The OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency have released the 2016 version of their biennial 'Red Book'.1 The 550-page document contains vast amounts of information on uranium exploration, production and demand, including sections on 49 countries.
The Red Book is a highly sanitized report that contains scarcely any of the critical information compiled by, for example, the WISE Uranium project2 or the EJOLT environmental justice project.3 Nonetheless it is a useful source of facts and figures on uranium mining.
Uranium resources are classified by a scheme based on geological certainty and costs of
- Identified resources include reasonably assured resources (RAR) and inferred resources (not defined with such a high degree of confidence).
- Undiscovered resources (prognosticated and speculative) refer to resources that are expected to exist based on geological knowledge of previously discovered deposits and regional geological mapping.
The 2016 Red Book, which takes a snapshot of the uranium sector as of 1 January 2015, finds that total identified uranium resources have increased by only 0.1% since 1 January 2013. The resource base has changed very little "due to lower levels of investment and associated exploration efforts reflecting current, depressed uranium market conditions", the 2016 Red Book states.
Total identified resources (RAR and inferred) as of 1 January 2015 amounted to:
- 7,641,600 tonnes of uranium metal (tU) in the highest cost category (<US$260/kgU or <US$100/lb U3O8), a 0.1% increase compared to the total reported for 2013.
- 5,718,400 tU in the <US$130/kgU (<US$50/lb U3O8) category, a decrease of 3.1%.
- 2,124,700 tU in the <US$80/kgU category, an 8.6% increase.
- 646,900 tU in the lowest cost category (<US$40/kgU), a 5.3% decrease.
Total undiscovered uranium resources (prognosticated and speculative) as of 1 January 2015 amounted to an estimated 7,422,700 tU, a slight decrease from the estimate two years earlier.
At the 2016 level of uranium requirements (63,404 tU)4, identified resources in the highest cost category are sufficient for 121 years of supply for the global nuclear power fleet.
In addition to as-yet unmined deposits, there are large and growing uranium stockpiles, secondary sources, and the potential to develop unconventional uranium resources (e.g. phosphate, seawater).
Global stockpiles have grown sharply since the Fukushima disaster5 and now amount to more than 1.4 billion pounds U3O8 according to Ux Consulting6 or 1.2 billion pounds according to the 2016 Red Book. Thus stockpiles alone would suffice to keep the entire global reactor fleet operating for around eight years. And stockpiles continue to grow ‒ supply from mines and secondary sources currently exceeds demand by about 30 million pounds U3O8 per year or 18%.6
As of 1 January 2015, uranium production provided about 99% of reactor requirements with the remainder supplied by previously-mined uranium (secondary sources) including government and commercial inventories, reprocessed uranium, underfeeding at enrichment plants (extracting more U-235 per given volume of feedstock), uranium produced by the re-enrichment of depleted uranium tails, and low-enriched uranium produced by blending down highly enriched uranium (typically from military sources).
The Red Book states: "Although information on secondary sources is incomplete, the availability of these sources is generally expected to decline somewhat after 2015. However, available information indicates that there remains a significant amount of previously mined uranium (including material held by the military), some of which could feasibly be brought to the market in the coming years. With the successful transition from gas diffusion to centrifuge enrichment now complete and capacity at least temporarily in excess of requirements following the Fukushima Daiichi accident, enrichment providers are well-positioned to reduce tails assays below contractual requirements and in this way create additional uranium supply."
Uranium exploration expenditures continued to decrease in 2013‒14 and no significant resources were added to the resource base during this reporting period.
The 2016 Red Book states: "From 2012 to 2014, domestic exploration and mine development expenditures decreased in many countries, mainly as a result of the declining uranium price which slowed down many exploration and mine development projects, particularly in the junior uranium mining sector. Significant decreases are reported for Argentina, Australia,
Canada, Finland, Kazakhstan, Russia, South Africa, Spain and the United States. In
contrast, Brazil, China, the Czech Republic, Jordan, Mexico and Turkey reported increases
in expenditures during this period. "
For the 2013‒14 reporting period, China accounted for the highest non-domestic and domestic exploration and development expenditures.
Global uranium mine production decreased by 4% from 58,411 tU in 2012 to 55,975 tU in 2014. The small drop in production was largely the result of decreased production in Australia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Malawi, Namibia and Niger.
From 2012 to 2014, uranium was produced in 21 different countries; the same number as in the last reporting period.
Kazakhstan's growth in production continued, but at a much slower pace, and it remains the world's largest producer, reporting production of 22,781 tU in 2014 and 23,800 tU in 2015. Production in Kazakhstan in 2014 totalled more than the combined production in Canada and Australia, the second and third largest producers of uranium, respectively.
In-situ leaching (ISL) uranium mining accounted for 51% of world production as of 1 January 2015, largely as a result of continued ISL production increases from Kazakhstan
and other ISL projects in Australia, China, Russia, the US and Uzbekistan.
The breakdown for all uranium mining methods in 2014 was:
- ISL 51%
- underground mining 27%
- open-pit mining 14%
- co-product and by-product recovery from copper and gold mining 7%
- heap leaching <1%
- other methods <1%
The future of nuclear power
The Red Book presents low and high scenarios for nuclear power growth or decline to 2035. As discussed previously in Nuclear Monitor7, the IAEA's high scenarios are always proven to be too high (often absurdly so), and even the low projections are usually too high. Nonetheless, the low projections are a reasonable guide.
According to the 2016 Red Book, nuclear power capacity is estimated to expand from 377 gigawatts (GW) in January 2015 to 418‒683 GW by 2035, representing growth of 11‒81%.
In the low scenario (418 GW by 2035), global nuclear capacity increases by 41 GW, with China accounting for 74 GW of growth and a 33 GW (9%) decline in the rest of the world.
The estimates presented in the 2016 Red Book for nuclear capacity in 2035 (418‒683 GW) are substantially lower than those presented in the 2011 Red Book for 2035 (540‒746 GW). The low estimate is down 23%, and the high estimate is down 8%.
Regional and national projections
The Red Book anticipates "significant" growth of nuclear power (and thus uranium demand) in East Asia (48‒166 GW new nuclear capacity by 2035) and non-EU European countries (21‒45 GW). There will also be "significant" nuclear capacity growth include the Middle East, Central and Southern Asia and South-East Asia according to the Red Book. However there is no likelihood of significant growth in any of those regions except South Asia (and then only if India manages to overcomes the obstacles holding back its ambitious nuclear expansion plans).
For North America, the low-case projection sees nuclear generating capacity remaining about the same by 2035 and increasing by 11% in the high case.
In the European Union, nuclear capacity in 2035 is projected to decrease by 48% in the low case scenario or increase by 2% in the high case.
The Red Book states: "These projections are subject to even greater uncertainty than usual following the Fukushima Daiichi accident, since the role that nuclear power will play in the future generation mix in some countries has not yet been determined and China did not report official targets for nuclear power capacity beyond 2020 for this edition."
Some country projections of interest:
- China: current capacity of 16 GW is estimated to increase to 91.3‒158.4 GW in 2035.
- France: current capacity is 63.2 GW and capacity in 2035 is estimated to be 37‒63.2 GW.
- India: current capacity of 4.8 GW is estimated to increase 4‒8-fold to 18.2‒36.7 GW.
- Japan: The estimates for nuclear capacity in 2035 range from 6.7 GW to 41.3 GW.
- Russia: current capacity of 25.2 GW is estimated to increase to 32‒42.7 GW.
- South Korea: current capacity of 20.7 GW is estimated to increase to 37.6‒43.2 GW.
- Ukraine: current capacity of 13.8 GW is estimated to increase to 26‒30.5 GW.
- UK: current capacity is 9.4 GW and capacity in 2035 is estimated to be 0‒12.2 GW.
- USA: current capacity of 99.2 GW is estimated to increase to 101.4‒110.4 GW.
All of the projections are uncertain, as the Red Book freely acknowledges. Some of the projections are implausible; for example there is no likelihood of a doubling of nuclear capacity in Ukraine. The projection for growth in the US is heroic; decline is much more likely. For China, the low estimate of 91.3 GW in 2035 stretches credulity and the high estimate of 158.4 GW is ridiculous.
The Red Book notes that the uranium market "is currently well-supplied and projected primary uranium production capabilities including existing, committed, planned and prospective production centres would satisfy projected low and high case requirements through 2035 if developments proceed as planned."
The expansion of already-large stockpiles is one of the reasons that getting new mines into production is proving to be increasingly difficult. The Red Book states: "Challenges remain in the global uranium market with high levels of oversupply and inventories, resulting in continuing pricing pressures. ... Producers will have to overcome a number of significant and, at times, unpredictable issues in bringing new production facilities on stream, including geopolitical factors, technical challenges and risks at some facilities, the potential development of ever more stringent regulatory requirements, and the heightened expectations of governments hosting uranium mining."
The report further notes that "the Fukushima Daiichi accident has eroded public confidence in nuclear power in some countries, and prospects for growth in nuclear generating capacity are thus being reduced and are subject to even greater uncertainty than usual."
1. OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency, 2016, 'Uranium 2016: Resources, Production and Demand', www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/pubs/2016/7301-uranium-2016.pdf
5. 26 Feb 2016, 'Yellowcake blues', Nuclear Monitor #819, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/819/nuclear-monitor-819-26-feb...
6. 9 Aug 2016, 'Uranium: the world's worst commodity', Nuclear Monitor #828, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/828/uranium-worlds-worst-mined...
7. 23 Sept 2015, 'Fanciful growth projections from the World Nuclear Association and the IAEA', Nuclear Monitor #811, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/811/fanciful-growth-projection...