Uncertain future for uranium and nuclear amid safety fears

It generates a significant proportion of the world’s electricity supply, but as Chris Johnston writes, uranium also has the power to kill and destroy

Of all the minerals extracted from the Earth, uranium continues to be one of the most controversial. Its radioactive properties were discovered by French scientist Antoine Becquerel in 1896 and research that began in the 1930s led to its use as a fuel source in nuclear power stations – and in weapons.

Uranium is more abundant than gold, silver or mercury and, while it is mined in some 20 countries, more than half of global production comes from just ten mines in six countries. The McArthur River Mine in Canada accounts for 14 per cent of output, followed by the Olympic Dam site in Australia (6 per cent) and the Arlit Mine in Niger (5 per cent), according to the World Nuclear Association.

Australia is the biggest producer when the 4 per cent share from the Ranger Mine is added to Olympic Dam, but Kazakhstan is close behind with its four mines in the top ten accounting for 15 per cent of the total.

Almost a third of the world’s known uranium deposits – 1.67 million tonnes – are in Australia, but countries, including Russia, South Africa, Brazil, the United States and China, all have sizeable resources. The total of 5.4 million tonnes dwarfs annual global demand of just 68,500 tonnes a year and more deposits are expected to be discovered.

The total of 5.4 million tonnes dwarfs annual global demand for uranium of just 68,500 tonnes

Of the countries that export uranium, Australia and Canada have some of the strictest rules to ensure it is only used for peaceful purposes, rather than military applications. Only countries that have bilateral agreements with the two nations can buy their uranium.

The uranium used in the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 by the United States came from mines in Katanga province in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and present-day production from Africa is on the rise.

While many countries depend on electricity supplies from nuclear power stations, the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima plant following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami has made some governments question a nuclear future. Following the incident, Japan closed all 50 nuclear plants, which once supplied a third of the country’s electricity, but it has since reopened two to meet demand. More may be recommissioned as the high cost of generating electricity from gas hits consumers.

Fukushima, combined with the memory of the radiation that escaped after the Chernobyl meltdown in 1984, prompted Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to close the country’s eight nuclear reactors less than three months later.

“We believe that we can show those countries that decide to abandon nuclear power – or not to start using it – how it is possible to achieve growth, creating jobs and economic prosperity while shifting the energy supply toward renewable energies,” she says.

Although nuclear has been perceived as a “cleaner” source of power than coal, the ever-present threat of disaster, along with the huge cost of building nuclear plants and the difficulty of processing radioactive waste from spent fuel rods, have made many question its future. But with China set to increase its nuclear power capacity at least fivefold by 2020, demand for the mineral will continue to rise.