Published on Friday October 19 2012 (AEST)
As the demand for nuclear energy increases across the globe, engineering consultancy and project management services company Amec expects the next few years to be a period of high activity and for the uranium and the nuclear power market. Amec principal process engineer Alan Drake says uranium prices, which are currently depressed, are set to recover, which should see an increase in the number of lower-grade ore deposits being targeted.
To fully capitalise on the uranium market, says Drake, the uranium price would need to remain sustainable in the present and long term, coupled with a strong appetite for developing uranium production. “Ultimately, the price of uranium will determine the extent to which uranium mines are developed. “If we look at where uranium demand is currently and where it’s expected to be in the coming years – taking into account the number of nuclear power plants that are currently being built or planned – the exploration of lower-grade ore deposits is a definite option,” he says.
He notes that the price of uranium is going to be the driving force that gets many of these lower-grade deposits off the ground and the outlook is good for the medium and long term. Another factor fuelling the demand for the commodity is that some of the current large suppliers of uranium are not going to be around to supply this demand in the coming years. Drake cites as an example the highly enriched uranium down-blending agreement between the US and Russia, which entails about 25-million pounds of uranium a year and is set to expire in 2013. This will result in a uranium shortfall of 25-million pounds, which constitutes about 40% of the US’s requirements. Drake says that, owing to the lower-grade ore being mined, innovation in the treatment and processing of the ore needs to be considered.
Over the last two decades, there has not been a driving need to change the way uranium was processed, largely owing to the slowdown in demand over that period. Currently, however, there needs to be a different, if not better, way of processing the mineral, as increasing numbers of lower-grade deposits are being explored. “There is no doubting the fact that the standard processes work, but they haven’t been challenged to be more cost effective. “This opens up a number of avenues for companies to study the processing trends of uranium to yield large cost-saving benefits and accommodate these lower grade ore bodies,” he says.
While considering alternative process routes for a recent uranium project, Drake says that Amec metallurgists considered how nanofiltration and membrane technology could be employed. “Twenty years ago, membrane technology was an expensive, unexplored and untested option. “Today, however, membrane technology has become more cost effective and, although not yet a fully mature technology, it is now more common and much more can be done with it.
” Drake notes that AMEC has gone as far as initiating pilot plant testwork using the technology and demonstrating that it was indeed possible to replace solvent extraction with membrane technology.