In this guide to understanding uranium as a commodity, we’ll discuss how this element is produced, the main uses for uranium and how those uses evolved, the top uranium producing countries, what drives its price, and what experts have to say about trading it.
Why Is Uranium Valuable?
Uranium is a silvery-white metallic element that is malleable, ductile, very dense, and naturally radioactive.
Uranium has several important industrial applications, but its principal use is as a fissionable material to produce nuclear fuel for electricity generation.
The quest for cleaner, more environmentally-friendly fuels has propelled the growth of the nuclear industry in electricity generation.
Miners worldwide extract about 60,000 metric tons of uranium annually. As a result, uranium has become an increasingly valuable commodity in world markets.
Main Uses of Uranium
|Nuclear Fuel||Uranium fuel used in nuclear reactors is enriched with uranium-235 , a naturally occurring fissionable fuel. This produces a chain reaction that generates heat, which can be used to create steam for turbines and electric power generation.|
|Military||Uranium is used to powers nuclear submarines. It is also used to produce nuclear weapons.|
|Depleted Uranium Applications||Depleted uranium contains much less uranium-235 than natural uranium. Depleted uranium is less radioactive than regular uranium and used in several applications: |
Counterweights for aircraft
How is Uranium Produced?
Many natural minerals contain uranium including pitchblende, uraninite, carnotite, autunite, uranophane and tobernite. Phosphate rocks, lignite and monazite sands also contain the element.
Uranium ores typically have very low yields of the element of between 0.1 to 0.2%, and some have concentrations lower than 0.05%.
The Canadian Saskatchewan mines are the exception and have yields of more than 20% uranium. However, flooding and environmental concerns make the future of mining in this region uncertain.
Extracting uranium from the earth takes place using three methods:
- Open Pit Mining
- Underground Mining
- In-Situ Leaching
Open Pit Uranium Mining
This form of mining, also called strip-mining, involves using heavy machinery to remove soil and rocks at the surface of the earth and uncover valuable uranium ores just below the surface.
Miners dump the surface materials, known as waste rock, near the open pit. They then dig a series of steps, known as benches, into the mine to facilitate removal of the uranium ores. Sometimes miners construct roads to allow hauling trucks easier access to ores or employ pumps to dewater the pit.
Drawbacks of Open Pit Uranium Mining
While open pit mining is less expensive than underground mining (see below), it produces a heavy toll on the environment.
Open pit mines produce enormous and hazardous waste rocks, create groundwater contamination and expose miners and nearby populations to dust and radon gases.
Open pit mining usually produces ores with less than 0.5% uranium content, and the mining methods works only with minerals located less than 400 feet below the surface.
Underground Uranium Mining
Underground mines allow miners to retrieve ores that surface mines can’t reach. Miners drill into the ground and use controlled explosives to shatter the ore into debris. Ores are then transported to the surface.
Underground mines have a smaller environmental footprint than open pit mines and produce less waste rock. In addition, better ventilation systems and robotic mining techniques have improved the safety of newer underground mines.
Uranium Milling Process
After extraction, the ores from both open pit and underground mines require milling. Machines crush and pulverize the rocks into fine fragments.
Processors first add water and then sulfuric acid or an alkaline solution to release uranium from the rocks. This produces uranium oxide (or yellow cake).
Another processing plant then enriches this uranium further to prepare it for industrial uses.
Typically milling allows recovery of 95 – 98% of the uranium residing in the rocks. Milling is the only effective method for extracting uranium from conventionally mined ores.
Drawbacks of Underground Uranium Mining
However, the method also has its drawbacks. Underground mining is expensive and can cause serious damage to local aquifers. As with surface mines, ore yields are typically less than 0.5% uranium.
In-Situ Uranium Leaching
Some deposits of uranium lend themselves to a more environmentally-friendly method known as in-situ leaching.
With this method, miners pump water with gaseous oxygen and (sometimes) sodium bicarbonate into injection wells at the site of uranium ores.
The method dissolves uranium from the rocks into the groundwater. Pumps then bring the uranium-rich water to the surface. Treatment plants then filter the water and remove the uranium.
In-situ leaching produces little waste rock and leaves a minimal environmental footprint. However, miners must monitor contamination of aquifers and ensure disposal of waste water.
In-situ leaching accounts for about 48% of all uranium mining, while open-pit and underground mining comprise about 47% of mining. The remaining 5% of mining occurs as a byproduct of other mining.
Top Uranium Producing Countries
Here are the top ten uranium producing countries in the world:
What Drives the Price of Uranium?
The price of uranium is driven mostly by these four factors:
- Nuclear Power Demand
- Global Supply Sources
- Global Inventories
- Macroeconomic Factors
Nuclear Power Demand
Demand for nuclear power in electricity generation is the biggest determinant of uranium prices.
As countries around the world seek cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels, nuclear power use in electricity generation has gained greater acceptance. In France, for example, nuclear power accounts for more than three-quarters of electricity generation.
However, many factors could increase or lower this demand. One factor is the cost of fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. Increases in their cost make nuclear power generators more attractive, while decreases in their cost make nuclear power less attractive
Environmental considerations are another factor that could influence demand for nuclear power. More power companies have adopted nuclear power because it is perceived as a greener technology than burning fossil fuels.
However, if accidents such as the Fukushima Incident in 2011 or the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown in 1979 occur again, then public attitudes toward nuclear power could sour.
Global Supply Sources
Decisions by a small group of uranium suppliers can have a significant impact on prices.
Three countries – Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia – provide about two-thirds of the annual supply of uranium. Kazakhstan alone provides about 40% of world output. Therefore, events in these countries can have a disproportionate impact on prices.
Production decisions by Kazatomprom, the state-owned production company in Kazakhstan or Cameco, the world’s second-largest uranium miner located in Canada, can have a big effect on spot uranium prices.
Just as OPEC decisions impact oil prices, decisions by a small group of uranium suppliers can impact the direction of uranium prices.
Many utility companies hold inventories of uranium to buffer against disruptions of supply. Changes in the levels of these uranium inventories can impact the price of the commodity.
When uranium producers cut back on production, utility companies draw down on these stocks. This creates tight supplies and leads to higher prices. On the other hand, increases in production by uranium producers can lead to a build-up of inventories and lower prices.
The health and strength of the overall economy can have a big impact on uranium prices.
Electricity demand is often correlated with a strong economy. When the economies of the world are strong, industries and consumers use more electricity. This increased demand requires a source of power to operate the turbines that power generators.
As long as nuclear power remains a growing source of power for electricity generation, uranium prices should benefit from strong economic growth.
Expert Opinions on Uranium
Analysts are cautiously optimistic about uranium prices. Since the Fukushima accident in 2011 led Japan to shutter all its nuclear reactors, uranium prices have been in freefall. However, analysts believe that pessimism may have gone too far:
One analyst sees supply cuts by leading producers as a catalyst for higher prices:
“(The output cuts) sends a strong message to utilities that future supplies are by no means guaranteed at current uranium prices.”
BMO analyst Alexander Pearce
Another analyst concurs and believes the
supply cuts could surprise the market:
“This is the type of supply shock that will spur strength in the spot price.”
Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Rob Chang
Here we answer some common questions about uranium as a commodity.
How Did Uranium Usage Evolve?
Civilizations have used uranium compounds for centuries. Archaeologists found yellow glass with 1% uranium oxide in an ancient Roman villa near Naples, Italy.
In the later Middle Ages, glassmakers used pitchblende extracted from silver mines to color glass. However, chemists didn’t formally isolate uranium as an element until the 19th century.
In 1789, Martin Heinrich Klaproth, a German chemist, discovered uranium oxide in pitchblende. Although he believed the compound contained a new element, he failed to produce uranium on its own.
In 1841, Eugène-Melchior Péligot, a French chemist, finally succeeded in isolating pure uranium.
In 1896, the most important scientific discovery related to uranium occurred. French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel placed a small quantity of uranium on to an unexposed photographic plate, and the plate became cloudy.
Becquerel deduced that invisible rays emitted from the uranium caused this phenomenon. Becquerel had serendipitously discovered radioactivity.
Beginning in 1934, physicist Enrico Fermi conducted experiments with uranium that led to the development of nuclear reactors and the beginning of the nuclear age.
The first modern use of uranium was in warfare. The United States was on the brink of war with Germany when Fermi and his team of scientists created the first nuclear reactor, known as an atomic pile.
Fearful that the Germans might be developing their own bomb, US scientists hastened efforts to create a nuclear weapon.
Ultimately, these efforts led to the development of the first nuclear bomb used at Hiroshima, Japan during World War II.
Soon thereafter, an escalating nuclear arms race ensued between the Soviet Union and the United States.
However, after World War II, countries also began seeking peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In the early 1950s, American researchers successfully lit four light bulbs using nuclear power, and by 1957, the first nuclear power plant began operating in the United States.
In 1954, the world’s first nuclear reactor began producing power in Russia, and by the 1960s and 1970s, the nuclear power industry began to grow rapidly worldwide.
Until the early 1950s, the main global source of uranium was in the Belgian Congo. To meet the needs of the fast-growing nuclear power industry, more countries including the United States, Canada, France and Australia began developing uranium mines.
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Credits: Original article written by Lawrence Pines. Major updates and additions in Aug 2020 by Marko Csokasi with contributions from the Commodity.com editorial team.