While the uranium market continues to look positive, an increasing number of lower grade uranium ore deposits are being exploited. Price however remains a major driving factor for production, says AMEC principal process engineer, Alan Drake.Taking into account the nuclear energy demands across the globe, the next few years will be a period of high activity for uranium and the nuclear power market, and while uranium prices are set to increase, so too are the number of lower grade ore deposits being targeted. The nuclear industry experienced a turbulent period last year as uncertainty hung over its future following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear station accident, in Japan. However, in light of this, the World Nuclear Association states that electricity demand is increasing twice as fast as overall energy usage, and according to Drake, growth in global energy demand will continue rising. “While the global offices of engineering and project delivery firm AMEC continue to work on a range of commodity projects throughout the world, there is significant opportunity for AMEC to further strengthen its footprint in Africa’s uranium market. However, the price of uranium remains a key determinant in the supply and demand fundamentals of the commodity,” Drake continues. In order to fully capitalise on the uranium market, the uranium price would need to remain sustainable for the immediate and long-term future, 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 is anticipated to be in the coming years – taking into account the number of nuclear power plants that are currently being built and planned in the coming years – the exploration of lower grade ore deposits is a definite option to explore,” he points out. Some of the current large supplies of uranium are also not going to be around to feed this demand in the coming years – another factor affecting the commodity’s demand.
Drake cites an example of the Highly Enriched Uranium down blending agreement between the United States and Russia, which is worth approximately 25-million pounds of uranium per year, set to expire in 2013. This will result in a uranium shortfall of 25-million pounds, which makes up for approximately 40% of United States’ requirement, thus indicating how the market could start to turn in the next few years.Processing Innovation Drake says that because of the lower grade of the ore being mined, innovation in treatment and processing of the ore needs to be considered. Over the past two decades, there has not been a driving need to change the way uranium is processed, largely due to the slowdown in demand over that period. There needs to be a different, if not better way of processing low grade deposits. “There is no disputing that the standard processes work, but they haven’t been challenged to become more cost-effective. This opens up a number of avenues for companies to study the processing trends of uranium in order to yield large cost saving benefits, as well as to accommodate these lower grade ore bodies,” Drake points out. While considering alternative process routes for a recent uranium project, Drake says that AMEC metallurgists looked at how nano-filtration and membrane technology can be employed. About 22 years ago membrane technology was an expensive, unexplored and untested option. Today, however, membrane technology has become more cost effective by comparison with solvent extraction and, although not yet a fully mature technology, it is now more commonly accepted. Drake notes that AMEC has gone as far as initiating pilot plant test work using the technology, demonstrating that it is possible to replace solvent extraction with membrane technology. AMEC is well positioned to take advantage of the current high activity with proven capabilities in the development of uranium resources. The company has been involved in eight uranium projects located in various regions across Africa, and is currently undertaking two uranium studies for projects in Namibia.