Nu­clear for cheaper elec­tric­ity

De­mand for ura­nium grow­ing along­side nu­clear gen­er­a­tion ca­pac­ity

Finweek English Edition - - Cover - SIKONATHI MANTSHANTSHA

AC­CORD­ING TO THE In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency (IAEA), the more than 430 com­mer­cial nu­clear re­ac­tors in the world gen­er­ate ap­prox­i­mately 16% of global elec­tric­ity. The IAEA says a kilo­gram of nat­u­ral ura­nium can pro­duce more than 4 000kWh of elec­tric­ity. The same amount of elec­tric­ity would need an in­put of 38t of coal or of 150 bar­rels of oil. A kilo­gram of ura­nium costs about US$150 (R1 080) while 38t of coal cost US$2 850 (R20 520) and 150 bar­rels of oil would cost US$8 905,50 (R64 098).

South Africa’s only nu­clear power sta­tion, the 1 800MW Koe­berg, has pro­duced more than 81 000m kWh of elec­tric­ity since 1984 us­ing 7,5 tons of ura­nium. It sup­plies up to 6% of South Africa’s elec­tric­ity. Af­ter 22 years of op­er­a­tion, it has a fur­ther 30 to 40 years to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity ef­fi­ciently. Koe­berg uses sea­wa­ter to cool its two nu­clear re­ac­tors. The wa­ter is not con­sumed, it’s re­turned to the sea. Com­pare that to a coal-fired power sta­tion of the same size, which would use more than 50m tons of coal and 160bn litres of fresh wa­ter – which would be con­sumed en­tirely. The cost of a coal-fired sta­tion also has to be mea­sured against en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­ages as coal emits more green gases than any other en­ergy source. Nu­clear gas emis­sions amount to 0,1% of the car­bon diox­ide from equiv­a­lent coal-fired elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion if mod­ern gas-cen­trifuge plants are used.

South Africa gets 90% of its elec­tric­ity from coal. But ac­cord­ing to the Gov­ern­ment, nu­clear gen­er­a­tion ca­pac­ity should in­crease by 12 000 MW in the com­ing 20 years.

To get there, SA has to en­rich ura­nium. Ura­nium leaves the mine as the con­cen­trate of a stable ox­ide known as U3O8 (ura­nium ox­ide). En­ergy ex­pert Andrew Kenny says the two big­gest iso­topes of ura­nium are U235 and U238. Kenny says U235 is the most suit­able for elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion. In or­der to in­crease the level of U235, ura­nium con­cen­trates must first un­dergo a chem­i­cal con­ver­sion process into ura­nium hex­aflu­o­ride (UF6).

A num­ber of en­rich­ment pro­cesses have been demon­strated in the lab­o­ra­tory but only two are op­er­at­ing on a com­mer­cial scale. Kenny says it would only be eco­nom­i­cal for SA to build its own en­rich­ment plant if it in­tends build­ing three or more power sta­tions the size of Koe­berg. He says to build an en­rich­ment plant to feed a sta­tion the size of Koe­berg (1800MW) would cost about US$3,6bn (R26bn) and cre­ate “many jobs”.

En­rich­ment ac­counts for about 5% of the to­tal cost of the elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated. That feeds into the lu­cra­tive ura­nium mar­ket. Sxr Ura­nium One CE Neal Frone­man told Fin24 in Jan­uary his com­pany was be­com­ing a ura­nium pro­ducer at “just the right time”. Frone­man re­vealed that the con­tracts – which only obliged his com­pany to de­liver ura­nium to cer­tain clients at pre­vail­ing mar­ket rates – had a floor price pro­tec­tion of up to US$70/lb. “What the floor price pro­tec­tion means is that when­ever the in­ter­na­tional price of ura­nium falls be­low th­ese lev­els, we will con­tinue to re­ceive th­ese prices.” The floor price does not in turn give a ceil­ing at which prices can be capped. Frone­man said this was be­cause ura­nium buy­ers were not wor­ried about “lit­tle things” like the price of ura­nium, as they had in­vested bil­lions of dol­lars in nu­clear re­ac­tors. “Clients are just des­per­ate to get ura­nium.”


Source: IAEA 2000


Source: World Nu­clear As­so­ci­a­tion- Jan 2007

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