IAEA emphasises vital role of uranium

27 June 2018

For the foreseeable future, most new nuclear power technologies will still run, wholly or partially, on uranium, so it is important that this vital resource is mined, produced and managed sustainably, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano said this week. It is also essential to take full account of environmental concerns, "both to ensure public acceptance today and to avoid troubling legacy issues in the future", he added.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano (Image: Dean Calma/IAEA)

Amano was addressing delegates at the IAEA International Symposium on Uranium Raw Material for the Nuclear Fuel Cycle - URAM 2018 on 25 June. The event, the fourth in a series that began in 2005, considered the availability of uranium to meet growing future demand and ways in which production can be stepped up in good time to meet that demand.

There are now 451 nuclear power reactors in operation in 30 countries. Another 58 reactors are under construction, mostly in Asia. Some 30 countries are considering introducing nuclear power, Amano noted.

"In my opinion, it will be difficult for the world to meet the twin challenges of securing sufficient energy and limiting the average global temperature increase to 2 degrees centigrade, in the coming decades without making more use of nuclear power," he said. "IAEA projections show that nuclear power's global potential up to 2050 remains high, but its expansion is expected to slow in the coming years," he added.

Promising work is under way on new generations of nuclear power reactors that require less uranium, including some types of small, medium-sized or modular reactors, and some countries are interested in the thorium fuel cycle, he said. "However, for the foreseeable future, most new nuclear power technologies will still run, wholly or partially, on uranium," he added.

Sustainable nuclear power requires a sustainable nuclear fuel cycle, which starts with secure supplies of uranium, he said.

The IAEA supports Member States with all aspects of the uranium production cycle, from exploration, mining and processing, to mine closure and site remediation. It publishes best-practice guidelines for the various stages of uranium production, offers training and expert peer review services, and produces a number of databases. It also recently published a geological map of world uranium deposits, which Amano described as the most comprehensive compilation of relevant information published to date.

He said he encouraged all Member States to make full use of IAEA peer review services, including Uranium Production Site Appraisal Team missions.

Known resources

Also speaking at URAM-2018, Olga Skorlyakova, senior project manager at World Nuclear Association, said global known resources of uranium are "more than adequate" to satisfy reactor requirements to well beyond 2035.

Skorlyakova was referring to The Nuclear Fuel Report: Global Scenarios for Demand and Supply, published by the Association in September last year. The report is issued every two years and covers the outlook for supply and demand of uranium, conversion, enrichment services and fuel fabrication for the next two decades. It considers three scenarios: Lower, Reference and Upper Scenarios.

"World uranium production rose to 62,221 tU in 2016, but the currently depressed uranium prices have curtailed exploration activities and the opening of new mines. The number and size of new mines that are under development, planned or prospective have fallen significantly compared with the 2015 Fuel Report," she said, adding that production volumes will remain fairly stable until the late 2020s in all three scenarios of the report.

"In the Reference case, world uranium production is expected to be 61,000 tU in 2025, then gradually declining to 55,000 tU in 2035. Potential new mines categorised as under development and planned are well known in the near and medium term, but in the long run the source of primary production is less certain," she said.

"In the near term the market is an oversupply position and we project that accumulation of inventories will continue until the beginning of the 2020s. However, the amount of excess material will eventually go down and we estimate that new production from reserve projects will be needed from 2025 onwards. In the year 2035 we project that as much as 29,000 tonnes of uranium would come from reserve projects."

These reserve projects can fill any shortage that develops, but most of them cannot come to fruition within the next six to seven years, even if prices recover, she said.

Positive changes

Skorlyakova noted there had been a number of positive developments regarding nuclear since the latest Fuel Report was published.

Firstly, France is reconsidering its target to reduce nuclear power to 50% of the electricity mix by 2025, a policy that led to a downward revision in the 2015 report. Bulgaria is another development, she said, as the country has decided to resume its Belene nuclear power plant project. The last time the Belene reactors were included in the Fuel Report was in 2013. Projections for Bangladesh will also be revisited as the construction of the Rooppur plant has already started. Similarly, no reactors were included in the Reference scenario for Egypt a year ago.

She referred to the vision of the future of electricity generation that World Nuclear Association had presented four years ago, called 'Harmony'. This calls for 25% of global electricity in 2050 to be provided by nuclear energy resulting in a tripling of nuclear generation from its present level. It requires building about 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity, taking into account other factors such as reactor retirements and electricity demand growth.

"But to meet this goal we will need significant additional positive government policies and market support beyond the existing national programmes as projected in the Upper Scenario of the Fuel Report," she said.

Achieving the Harmony goal would require the kind of connection rates of the 1980s, when more than 30 reactors were connected to the grid in a single year.

"The current global manufacturing capacity is estimated at the level of 30-34 reactors per year, which is sufficient to meet the Harmony goal," she said. "And the main challenges here are not in production but in securing political support and building public trust and confidence."

The Harmony goal is "ambitious but crucial" for the world to meet the energy challenge, she said, adding that the near-term build rate that is required to meet the Harmony goal is 10 GWe per year between 2016 and 2020.

"Globally the industry is on track for the period 2015 through 2020. However, a significant acceleration in new nuclear build is required to meet the target beyond 2020. And it's needed now," she said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News