sch_peakoiler wrote:Hi Tanada,
first of all thanks for your patient answers to the questions which are preschool for you.
I became so interested in this thread because I noticed this discrepancy between the pros and cons. you know, in oil, gas and coal topics people generally agree on supply figures and only argue about scales, timeline and so on. And with uranium i noticed there is a group of people who are sure it is at the end and the other group who are sure uranium is for millenia. This discrepancy is somewhat worrying.
Anyway, to your argument about opening a mine. This is sure is a longterm commitment, but tell me, is running an NPP not a longterm commitment? Can you stop an NPP overnight? I think not, because it would be 1 GW less to the output. So if you know there are 440 NPPs or so in the world then you can estimate the demand much more exactly as with oil or gas (as it is so much easier to adjust the demand there - for example by decreasing the power output of the GPP or driving less - in case of oil).
So if there is a demand for uranium one can count on its being more or less constant. And as weapon grade uranium is soon finished, It is the high time to open those mines, dont you think?
I think the crux of the problem is as follows. Most energy sources are carbon based, whereas most mineral resources are metal based. Carbon based energy supplies are actually quite the exception when you look at the materials that make up the crust of the Earth. Most of the Carbon on earth is stored in minerals that you can not consume to produce energy, things like Calcium Carbonate (Limestone) make up the vast majority of Carbon storage on the Earth. If you want to burn Carbon to produce Heat and Energy you need it in a form that is easy to combust, transportable, and as energy dense as you can get it. The confluence of those three factors turns out to be liquid hydrocarbons generally known as crude petroleum.
If you are just looking for a way to get pure Carbon from the crust then Coal/graphite is your best source, but Limestone comes in second and is so much more plentiful it is hard to fathom on a human scale. If you are using carbon for say electrodes in an aluminum refining operation you manufacture them out of artificial graphite, but for anything where you are trying to get energy out of the chemical bonds in the carbon you need weak bonds to already exist.
All of the metalic minerals on the other hand are energy loosers in terms of extraction and combustion. You can get heat and energy out of a lot of metals by grinding them up and lighting them on fire, Magnesium and Aluminum are pretty spectacular in this reguard but Sodium, Potassium, Calcium and yes even Uranium all have the same response. However, to make the metal pure so that you can burn it what you are doing is to chemically reduce it, that is remove all the Oxygen. You end up using more energy to reduce the metal to pure form than you can recapture by burning it as a fuel, so nobody does this with a few rare exceptions like using a Magnesium fire starter stick to ignite your campfire.
Actinide metals are a special class however, because you do not burn them with Oxygen to get energy out, you impact them with high energy particles mostly protons or neutrons but occasionally with Alpha particles as well. Thorium, Uranium and Plutonium are the most well known actinides because they can all be made to produce energy in a conventional light water fission reactor. However all of the actinide metals, Actinium, Thorium, Protactinium, Uranium, Neptunium, Plutonium, Americium, Curium, Berklium, Californium, Einsteinium, Fermium, Mendelivium and Nobelium have one trait in common. They will all fission when hit with high energy neutrons or protons and release copius amounts of energy.
You can not create or destroy mass, you can only change it from one form to another. In the case of Fission you are taking a complex nucleus and tearing it apart to make lower mass and less complex nuclei. An NPP running flat out for four years fissions about 4 tons of actinides into 4 tons of fission fragments. Cutting through all the mumbo jumbo ultimately this means we are currently consuming about 440 tons of actinides per year in 440 NNP's world wide.
We currently are processing about 68,000 tons of U3O8 (natural uranium) to do this, but the process has so much slack in it that the numbers can be quite astounding. Play with Enrichment calculator
putting in the 68,000 tons we need per year under the current methods of production. With default setting the calculator says you produce 8,448 tons of reactor grade Uranium. Go to the second box and change the tails assay from .3 to .1 and hit calculate. You now get 11,851 tons of reactor grade Uranium by inputting more energy without increasing your Uranium feed a single ton. That one option gives you a 40% increase in availible fuel not just for that year, but for every year you choose to invest the energy to use it. You will need to build additional enrichmant plants to do this, but the cost compared to mining is trivial with the new gas centerfuge systems being adopted world wide.
But you asked basically why nobody is opening new mines. The fact is they are, it just doesn't make splashy headlines. The whole supply demand cycle for most metals is actually the better part of a decade. Demand goes down, nobody opens new mines because the price is low, demand catches up to the surplus, prices rise, people look around and decide to invest in new mines, 5 to 10 years later the new mines goe into production, supply goes up, prices fall, people stop opening new mines. As mines play out supply goes down, prices go up, the cycle repeats.
You are living in year 3 of the Uranium bull market, you have to understand that those new mines are still 2 to 7 years in the future on the supply side of the equation. I predict that barring the end of the world in 7 more years everyone will be whining about the Uranium surplus and low prices.