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About Uranium

Nuclear Renaissance

Basic Facts About Uranium

  • Uranium is abundant in low concentrations in land and water bodies, but more concentrated deposits are only found within hard rocks or sandstones.
  • Uranium deposits are formed from the pooling of mineralized fluids. There at least 15 different types of uranium deposits, categorized according their geological settings. The two most economically significant types are unconformity-related and sandstone deposits. Unconformity-related deposits form near major unconformities (or erosional breaks between two rock strata) in sedimentary basins, while sandstone deposits are often located within sandstone beds.

Uranium in the Athabasca Basin

  • The Athabasca Basin’s geological terrain of undeformed sandstone above Precambrian basement rocks (Archean to Lower Proterozoic granites and gneisses) is separated by a major erosional break or unconformity, so uranium deposits in the Athabasca Basin are unconformity-related.
    High-grade uranium deposits can be located on the unconformity (classic mineralization), above it (perched mineralization), or below it (basement mineralization). Basement mineralization tend to be monometallic thus containing higher grades of uranium as opposed to polymetallic, classic or perched mineralization.
  • Unconformity-related deposits in the Athabasca Basin tend to host high-grade uranium. An unconformity is particularly ideal for uranium deposition, because the structure acts as a channel for collecting the hot mineralized fluids produced by geological changes in surrounding rock masses.  Other structural traps, such as faults, which direct the flow of these products, are also ideal for the formation of such deposits.
    Unconformity-related deposits can host any or all mineralization type/s. Sue B hosts classic mineralization above the unconformity, whereas Millennium hosts basement mineralization below the unconformity. McClean, Midwest and Cigar Lake contain both classic and basement mineralization.
  • Unconformity-related deposits have been discovered in many countries but the economically significant deposits occur in Canada and Australia. Although low-grade unconformity-related deposits (0.5% U3O8) exist in Australia, high-grade unconformity-related deposits have only been found in Canada’s Athabasca Basin, with an average of 4% U3O8. Compared to the world average of 0.5% U3O8, the average grade within the Eastern Athabasca Basin deposits is 10% U3O8 , with the highest reported average grade at 20% U3O8. Ore from the Athabasca Basin is valued fifty times higher than Australian uranium – $30,000/tonne compared to $600/tonne. In fact, throughout the nuclear winter of the 1980’s and 1990’s when most uranium mines shut down due to extremely low market prices, Athabasca Basin mines in Northern Saskatchewan remained operational.
  • In 2010, Cameco’s McArthur River alone produced 14 percent of the world’s uranium supply from mines in the Athabasca Basin.  Rabbit Lake (3%) and McClean Lake (2%) were also amongst the top 30 uranium-producing mines in the world for the same year.

Uranium Exploration in the Athabasca Basin

  • The Athabasca Basin’s exploration focus can be divided into three stages. In the 1940s, it focused on vein-style mineralization found in fractures or faults, as in the Uranium City area. In the 1960s, exploration searched for classic and perched mineralization (on and above unconformities) unconformity deposits. In the 2000s, exploration began to concentrate on basement-hosted deposits. 
  • Compared to other minerals, large deposits are not necessary for a uranium deposit to be financially viable.  A small amount of concentrated U3O8 can be an economic ore body.  While the Athabasca Basin’s unconformity-related deposits are known to host highly concentrated U3O8, the deposits are difficult to locate, because they tend to be narrow and deep and without surface expressions.
    The goal of exploration is to locate and intersect uranium mineralization. Geologists rely heavily on trace elements or pathfinder elements and clay alteration to point them in the right direction. Using various geophysics and geochemistry surveys, they identify the best locations for initial drill holes. The concentrations of pathfinders in the drill holes can be indicative of nearby uranium mineralization.

The Uranium Market

  • Uranium demand is projected to increase by 33 percent over 2010 to 2020 in response to a 27 percent rise in reactor capacity, even accounting for efficiency improvements associated with higher burn-up of fuel (WNA, “Uranium Markets”). December 2010 showed a shortfall of 14,983 tonnes of uranium not met by current production. Current demand exceeds supply by 20 percent.
  • Technological advances dampened growth in uranium demand relative to the demand for nuclear energy (2.5-fold versus 3.6 fold) from 1980 to 2008, yet spot prices of uranium rose dramatically from US$ 10/lb to US$ 70/lb between 2003 and 2007.  This increase spurred 400 new junior companies to invest over US$ 2 billion on uranium exploration, which significantly affects the amount of known resources.
     World Nuclear Association
  • The March 2011 incident at Fukushima drove uranium spot prices down from $73/lb in February to $53/lb in March. Since then, prices have recovered steadily to $54.25/lb in June.
    Germany, Italy and Japan are preparing to move away from nuclear power generation, but many countries including the United Kingdom, Scotland and Switzerland plan to push forward. The President of France declared that “there is no alternative to nuclear energy”, and the Chairman of China’s main energy agency announced that “Nuclear power is a choice of must… we stay firm on our nuclear plans.”

A Source of Sustainable and Safe Energy

  • Rising gas prices and increasing concern about greenhouse gases have brought nuclear power to the forefront of global agenda.  Nuclear energy has several advantages over fossil fuels: it is a greener, more cost-effective, and less volatile source of energy.  According to WNA, “With electricity demand by 2030 expected to double from that of 2004, there is plenty of scope for growth in nuclear capacity in a greenhouse-conscious world.”
    Nuclear energy is economically and environmentally better than burning fossil fuels. 
    The cost structure of nuclear power plants is more efficient because high initial capital costs are offset by lower and more predictable fuel costs over time. Countries would be able to reduce their dependence on imported fossil fuels and be less reliant on volatile oil prices.  Economic external costs of pollution are also avoided by internalizing waste disposal costs into consumers’ electricity costs (approximately 5 percent of their consumption bills).
  • Nuclear power stations mitigate pollution, because wastes are contained within the plant rather than dispersed into the atmosphere.  High-level nuclear wastes from uranium fission are hot and radioactive but modest in quantity.  Spent fuel is easily handled by cooling in air or water and storing away from human contact with dense materials like water, concrete, or steel.  Uranium has a long half-life of 4.5 billion years (amount of time it takes for half of a radioisotope’s atoms to decay), which means that it emits low levels of radiation over an extended period of time.  When stored 50 years, its radioactivity progressively diminishes to less than a thousandth of its original. 
    Despite the recent disaster at Fukushima, the safety record of nuclear energy is better than any major industrial technology. About one third of the costs of a reactor are spent on engineering safety systems and structures.

More Information

World Nuclear Association - World Nuclear Power Reactors and Uranium Requirements
International Atomic Energy Agency - News Centre

Saskatchewan Mining Association - Fact Sheets

Government of Saskatchewan - Energy and Resources

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