Home' Australian Resources and Investment : March 2010 Contents 172 • MARCH 2010 • AUSTRALIAN RESOURCES & INVESTMENT
INDUSTRY BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS
There are currently 436 nuclear power reactors operating globally. Their
combined capacity for output of electricity is 372 GWe, which represents
about 16% of the world's output. Nuclear power reactors account for
over 90% of the world's uranium demand.
Before 2004 the market for uranium fuel materials had been
depressed for more than 20 years. Indeed, during the late 1990s and
early 2000s uranium prices ranged between US$7/lb and US$15/lb U3O8.
These low prices can be attributed mainly to secondary sources,
3 large commercial inventories from primary production during the
1970s and 1980s, and
3 down-blending highly enriched Russian uranium from nuclear
NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE
URANIUM ENRICHMENT AND PROCESSING
Mined uranium ore is milled to produce U3O8 (typically referred to as
yellowcake) and then converted to uranium hexafluoride (UF6). Gaseous
UF6 must then be enriched before it can be reconverted into enriched
uranium dioxide (UO2) pellets to be used in the manufacture of fuel
rods for nuclear reactors. Spent nuclear fuel can be reprocessed to
recover remaining U235 and reused in a nuclear reactor if mixed with
plutonium or higher enrichment uranium.
Natural (mined) uranium contains approximately 0.7% U235 (99.3%
U238). For this reason natural uranium cannot be used in light water
reactors because the content of fissile U235 is too low to sustain a
nuclear reaction. Enrichment is the process of increasing the
concentration of U235, while decreasing the concentration of U238. The
majority of nuclear power reactors require low enriched uranium of
between 3 and 5% U235.
Enrichment is increasingly undertaken using centrifuge technology,
which is replacing the older, high-cost diffusion process. The work
required to perform enrichment is measured in terms of SWUs. A SWU is
a unit that expresses the work required to separate U235 and U238. The
amount of uranium enriched depends on: the quantity of uranium feed
(UF6) at the beginning of the process; the amount of SWUs used in the
enrichment process; and the concentration of U235 left over (tails
assay) at the end of the process. By varying the tails assay, a reactor
operator can find the most economical combination of UF6 feed and
SWU required for enrichment.
Reprocessing of spent fuel from nuclear power plants is an
alternative source of nuclear fuel for plants (OECD--NEA and IAEA 2006).
Used reactor fuel still contains quantities of the original U235, various
plutonium isotopes and U238. Reprocessing, which is currently
undertaken in Europe and the Russian Federation, separates the uranium
and plutonium from the used reactor fuel. The recycled plutonium can
be reused in reactors that are licensed to use mixed oxide fuel (MOX).
Major Western commercial reprocessing plants are located in France
and the United Kingdom, with capacity of over 4000 tonnes of spent
fuel a year. About 200 tonnes of MOX is used each year, equivalent to
less than 2000 tonnes of U3O8 from mines. Therefore, the use of MOX
currently forms a small part of the nuclear fuel market and is generally
considered non commercial.
Global electricity demand set to grow by 2.8%pa through 2030
Source: OECD/IEA World Energy Outlook 2007, ERA
Nuclear Fuel Cycle
Growth of nuclear power in electricity production
Source: World Nuclear Association
Nuc ea powe gene a on ( of count y e ect icity capacity)
Source: WNA;UxC, Tradetech, Abare
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