightmare. Efforts to “green” nuclear energy have focused almost exclusively on finding ways to get rid of it. The most practical option is disposal in repositories deep underground. Yet, seven decades into the nuclear age, not one country has built a final resting place for its most toxic nuclear junk. So along with the legacy waste of cold-war-era bomb making, it will accumulate in storage above ground – unless the new reactors can turn some of that waste back into fuel.

Without a comprehensive clean-up plan, the wider world is unlikely to embrace any dreams of a nuclear renaissance.

References

Archer, D., et al. 2008. The millennial atmospheric lifetime of anthropogenic CO2. Climactic Change 90: 283-297. https://geosci.uchicago.edu/~archer/reprints/archer.2008.tail_implications.pdf

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Energy in Context and Correcting a Critic

Nextbigfuture has tracked and analyzed nuclear blend, nuclear fission and other energy.

Nextbigfuture has dozens of posts comparing all energy sources based on safety utilizing the deaths per terawatt hour metric.

In 2008, Nextbigfuture had its first death per terawatt-hours for all energy sources.

Nextbigfuture has actually composed hundreds of posts about air contamination and the problems with coal, oil and natural gas. Air contamination is bad and indoor and outdoor air contamination causes 7 million deaths per year. Hardship is even worse and triggers about 18 million deaths per year. Hence getting low-cost energy from burnable dirt (coal) to lift a country out of hardship is in fact a internet gain. This particularly true if the energy can be cleaned up as quickly as possible.

The USA and UK had really unclean air from 1880 -1970 and then cleaned up their air. China has extremely filthy air from 1970 -2020 however must have relatively tidy air by 2030.

Cheap, Clean Energy Would Be Great

The World invests about $6 trillion a year buying energy and building energy. If we cleaned up the fossil fuels we would save 7 million lives per year. Nevertheless, fossil fuels are 80% of international energy use. If we can make energy half as pricey, then the world may spend $3 trillion per year instead of $6 trillion.

In 2013, Nextbigfuture kept in mind that the world should not have debates which treat money for energy research study as limited. The World invests about $100 billion per year on energy research.

Energy research and advancement (angels and endeavor capitalists) in the U.S.A. is about $10 billion per year. Worldwide it is about $50-100 billion (government and industry). For a $6 trillion per year market with an average of 2% for research, there need to be $300 billion being invested on energy research study.

The top countries in research (Japan, Israel) by percent of GDP spend 3.5 -4.2% on research study. Get energy right and the world can double the whole economy. Rather of targeting double the world energy and world economy in 2040, we might target triple or quadruple. With energy that is four times less expensive then we have a lot of energy for clean water and other methods to modification the world for the much better. We would have the energy and cash for area.

Energy is money. The energy efficiency of an economy is slow changing relationship between GDP per unit of energy utilized.

Natural gas became low expense and plentiful due to the fact that of fracking and horizontal drilling. This shows that technology can shift energy markets and the cost of energy within a few years.

We can target transforming nuclear fission energy with factory mass-produced deep burn (burn 99+% of the uranium, plutonium or thorium) with a expense of 1 cent or less per kWh. Deeper burn breeder reactors that are about three times more effective with Uranium have actually been produced.

China will quickly be mass producing deep pool nuclear fission reactors that will be walkaway safe and have costs of about 1.65 cents per kwh of thermal heat. Routine nuclear reactors for electrical power can get down to $2500 per kilowatt in China for the Hualong 1 reactors. China is down to 2.5 to 3 cents per kwh for existing nuclear fission when the interest rate for funding is 3%.

Cheap energy is great for mankind. Affordable nuclear fission with less nuclear waste is achievable. There are less technical questions than for reaching a industrial nuclear fusion breakthrough. Utilizing a baseball analogy, we should continue to go for energy tasks that get songs and doubles. Nevertheless, going for house runs with development 99% deep burn nuclear fission and for commercial nuclear combination should still be done.

Fairly predictable energy and transport projects with relatively low technical threat:
Converting all new vehicles to electric cars and trucks. Tesla has made 1 million electric cars and trucks and there are about 5 million electric automobiles on the roadways now. Electric cars can be utilized for 1 million miles of driving due to the fact that they have fewer moving parts and simpler upkeep.

Electrifying transportation can happen much faster than replacing all brand-new (100 million per year) and used cars and trucks (1.5+ billion old vehicles and trucks). We can convert the ridesharing automobiles to electric first.

Trucks use far more fuel and generate far more pollution than cars and trucks. The Tesla Semi could enable trucks to be transformed to electrical and get contaminating trucks away from cities where most individuals live.

Electrifying lorries would stop the use of about 15 -20 million barrels per day of oil.

Converting coal plants for heating in Northern China to nuclear district heating reactors might stop the burning of up to 500 million lots of coal each year.

ThorCon is working on mass production of a molten salt nuclear reactor. Molten Salt nuclear reactors were developed and operated in the 1960 s in the U.S.A. at a couple of megawatts of power.

About 15% of the World’s nuclear waste (unburned uranium) is reprocessed every year. China has prepares to scale up reprocessing to close the nuclear fission fuel cycle. This would involve structure many breeder reactors. Breeder reactors have actually been built and run. There are improved variations that have been funded and are in advancement and building and construction.

Mass production of traditional nuclear fission reactors could see 500 -1000 Gigawatts of nuclear power by about 2060 and if breeders and reprocessing centers are built the fuel cycle can be closed. The main location this will occur is in China. If China does not pick a mass nuclear fission route then the nuclear fission market will be far less unless there are energy job advancements.

If we are handling the World’s energy job portfolio, then we need to increase general energy research study to $300-600 billion each year. The molten salt fission reactors and district heating deep pool reactors need to be established. About 5 -10% of general research need to go for different nuclear blend tasks. More technologies ought to be explored since there will be the benefits from reduced air contamination damage (economic, lives and health) and from the financial cost of more pricey energy.

Correcting a Critic About My Nuclear Combination Protection

Daniel Jassby is a research physicist, who worked on nuclear combination experiments for 25 years at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. Daniel has composed a paper which he has actually published at Vixra called “Voodoo Fusion Energy”.

Daniel points out about 15 of my nuclear blend posts and ignores where I had important posts of nuclear fusion, summaries of combination and contextual analysis. My summaries and criticism happened many years before Daniel’s short article. Daniel himself is a enormous hypocrite. He worked on the goal of nuclear combination experiments for 25 years and did not start calling it out publicly up until 18 years after he retired.

I have noted the insults of this short article before. However, a nuclear combination scientist brought it up in a recent conversation. I wanted to address it once again.

Of the nearly 30,000 short articles that I have written on Nextbigfuture, I have composed about 700 about nuclear fusion and are tagged with blend as a category. There are nearly 2000 articles on energy.

Daniel grumbles in the 15 posts, I did not slam each project as they were being announced.

Daniel got paid for 25 years working on nuclear combination and has been retired given that 1999. Daniel might have actually written about each nuclear blend startup as they announce and slam timelines and propositions as they are made. Nevertheless, he did not. He has actually composed two posts for the Publication of the Atomic Scientist. One knocks the ITER job and another claims that even if nuclear combination energy is commercialized that it will not be that good.

So Daniel picked to get paid for 25 years working towards a goal that he now declares draws.

Nextbigfuture Has Pointed out Delays, Technical Risks and Other Problems for Years Before Daniel’s Voodoo Combination Post

Daniel disregarded the multiple Nextbigfuture combination summaries and analysis posts. He cherry-picked the 3% of the articles on announcements.

I have actually written numerous summaries on the work on nuclear blend.

In 2018, one of the vibrant sub-titles kept in mind the issues and large delays in schedules.
Most of the venture-funded possibilities for advancement nuclear combination have stalled or have sluggish progress

I note in the summaries that schedules slipped and work is proceeding more gradually than claimed. I had a summary of fusion jobs in 2010.

I have pointed out the New Combination Race slides which track triple blend item accomplished by tasks and experiments.

I had an upgrade in 2014, that noted the sluggish rate of progress and schedule slippage.

Daniel claimed I was constantly uncritical. This is incorrect. I likewise provided better summaries and analysis than Daniel has. I would also note that Daniel is a hypocrite for taking 25 years of salary from Princeton Plasma Physics Lab before choosing to be important of the objective and projects. Is Daniel going to give back part of his income to the taxpayers that partially fund Princeton?

For the last lots years, Wang has actually priced quote uncritically forecasts of future
accomplishments with dates supplied by task promoters. Wang treats all jobs
and unjustified claims seriously, however you, dear reader, will simply take note of the dates
promised for business combination reactors.

Another 2014 summary of blend jobs.

In the 2013 Nextbigfuture nuclear blend summary, I kept in mind the slippage with Tri Alpha Energy.

In 2010, I had a summary that talked about the path to commercializing nuclear blend and how we needed to work on enhancing nuclear fission.

In 2010, I kept in mind Eric Drexler’s criticism of the Tokomak and some other nuclear fusion jobs.

Eric : As numerous of you have noted, what I say about “fusion power” is actually about tokamaks, the dominant method to combination today. I’ve been following the advancement of blend power ideas, consisting of the many alternative approaches, for years now. All machines that appearance more-or-less like existing tokamaks (stellarators, for example) would have similar capital-cost problems.

Laser-driven inertial confinement schemes are various but have led to sketches of power plants that once again seem extremely implausible.

Bussard suggested a number of fusion-machine principles, including a scheme for a extremely various kind of tokamak (with a small, disposable core), and, of course, the totally different Polywell approach. There’s not much in print about Polywell, at a technical level, but from what I‘ve read, (1) I’d offer long odds against the proposition that the scheme actually makes physical, technological sense, and (2) I’m glad to see that it’s being examined more carefully.

I said in 2010. I believe ITER is inferior to deep burn fission by itself. I promoted deep burn fission and getting to faster building times and annular nuclear fuel and other enhancement to reach 1 -2 cents per kilowatt hour with very little waste.

Nextbigfuture has written posts about bad declares from ITER and nuclear fusion startups.

ITER and Many Nuclear Blend Start-ups Usage Deceptive Power Terms.

ITER fusion project is even worse than advertised

ITER blend project lies about the dates, budget plan and power levels

The hope and speculation is that after DEMO’s a nation might then continue to make a industrial combination reactor model. However the science and physics might make complex things and another pre-prototype might be needed.

So several pre-prototype tasks out to 2060. State four countries each with their own $100-200 billion job out to 2060.

Then models out to 2070. This is all presuming the innovation is working.

International Tokamak Combination is thousands of lifetime physics and engineering tasks, November 22, 2016

In 2012 European Blend Advancement Arrangement (EFDA) provided a roadmap to fusion power with a strategy proving the reliances of DEMONSTRATION activities on ITER and IFMIF

Conceptual style to be complete in 2020
Engineering design total, and choice to develop, in 2030
Construction from 2031 to 2043
Operation from 2044, Electrical energy generation demonstration 2048

So now with the eight year hold-up in ITER, Nextbigfuture included the time to 2012 DEMONSTRATION first commercial combination reactor strategy
Conceptual style to be complete in 2028
Engineering design total, and decision to build, in 2038
Construction from 2039 to 2051
Operation from 2052, Electrical energy generation demonstration 2056

Nextbigfuture has likewise written about other bad jobs like California high speed rail.

Daniel has actually composed 2 articles for the Publication of the Atomic Researchers (anti-nuclear weapon organization.)

Link to all nextbigfuture fusion articles.

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