October 8, 2013
A briefing on uranium (Part 2)
Now we come to nuclear. The worry that uranium may accidentally be used for weaponry is largely unfounded. Both domestically and internationally (i.e., under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency), there are tight controls on the foreign trade of U-235.
Besides, nations with an active interest in nuclear arsenals have a strategic interest in developing their own internal sources of “yellowcake” uranium.
For most power generation (and nuclear weaponry, for that matter), a next stage process beyond mainly open-pit mine extraction is needed to develop enriched uranium.
There is one exception. Canadian CANDU reactors do not require enriched uranium, employing “heavy water” as an extra ingredient in the electricity-generating process.
Hopes for international sales of CANDU methodology were once high, but seem to have dissipated as contract-signings with international buyers have been few and far between (India and Romania).
About a decade or so ago, Kazakhstan took over from Canada as the world’s largest uranium producer. Ontario’s Elliott Lake mine was once active, but now all production in this country originates in northern Saskatchewan.
Uranium extraction at such mines as McArthur River and Cigar Lake (where underground flooding has delayed a start-up) is intended for power generating stations at home and abroad. The ore produced is among the purest in the world.
China intends to expand its nuclear power capacity by between 20 and 30 stations by the mid-point of this century at the latest.
India is rich in coal, but the nation’s infrastructure woes (i.e., a poor rail-cargo system) dictate that it must still import “black gold” from Australia. As backup, New Delhi has an inventory of nuclear plants.
This illustrates a factor that is important for any nation. No government wants to be dependent on only one source of power.
Even as the headlines were full of news about the Fukushima plant disaster in Japan, Turkey was re-affirming its commitment to proceed with major nuclear power investment.
France is largely reliant on the nuclear option, deriving more than 75% of its electricity from such plants. The French firm, Areva, is one of the world’s largest suppliers of design-build nuclear expertise.
Next door, in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has committed to closing down all her nation’s nuclear stations, with an accompanying shift to offshore wind turbines. The cost of installing the latter, however, is proving more expensive than anticipated.
The official stance of the Obama administration in the U.S. has changed towards endorsing nuclear power and several plant proposals are working their way through the approvals process. But it may still prove difficult to win over public opinion.
In Ontario, former Premier Dalton McGuinty once promised expanded nuclear power generation, but then the ownership of AECL (Atomic Energy of Canada Limited) came into question and those plans have been shelved.
Ownership of AECL has since passed on to Quebec engineering giant, SNC-Lavalin. But that’s a company that has its own issues to confront — becoming embroiled in some of the corruption allegations that Quebec’s Charbonneau Inquiry has been set up to uncover.
In the meantime, Queen’s Park initiated construction of two new gas-fired power plants in Ontario, the locations of which were altered (from Mississauga and Oakville to Sarnia) during the most recent provincial election campaign in order to gain votes for the ruling Liberal Party.
Existing and refurbished nuclear plants in Ontario (e.g., Darlington and Bruce) will require ongoing supplies of uranium from producers in Saskatchewan, the largest of which is Cameco Resources.
Now that it has undergone a massive rebuild, New Brunswick’s Point Lepreu station will also be a source of demand.
The PQ government in Quebec has chosen not to overhaul Canada’s only other nuclear facility, Gentilly-2 situated northeast of Montreal. The delivery of electricity from that site ceased at the close of last year.
In a world striving for a negligible carbon footprint, nuclear — like hydroelectric — has the advantage of being entirely “passive”.
In any list of positives-versus-negatives among means to generate electricity, nuclear should be at or near the top.
But we live in an ever-skeptical world. And the problem of what to do with spent fuel rods remains a formidable complicating factor.
The sentiment of the general populace concerning the issue of safety carries a great deal of weight.
There is a chasm between “should be” and “is” that lobby groups can render so wide and deep that it becomes “nigh on impossible” to cross.