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In my two previous Nuclear Energy Blogposts, I briefly wrote about the current global nuclear revival activity and its connection to the somewhat new uranium enrichment modality called ‘Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation.’ In this post, I aim to expand upon these topics and emphasise Australia’s burgeoning importance in the world’s nuclear energy revival.

Disclaimer: Before I begin that arduous task, let me point out that I am not in any way, shape, or form an expert on anything regarding science or the nuclear field. In fact, I’ve no educational background whatsoever in this regard. I’m just an amateur writer who happens to have a personal interest in Australia and its mining industry, and in current events. The majority of what I present here will be factual information pulled straight from news sources and government or corporate websites; the remainder is purely my own humble opinions.

Because both John McCain and Barack Obama have outlined their plans to reduce America’s dependence on foreign energy sources and implement cleaner energy, I find it particularly intriguing that so many wheels have already been set in motion to achieve those goals. Obama’s website (www.barackobama.com) states that “Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our noncarbon generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option.” Similarly, McCain’s website (www.johnmccain.com) says “John McCain will put his administration on track to construct 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030 with the ultimate goal of eventually constructing 100 new plants.” It goes on to say, “It is also critical that the U.S. be able to build the components for these plants and reactors within our country so that we are not dependent on foreign suppliers with long wait times to move forward with our nuclear plans.”

So with that being said, I have taken it upon myself to self-educate by doing a little research on the nuclear process, the market, and which players are involved in achieving the goal of becoming an energy self-sufficient nation. What I haven’t done is research the negatives. If anyone who reads this would like to comment in that regard, or on any other point, please do – I would love to hear your take.

The Story

In a Thompson Financial News article dated September 4, 2008, reporter Anna Stablum states:
“Uranium enrichment companies in the United States and Europe have seen an increase in customer interest after the recent conflict involving Russia and Georgia, industry sources said Thursday.” [News/Reuters, 2008]

At present, there are 440 nuclear reactors operating world-wide, with another 30 in the construction phase. Approximately 40% of the world’s enrichment capacity is by means of gaseous diffusion; however, most gaseous diffusion plants are nearing the end of their design life, becoming obsolete.

The Suppliers

–USEC, Inc (NYSE:USU) http://www.usec.com supplies approximately 25% of enriched uranium for world markets and more than half of the U.S. market. It currently operates the only uranium enrichment facility in the United States, a gaseous diffusion plant located in Paducah, KY. However, USEC has begun construction on its future American Centrifuge Plant, a ‘second-generation’ uranium enrichment technology developed by the US DOE. USEC was created in the 1990s as a US government corporation but was privatised in July 1998 by the Clinton administration. USEC subsidiary, NAC International, specialises in the transportation and storage of used nuclear fuel.

–AREVA (ARVCF.PK) of France, supplies approximately 25% of the enriched uranium for world markets. Incidentally, AREVA announced the opening of a new engineering facility in San Jose, CA. The company plans to employ 800+ engineers by 2011. As well, AREVA will build a uranium enrichment facility in Bonneville County, Idaho [source: Nuclear Plant Journal.]

–URENCO (Europe) supplies another 25% of the enriched uranium for world markets. URENCO wants to build an enrichment plant in Australia due to the growing Asia-Pacific market for nuclear power fuel.

–TENEX (Russia) is the fourth major supplier of enriched uranium, representing another 25% of the market. Notably, 10 percent of world enrichment capacity up to 2010 comes from Russia blending down nuclear warheads which contain uranium.

Future International Enrichment Centers
Following proposals from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Russia, and in connection with the US-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), there are moves to establish new international uranium enrichment centers.

The GNEP proposal began as part of the Advanced Energy Initiative announced by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union Address. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership has four main goals. First, reduce America’s dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuels and encourage economic growth. Second, recycle nuclear fuel using new proliferation-resistant technologies to recover more energy and reduce waste. Third, encourage prosperity growth and clean development around the world. And fourth, utilize the latest technologies to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation worldwide. Through GNEP, the United States will work with other nations possessing advanced nuclear technologies to develop new proliferation-resistant recycling technologies in order to produce more energy, reduce waste and minimize proliferation concerns. Additionally, [the] partner nations will develop a fuel services program to provide nuclear fuel to developing nations allowing them to enjoy the benefits of abundant sources of clean, safe nuclear energy in a cost effective manner in exchange for their commitment to forgo enrichment and reprocessing activities, also alleviating proliferation concerns. [Source: Wikipedia]

Sources of Uranium

Although Australia has the world’s largest known reserves of uranium, at present Canada supplies the lion’s share of uranium, at approximately 24.9%. Australia presently supplies 19.1%. Other sources of uranium are: Kazakhstan (13.3%), Niger (8.7%), Russia (8.6%), Namibia (7.8%), Uzbekistan (5.7%), USA (4.3%), Ukraine (2%), China (1.9%) and South Africa (1.3%).

More money is being spent on uranium exploration worldwide and uranium projects in some countries, notably Kazakhstan, are being fast-tracked. Production is expected to expand in Canada, Russia, and Africa. Australia’s output is expected to expand to about 11,000 tonnes in 2012-13 [Source: http://www.miningaustralia.com.au].

In fact, Western Australia has just this week approved the removal of a ban on uranium mining that will pave the way to exploit the vast uranium reserves there. Indigenous land-owners in the mining areas had disputed the ban in the past.

This decision was no doubt tied to a joint-venture between Cameco Corporation, the world’s largest uranium producer, and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH).

Cameco purchased a 24% interest in Global Laser Enrichment (GLE, a subsidiary of GEH). Further, Cameco, in joint venture with Mitsubishi Development Pty Ltd, also recently purchased a 70% interest in the Kintyre uranium exploration project in Western Australia. Kintyre is an advanced exploration project located about 1,250 kilometres northeast of Perth [Source: http://www.miningtopnew.com].

The Enrichment Process

Most of the 470 commercial nuclear power reactors operating or under construction in the world today require uranium ‘enriched’ in the U-235 isotope for their fuel.

*Gaseous Enrichment technology, designed in the 1940’s, is very expensive and is, unfortunately, nearing the end of its design “shelf-life” making it obsolete. It currently represents 33% of the existing world market.

*Centrifuge Enrichment technology is the second-generation enrichment technology and is considered “capital intensive.” It represents 54% of the existing world market.

*Laser Excitation technology is still under development and is considered to be the best option for third-generation enrichment technology. Its’ enrichment efficiency rates are substantially higher than existing methods, and are actually “classified” by the US Dept. Of Defence. It promises much lower energy inputs and lower capital costs, along with other advantages [Source: http://www.silex.com.au].

The world’s first third-generation commercial laser enrichment plant.

“Development of Atomic Vapour Laser Isotope Separation (AVLIS, and the French SILVA) began in the 1970s. In 1985 the US Government backed it as the new technology to replace its gaseous diffusion plants as they reached the end of their economic lives early in the 21st century. However, after some US $2 billion in R&D, it was abandoned in USA in favour of SILEX, a molecular process. French work on SILVA has now ceased, following a 4-year program to 2003 to prove the scientific and technical feasibility of the process. Some 200kg of 2.5% enriched uranium was produced in this.” (www.worldnuclear.org)

The only remaining laser process on the world stage is through SILEX Systems, Ltd.
In 2006 GE Energy (now GE-Hitachi or GEH) entered a partnership to develop the SILEX process.

It provided for GE-Hitachi to construct in the USA, an engineering-scale test loop [by end of 2008] then a pilot plant or lead cascade, which could be operating by 2010-12, and expanded to a full commercial plant. (Note: SILEX’s website, http://www.silex.com.au/) which was recently hacked, reports that installation of the facility infrastructure and services at the Wilmington plant are nearly completed.) GE referred to SILEX, which it has re-badged as Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), as “game-changing technology” with a “very high likelihood” of success.

In mid 2008 Cameco bought into the GLE project, paying $124 million for 24% share, alongside GE (51%) and Hitachi (25%).

In October 2007 the two largest US nuclear utilities, Exelon and Entergy, signed letters of intent to contract for uranium enrichment services from GLE. The utilities may also provide GLE with facility licensing and public acceptance support if needed for development of a commercial-scale GLE plant, for which the NRC expects an application in FY08. GEH has begun preparing a GLE test loop at Global Nuclear Fuel’s Wilmington, North Carolina fuel fabrication facility – GNF is a partnership of GE, Toshiba, and Hitachi. [Source: http://www.worldnuclear.org]

GLE plans to complete the Test Loop Program in mid 2009, which if successful, would then open the way for the world’s first third-generation commercial laser enrichment plant to be constructed in the US.