Tag Archives: uranium production

Where Waste Leaches into Water: uranium tailings in Central Asia

Mailuu Suu, Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan:   Dr Osekeeva’s 38 years practising family medicine in this idyllic-looking valley in southern Kyrgyzstan make her a cataloguer of death. Cancer rates are rising, she says, and she thinks she knows the culprit. Buried along the river in and around Mailuu-Suu, a town of some 20,000 people, lurks the poisonous legacy of the Soviet Union’s first atom bombs: 2m cubic metres of radioactive waste leaching into the water supply.  Mailuu-Suu was once closed to outsiders. Its well-paid workers were treated as members of the elite: they received perks such as handouts of beer and beach vacations in Crimea. Over the years, they mined and milled 10,000 tonnes of uranium ore into yellowcake, ready for conversion into bomb material. Uranium was also sent from as far as East Germany and Czechoslovakia to be processed here.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and local industry in 1991, the specialists left. Supervision of the town’s 23 tailings sites—dumps containing the hazardous leftovers—became sporadic. Fences and warning signs have been looted for scrap metal. Today, cows graze atop the invisible menace. Goats sleep inside an abandoned uranium mineshaft. Local dairy products and meat are often unsafe; kitchen taps spew silty river water laced with heavy metals.

Neighbouring countries worry. The river through Mailuu-Suu is prone to earthquakes and floods. It is only about 15 miles (25km) upstream from Central Asia’s breadbasket, the Fergana Valley, which is home to over 10m people. Every few years landslides block the flow, threatening to flood the dumps and wash radionuclides over the melon patches and cornfields downstream. A European aid official warns of a “creeping environmental disaster”.

Mailuu-Suu is only a small part of the picture. Dotting hills above the Fergana—straddling the post-Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—lie dozens of other tailings dumps. Many also contain other heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and cadmium, which can be more dangerous to the body than radiation. Few are secured or monitored.

The three countries are hardly on speaking terms, so cross-border co-operation is non-existent. …Kyrgyzstan, however, has made a little progress. Between 2010 and 2012, an $8.4m World Bank-led project moved 150,000 cubic metres of waste from one of the most accident-prone tailings dumps in Mailuu-Suu to a safer spot up the hill. But locals complain they were not briefed properly about this. They say workers stirred up radioactive dust; many claim cancers have grown more frequent since the transfer.

The government is appealing to the European Union for $50m to deal with ten sites at Mailuu-Suu it says are in need of “urgent” relocation. Others estimate that even this relatively small project would cost hundreds of millions. Kyrgyz officials grumble that donors are slow to make decisions, spending millions on assessments that take years.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says the landslides and flooding make Mailuu-Suu “high risk” and a top priority. But donors can be forgiven for hesitating. Corruption and inertia have eroded many government institutions in Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours.

Uranium in Central Asia: Poisoned legacy, Economist, July 11, at 40

The Lure of Impossible: Choking Uranium Markets

The Rössing Uranium Mine in Namibia

Making nuclear weapons requires access to materials—highly enriched uranium or plutonium—that do not exist in nature in a weapons-usable form.   The most important suppliers of nuclear technology have recently agreed guidelines to restrict access to the most sensitive industrial items, in the framework of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Nevertheless, the number of countries proficient in these industrial processes has increased over time, and it is now questionable whether a strategy based on close monitoring of technology ‘choke points’ is by itself a reliable barrier to nuclear proliferation.  Time to tighten regulation of the uranium market?

Not all the states that have developed a complex nuclear fuel cycle have naturally abundant uranium. This has created a global market for uranium that is relatively free—particularly compared with the market for sensitive technologies….

Many African states have experienced increased investment in their uranium extractive sectors in recent years. Many, though not all, have signed and ratified the 1996 African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (Pelindaba) Treaty, which entered into force in 2009. Furthermore, in recent years, the relevant countries have often worked with the IAEA to introduce an Additional Protocol to their safeguards agreement with the agency…

One proliferation risk inherent in the current system is that inadequate or falsified information connected to what appear to be legitimate transactions will facilitate uranium acquisition by countries that the producer country would not wish to supply….

A second risk is that uranium ore concentrate (UOC) is diverted, either from the site where it was processed or during transportation, so the legitimate owners no longer have control over it. UOC is usually produced at facilities close to mines—often at the mining site itself—to avoid the cost and inconvenience of transporting large quantities of very heavy ore in raw form to a processing plant.,,,UOC is usually packed into steel drums that are loaded into standard shipping containers for onward movement by road, rail or sea for further processing. The loss of custody over relatively small quantities of UOC represents a serious risk if diversion takes place regularly. The loss of even one full standard container during transport would be a serious proliferation risk by itself. There is thus a need for physical protection of the ore concentrate to reduce the risk of diversion at these stages.

A third risk is that some uranium extraction activity is not covered by the existing rules. For example, uranium extraction can be a side activity connected to gold mining or the production of phosphates. Regulations should cover all activities that could lead to uranium extraction, not only those where uranium extraction is the main stated objective.

Restricting access to natural uranium could be an important aspect of the global efforts to obstruct the spread of nuclear weapons…

Excerpts, from  Ian Anthony and Lina Grip, The global market in natural uranium—from proliferation risk to non-proliferation opportunity, SIPRI, Apr. 13, 2013

Nuclear Energy and the Supplies of Uranium: 2013

Yellowcake.  Image from wikipedia

Uranium is poised to rebound from a second annual decline as Japan considers restarting its atomic plants almost two years after the Fukushima disaster and China pushes ahead with the world’s biggest nuclear building program…A revival in demand from Japan is raising the prospect that supplies of the radioactive metal will shrink at the same time as China continues with a project to increase its nuclear power capacity at least fivefold by 2020. That’s a boost for uranium producers such as Perth, Australia-based Paladin (PDN) Energy Ltd. It’s also a blow for liquefied natural gas exporters including Qatar and Australia, which have helped plug Japan’s power shortage since the earthquake that led to the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in March 2011.,,,

The uranium forecasts for 2013 ranged from $45 to $62.60 a ton in the Bloomberg survey conducted Dec. 10 to Dec. 19. That compares with a three-year high of $73 in February 2011, according to data from Roswell, Georgia-based Ux Consulting, which advises the nuclear industry. The fuel averaged $56.80 in 2011 and was $43 a pound on Jan. 3.  The price plunged as low as $49.75 a ton in March 2011 after Japan’s biggest earthquake on record and a subsequent tsunami damaged reactors at the Fukushima site run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (9501), releasing radiation and causing the evacuation of 160,000 people. The government responded to the disaster by keeping all 54 of the nation’s then-functioning atomic plants shut after safety checks, while countries from China to France reviewed their nuclear policies and Germany said it would close its facilities….

Speculation that uranium demand will rebound has grown since Dec. 16, when Japan’s Liberal Democrat Party won a landslide election victory. The previous administration of the Democratic Party of Japan, which ordered the shutdowns, planned to phase out nuclear power by the end of the 2030s…

Stockmarket investors have been betting that the resumptions will occur and boost uranium demand just as China pushes on with plans to build at least 26 new reactors. At the same time, analysts are predicting a drop in the price of LNG as Japan’s utilities seek to reduce their electricity-generation costs by switching back to nuclear.

Paladin, which operates two uranium mines in Africa and has exploration assets in Australia, rose 22 percent in Sydney in the two days through Dec. 18. Energy Resources of Australia Ltd. (ERA), whose Ranger mine in the Northern Territory produces about 10 percent of the world’s mined uranium, advanced 13 percent over the same period. Australia has the world’s largest known deposits of the fuel, according to the World Nuclear Association.

The cost of Japan’s LNG imports almost doubled in the past three years, reaching a record $18.07 per million Btu in July, according to Finance Ministry data. Purchases for the first 11 months of last year increased 11.5 percent from the same period in 2011 to a record 79.5 million tons, according to data from the ministry….The country must restart reactors quickly because of the price of fossil fuels, LDP General Council Chairman Hiroyuki Hosoda said Nov. 27.

Ben Sharples. Uranium Rebound Seen as Japan Considers Nuclear: Energy Markets, Bloomberg, Jan. 4, 2012

Nuclear Renaissance on Track Despite Fukushima

According to a 2012 OECD/NEA and IAEA report: Although the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident has affected nuclear power projects and policies in some countries, nuclear power remains a key part of the global energy mix. Several governments have plans for new nuclear power plant construction, with the strongest expansion expected in China, India, the Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation. The speed and magnitude of growth in generating capacity elsewhere is still to be determined.

By the year 2035, according to the joint NEA-IAEA Secretariat, world nuclear electricity generating capacity is projected to grow from 375 GWe net (at the end of 2010) to between 540 GWe net in the low demand case and 746 GWe net in the high demand case, increases of 44% and 99% respectively. Accordingly, world annual reactor-related uranium requirements are projected to rise from 63 875 tonnes of uranium metal (tU) at the end of 2010 to between 98 000 tU and 136 000 tU by 2035. The currently defined uranium resource base is more than adequate to meet high-case requirements through 2035 and well into the foreseeable future.

Although ample resources are available, meeting projected demand will require timely investments in uranium production facilities. This is because of the long lead times (typically in the order of ten years or more in most producing countries) required to develop production facilities that can turn resources into refined uranium ready for nuclear fuel production.

With uranium production ready to expand to new countries, efforts are being made to develop transparent and well-regulated operations similar to those used elsewhere to minimise potential environmental and local health impacts….

Excerpt, Uranium 2011: Resources, Production and Demand A Joint Report by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency, OECD, 2012