US uranium miners ready to support nuclear power, says Uranium Committee

24 December 2020

"The US uranium mining industry has the personnel and yellowcake processing plants on standby, and is ready to expand into new areas with discoveries that will provide hundreds of years of available uranium resources from a variety of secure sources," says Michael D. Campbell, chairman of the Uranium (Nuclear & REE) Committee of the Energy Minerals Division of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG). "So let the drilling and processing begin."

In the Uranium Committee's latest report for the AAPG, Campbell notes that, over the past 40 years, uranium typically has been imported to the USA from Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Niger, Namibia, among other countries, but adds that efforts are currently under way to produce more of the fuel locally for utilities from "more secure sources", such as in the USA and, if necessary, from Canada and Australia. In his report - Beyond Hydrocarbons? The Rest of the Story - Campbell explains the state of play for the USA's uranium needs and potential since the expiry in 2013 of the Megatons-to-Megawatts programme it had with Russia.

"The reason the American utilities have chosen overseas sources of uranium in the past is because the uranium could be obtained at a lower price than that produced by American mining companies. Why? Because some of the countries produce uranium by their governments underwriting the production with direct and indirect financial support, allowing them to produce cheap uranium, relative to American uranium mines. If this sounds familiar, it should because China is doing something similar in rare-earth metals, although the federal government has also taken steps to increase mining and processing of rare earths in the US to meet strategic and industrial requirements," Campbell said.

"But the US has abundant sources of uranium in so-called roll-front deposits capable of being recovered by in-situ mining methods in the US mainland and in hard-rock deposits mined by open-pit methods, especially in Alaska and Virginia."

This week, the US Congress voted to approve appropriations for fiscal year 2021 that includes USD150 million to initiate the uranium reserve programme to address challenges to the production of domestic uranium.

"The federal government is making an effort to set up a strategic reserve of uranium fuel to off-set imports of uranium and secure uranium supplies for utilities and, by doing so, support the American uranium mining industry in developing the numerous uranium deposits that are present in the US," Campbell said.

Speaking to World Nuclear News, he said that President-elect Joe Biden "will need to go much further" to encourage uranium and rare earth elements (REE) mining in the USA, with allowances for Canada and Australia mining imports. "We cannot depend on unreliable sources of uranium and REE to maintain our power grid and critical minerals," he said.

Competition


Regarding the cost of electricity, Campbell highlighted that uranium fuel costs represent only about 5% of the operating cost of nuclear electricity generation, whereas the fuel costs of power plants using natural gas are "much higher". He added: "The volume of fuel needed is the principal difference in that one kilogram of uranium contains the energy equivalent of 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. And nuclear power is climate friendly (almost zero emissions) and business friendly (creating thousands of high- paying jobs)."

On the prospects for nuclear energy, Campbell said: "Let’s face it, nuclear power is in competition with natural gas and renewables, [but] for pure climate-friendly grid-power, nuclear power has no equal."

"As subsidies and basic economics equilibrate over the years in favour of climate-friendly energy selections, a viable energy plan will come into focus that must be essentially nonpartisan. This need will become even more obvious when the small modular reactors (SMRs) and new nuclear technologies emerge from the growing nuclear industry," he said. "Even hydrogen is gaining attention for use in a variety of ways. It is interesting to note that nuclear power plants boil water as part of the designs of some of the plants. Only minor additions would be needed for them to not only produce electricity, but also hydrogen and oxygen as well."

He added: "SMRs are widely expected to replace many of the current wind and solar projects now operating and, in the future, will be installed and well-received in remote areas as well as in small towns and metropolitan neighbourhoods because of their safe designs, their lower cost to construct, their lower cost to operate than natural gas facilities and natural gas distribution systems."

Under the Obama administration, renewables received "unrestrained support", he said. "This was manifested by significant tax incentives and subsidies that grossly exceeded that of other climate-friendly energy sources, such as nuclear power. Subsidies are still even higher for fossil fuels than climate-friendly nuclear power."

The "unbridled enthusiasm" for renewables is changing, he said, as it becomes clear that wind and solar have "serious economic and other drawbacks".

"The apparently 'free energy' from wind and solar is more costly and less reliable in generating electricity than the other widely available climate-friendly energy source, nuclear power. Both renewables (with back-up batteries) and nuclear power have their places in the energy plan. In areas away from the existing main power grids, such as in remote areas of the US, Alaska and Africa, either wind or solar might have a role, but they will need back-up power in the form of expensive batteries."

The operation and maintenance costs of renewables are "just recently becoming evident", he said, noting that California is experiencing increased consumer electricity costs but also black-outs and power interruptions because its renewable energy systems cannot produce sufficient power at critical times when needed.

"As far as claims that competition is driving down the capital costs of wind and solar projects, it also follows that the quality of the equipment is decreasing. With this decrease in quality of the wind turbines and gear boxes, etc., operation and maintenance needs are also likely to rise, causing increased costs to the consumer," he said.

Safety


The proven safety of nuclear power cannot be overstated, he said.

"Over the past decades, uranium mining and some 95 nuclear power reactors in operation today in the US, and some 441 in operation worldwide (plus 54 under construction in China, Russia, India, etc.), all together have demonstrated safety records far exceeding those of natural gas, coal and renewables," he said.

Despite this, "serious competition is now under way," he said, "to determine which energy source will dominate the grid of the foreseeable future".

"With coal declining rapidly, only natural gas, uranium (and nuclear power), hydroelectric power and renewables (wind and solar) are in the running. Both natural gas and nuclear power are providing back-up to the power grid because of the inherent drawbacks of wind and solar. Because California has retired many of their nuclear power plants, natural gas has taken their place in the power grid in supporting California’s renewable energy systems."

These realities need to be backed by policies that support the development of nuclear energy, he told WNN.

"The direction of nuclear power is becoming clear now with SMRs and hydrogen recovery in making it climate and business friendly as it replaces natural gas and coal over the coming years as the main source of grid-power and industrial chemicals in the US and the developed world."

Founded in 1917, Tulsa, Oklahoma-headquartered AAPG today has 40,000 members in 129 countries in the upstream energy industry.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News