Under the terms of the 1993 government-to-government nuclear non-proliferation agreement (Megatons to Megawatts program), the United States and Russia agreed to commercially implement a 20-year program to convert 500 metric tons of HEU (uranium 235 enriched to 90%) taken from Soviet era warheads, into LEU, low enriched uranium (less than 5% uranium 235).
To date 463.5 metric tons of bomb-grade HEU have been recycled into 13,345 metric tons of LEU – enough material to produce fuel to power the entire United States for about two years.
Overall, the blending down of 500 tonnes of Russian weapons HEU will result in about 15,000 tonnes of LEU over the 20 year lifespan of the program. This is equivalent to about 152,000 tonnes of natural U, or just over one year’s global demand.
The Megatons to Megawatts Program was supplying roughly 50% of the US' LEU demand. Mining accounted for 8% with the rest coming from other sources (rapidly depleting utility and government stockpiles).
Currently, the electricity for one in 10 American homes, businesses, schools and hospitals is generated by Megatons to Megawatts fuel.
The US has 104 nuclear reactors operating. This is the largest fleet of nuclear reactors in the world, making the US the world's largest uranium market. In 2011 the US nuclear reactor fleet required 55 million pounds of uranium.
The mined supply of uranium in the US, in 2011, was about four million pounds.
US uranium facts and figures as published in May 2012 in the “2011 Domestic Uranium Production Report” by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA):
- Total uranium drilling in 2011 was 10,597 holes covering 6.3 million feet, 47% more holes than in 2010
- Expenditures for uranium drilling in the United States for 2011 were $54 million in 2011, an increase of 20% compared with 2010
- US uranium mines produced 4.1 million pounds U3O8 in 2011, 3% less than in 2010
- Total production of U.S. uranium concentrate in 2011 was 4.0 million pounds U3O8, 6% less than in 2010
- Total shipments of uranium concentrate from US mill and ISL plants were 4.0 million pounds U3O8 in 2011, 22% less than in 2010
- US producers sold 2.9 million pounds U3O8 of uranium concentrate in 2011 at a weighted-average price of $52.36 per pound U3O8
World Uranium Market
According to a recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), by the year 2035:
“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 10 years or more in most producing countries) required to develop production facilities that can turn resources into refined uranium ready for nuclear fuel production.”
Wyoming and In-Situ Recovery Mining
Wyoming has roll-front uranium deposits in its sandstones and the largest known uranium reserves of any US state. There is no doubt in this author’s mind the state will be a key player in supplying the fuel nuclear power plants in the US need to become independent of foreign supplies.