There is general agreement on the necessity of transition to alternative energy sources, including nuclear power.
The resurgence of the nuclear-power industry has stimulated a significant rise in the spot market price of yellowcake (U3O8). By the end of 2006, yellowcake prices rose above $72/pound -- more than doubling over the previous 12 months -- and are presently about $91.
Although the average price involved in long-term contracts for deliveries in 2005 was less than $15/pound, as the contracts with the nuclear utilities mature, major price re-adjustments upward will certainly occur.
Because of the price, there is a resurgence of uranium exploration and production activity.
Discovery of new uranium deposits is resulting from following extensions of previously known, shallow deposits that were mined by open-cut methods (see figure 2). The oxidized tongue of sandstone shown in figure 2 as orange and grayish orange is represented in figure 1 as a leached, light gray color. The ore zone is medium gray surrounding the oxidized zone.
Using the geologic methods developed in the 1970s (illustrated in figure 2), the success rates are going up.
Out: Old Mining Technology
In the production of uranium, mining no longer requires open-cut surface mines as in the past. New environmentally friendly methods have developed substantially since the late 1970s.
Mining uranium in Tertiary sandstone deposits in South Texas, Wyoming, Kazakhstan and elsewhere now incorporates in-situ leaching (ISL) methods that involve water-well drilling technology and common industrial ion-exchange technology similar to household water-softening methods in use today.
Since the uranium ore has formed naturally in aquifers often used elsewhere along the trend for drinking-water supplies, the part of the aquifer being mined by ISL methods are prohibited by the state to be used as a source of drinking water. In addition, the area of influence of nearby large-capacity water wells needs to be carefully monitored to avoid drawing the naturally contaminated ground water away from the uranium production area.
The leaching agents used in ISL are typically special forms of O2, CO2and, in some cases, ammonia-based fluids, all of which are non-toxic and are easily recovered by pumping.
It is the responsibility of the mining company (and required by state regulatory agencies) to install strategically located ground-water monitoring wells to periodically sample for fluids that may have escaped the hydraulic cycle of injection and recovery of uranium-saturated fluids for making yellowcake from ion exchange resins in the plant on the surface.
The typical cycle is illustrated in figure 3.
To a large extent, in-situ mining of uranium is both a natural resource development project and a natural, contaminant-remediation project. Although uranium ore is a natural energy resource, it is also a bacterial waste product that was formed within the bio-geochemical cell developed within the aquifer. Both rely heavily on, and are driven by, hydrogeological processes.
Protecting upper and lower aquifers from incursions of the production fluids is also a function of understanding the hydrogeological conditions in and around the production site.
The mine’s hydrogeological staff monitors the behavior of the fluids and associated hydrochemistry during the in-situ leaching of the uranium ore zones and monitor the data generated from sampling the surrounding monitoring wells.
It is widely suspected that the price of uranium will continue to rise for the next few years until a uranium shortfall is realized as new production meets demand -- which should occur within the next five to 10 years.
But if the world greatly expands the use of nuclear power by building many more plants than have been announced to date, the pressure on production and price will be tremendous beyond 2020.
However, recent efforts by the international community in recycling and enrichment of nuclear wastes may play significant roles in stabilizing production and fuel prices in the future.
It is interesting to note that the major oil and gas companies, who in the 1970s held major stakes in uranium exploration and production, are so far sitting out this cycle.
There is a growing sentiment that if the major oil and gas companies wish to remain leaders of the global energy field they will have to re-enter the nuclear-power industry -- both at the plant level to play a strong role in hydrogen production and distribution, and at the exploration level
Needed: Well-Trained Professionals
In the 1970s and 1980s about 2,000 professional geoscientists were working on uranium projects in the United States.
Today only 400 geologists and only a few qualified hydrogeologists are working in the field.
It will take some time to train new geologists and hydrogeologists, and this will inhibit yellowcake production schedules as well. State licensing of geoscientists has reinforced an upward trend in professional competency and public responsibility in the analysis of uranium reserves and environmental compliance.