Nuclear power is gaining popularity as the world tries to meet increased demand for electricity from non-carbon sources. Nuclear power is a result of heat generated through the fission process of atoms. The most common fuel used in conventional nuclear fission power stations is uranium, a silvery-white radioactive metal in the actinide series of the periodic table.
Uranium occurs naturally in several minerals such as uranite (pitchblende), brannerite and carnotite. It is also found in phosphate rock and monazite sands. It is a major material from which other synthetic trans-uranium elements are made.
In nature, uranium is available as three isotopes – uranium-238 (99.27%), uranium-235 (0.71%) and a very small quantity of uranium-234 (0.0054%). The half-life of uranium-238 and uranium-235 is about 4.47 billion years and 704 million years, respectively, making them useful in dating the age of the Earth.Uranium-235 is the only naturally occurring fissile isotope, which makes it useful in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons. However, as it is found in tiny amounts in nature, uranium needs to undergo enrichment so that enough uranium-235 is present.
Because of its unique nuclear propertiesuranium is widely used in several military and civilian uses. At present, only eight countries are known to have equipped with nuclear weapons. In contrast, several countries have set up research reactors to provide a source of neutron beams for scientific research and the production of medical and industrial isotopes, and for marine propulsion. As of August 2017, there were more than 440 commercial nuclear power reactors operatingacross 31 countries, with a total installed capacity of over 390,000 MWe, according to World Nuclear Association. They accounted for 11% of the world’s electricity as continuous, reliable power to meet base-load demand, without CO2 emissions. There are also 60 reactorsunder construction around the world, with the majority in Asia, as of 2017.
Uranium production has been steadily growing over the past few years. Last year, the world’s total uranium production reached 62,366 tons.Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia accounted for more than two-thirds of the global uranium production from mines in 2016.Kazakhstan accounted for the largest share of uranium from mines with 39%, followed by Canada (22%) and Australia (10%).
Image: Pitchblende from Niederschlema-Alberoda deposit, Saxony, Germany. Photo courtesy of Geomartin/Wikipedia.
Here is the list of largest uranium producing countries in the world, according to World Nuclear Association.
Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan is currently the leading producer of uranium in the world. As mentioned above, the country’s total uranium output of 24,575 tons accounted for 39% of global uranium supply in 2016. Kazakhstan was home to 745,300 tons (13%) of known recoverable uranium resources as of 2015, second only to Australia. Kazatomprom, the country’s state-owned atomic company set up in 1997, controls all uranium exploration, mining as well as other nuclear-related activities. Many of the company’s mining operations are run as joint ventures with Russian, Chinese, Canadian and French counterparts.
Canada: Canada’s share of known world uranium resources was about 9% (509,000 tons) as of 2015, but it accounted for 22% of global output in 2016, making it the second largest producer in the world behind Kazakhstan. Last year, the country produced 14,039 tons of uranium. The world’s two top uranium mines – Cigar Lake and McArthur River – are located in Northern Saskatchewan, and Cameco owns majority stake in both of them. Canada uses only one fifth for domestic purposes and exports majority of uranium it produces.
Australia: Australia’s uranium production increased from 5,654 tons in 2015 to 6,315 tons in 2016, accounting for 10% of global output. It held 29% (1,664,100 tons) of the world’s known recoverable uranium resources as of 2015. While Australia holds the largest uranium resource of any country, mining bans and restrictions in various states leave a number of uranium mining projects in limbo.
Image: Ranger 3 open pit, Northern Territory, Australia. Photo courtesy of Geomartin/WIkipedia.
Namibia: Namibia’s uranium production saw a rise from 2,993 tons in 2015 to 3,654 tons in 2016. The countryaccounted for less than 5% of known recoverable uranium resources (267,000 tons) as of 2015.Namibia has two large uranium mines – Rio Tinto’s majority owned Rossing Uranium and Paladin Energy’s Langer Heinrich mine – whichaccountfor 10% of the world’s mined uranium.
Niger: Niger’s uranium production decreased from 4,116 tons in 2015 to 3,479 tons in 2016. Niger is said to have 291,500 tons (<5%) of known recoverable uranium resources as of 2015. The country has two significant long-running mines – Areva subsidiary Societe des Mines de l’Air and Compagnie Miniere d’Akouta – capable of producing 7.5% of world output. A lot of new government-backed uranium mines are expected to come up in the country. Of these new mines, GoviEx Uranium’s Madaouela project is slated to begin production in 2017 or 2018.
Russia: Russia lies in sixth place in terms of global uranium production. The country’s uranium production slightly decreased from 3,055 tons in 2015 to 3,004 tons in 2016. Russia’s share of known world uranium resources wasless than 9% (507,800 tons) as of 2015. AtomRedMetZoloto, a subsidiary ofstate-owned Russian atomic energy companyAtomenergoprom, took-over all uranium exploration and mining assets in 2007. The country plans to increase uranium production in the coming years in line with its growing energy demand.
Uzbekistan: In 2016 Uzbekistan produced an estimated 2,404 tons of uranium, a marginal increase from 2015’s 2,385 tons. Although Uzbekistan is seventh in terms of global uranium production, it looks to ramp up production through Japanese and Chinese joint ventures. As of 2015, Uzbekistan’s share of known world uranium resources stood at less than 2% (131,100 tons). State-owned Navoi Mining & Metallurgy Combinathandles all the country’s uranium-mining activities.
Image:A nuclear fuel rod assembly bundle being inspected before entering a reactor. Photo courtesy of Ruslan Krivobok /Wikipedia.
China: Uranium production in China remained unchanged (1,616 tons) last year compared to the previous year and has been relatively stable over the past five years. It held less than 5% (272,500 tons) of the world’s known recoverable uranium resources as of 2015. China aims to produce one-third of its uranium domestically, obtain one-third through foreign equity in mines and overseas joint ventures, and purchase the remaining from the open market. China General Nuclear Power, China’s largest nuclear power operator, plans to expand nuclear fuel supply deals with Kazakhstan and additional overseas uranium producers.
United States: Uranium production in the US fell for the second straight year from 1,256 tons in 2015 to 1,125 tons in 2016. Currently, uranium mining carried out by only a few companies, although there are several uranium explorers. The country’s share of known world uranium resources wasless than 1% (62,900 tons) as of 2015.
Ukraine: Ukraine, which is heavily dependent on nuclear power, saw its uranium production decreasing from 1,200 tons in 2015 to 1,005 tons in 2016. Ukraine was home to 115,800 tons of uranium, which is less than 2% of known world uranium resources as of 2015. The country has 15 reactors to meet around half of its electricity demand. Most of the country’s uranium is supplied by Russia. Last year, Ukraine has signed an agreement with Russia’s Kazatomprom to set up a joint venture.