Nuclear Energy Roundup: Kazakhstan Uranium Production, Japan Breeder Reactor and More

1. The Department of Energy’s (DoE) Office of the Inspector General (IG) has concluded that the DoE has not followed through adequately on various promising potential applications for depleted Uranium. The DoE should do more to avoid having to treat the entire inventory as waste, according to the department’s own internal watchdog.

The DoE has an inventory of some 700,000 tonnes of uranium hexafluoride tails – the “leftovers” from uranium enrichment. Radiation shielding uses alone would have the potential to absorb the entire inventory. The report, based on an audit carried out between November 2007 and August 2008, questioned plans to dispose of nearly all the 551,000 tonnes of depleted uranium from the deconversion project as waste at an estimated cost of $428 million.

A US speciality chemical company is working on using unconverted depleted uranium hexafluoride as a feedstock to produce fluorine for the manufacture of high-value fluoride gases. In November, International Isotopes Inc said that plans to build a commercial plant based on its patented Fluorine Extraction Process (FEP) technology remained on track with work on a pilot plant to begin in 2009.

With a strong neutron source depleted uranium can be converted into material for nuclear weapons. So depleted uranium needs to have careful management.

2. Japan’s Monju fast breeder reactor could be nearing restart after being shutdown for 13 years because of fire and safety problems.

3. Brazil is moving ahead with uranium enrichment facilities.

Up until now uranium used to fuel Brazil’s nuclear power reactors has been sent as uranium concentrate to Cameco in Canada to be converted into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas, which has then been sent to Urenco’s enrichment plants in Europe. After enrichment, the gas has been returned to Brazil for INB to reconvert the UF6 gas to powder, which is then used to produce nuclear fuel pellets.

There are plans to raise enrichment capacity by 2015, including the construction of capacity to supply the planned Angra 3 unit.

The first cascade at the Resende plant commenced operation in 2006 and the second was expected to do so in 2008. Stage 1 – eventually to be four modules totalling 115,000 SWU per year and costing $170 million – was officially opened in 2006. Each module consists of four or five cascades of 5000-6000 SWU per year. Stage 2 will take capacity to 200,000 SWU.

INB’s fuel fabrication plant, designed by Siemens, is also at Resende, with capacity of 160 tonnes per year pellet production and 280 tonnes per year fuel assembly production.

4. azakhstan – the world’s third biggest major uranium supplier, after Canada and Australia – reported a 28% increase in uranium production during 2008. The increase is in line with Kazakhstan’s plan to become the world’s leading uranium supplier.

KazAtomProm announced that Kazakhstan’s uranium production increased 28% in 2008 to 8521 tonnes, compared with 6637 tonnes in 2007. Production in 2008 was, however, 1080 tonnes less than planned.

Plans call for uranium production to reach 11,900 tonnes in 2009.

Kazakhstan plans to increase uranium output to some 18,000 tonnes by 2010, which would make the country the world’s largest producer of uranium. Kazakhstan has set a uranium production target of 30,000 tonnes per year by 2018, the increase being due to a perceived shortfall being likely about 2014.

A new 1.2 million tonne per year Canadian-built sulfuric acid plant feeding from the Kazakhmys copper smelter in Balkhash started production at the end of June 2008, financed by a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) loan to abate sulfur dioxide emissions from copper smelting.

5. The Wall Street Journal provides an overview of the shift in attitude in Europe towards nuclear power because climate crisis concerns and concern over Russia cutting off natural gas.

6. Excerpts from Steven Chu’s confirmation hearing.

The point here is that nuclear power, as I said before, is going to be an important part of our energy mix. It’s 20% of our electricity generation today, but it’s 70% of the carbon-free portion of electricity today. And it is baseload. So I think it is very important that we push ahead.

Sen. Burr: Do I have your commitment that you’ll work to make this a more workable program?

Steven Chu: You absolutely do.

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN): The issue of nuclear. I’m gonna skip down and just be very brief since you’ve had now nine questions regarding that [nuclear]. I noticed a lot of people say that they support nuclear, but they also mention the waste issue. And it’s as if once we solve the waste issue then we can pursue nuclear again. It’s my understanding, based on what I’ve heard here today, you mean pursue nuclear now in spite of the, some of the issues that we have regarding waste. Is that correct? All out now? Loan guarantees, let’s move ahead. We have 104 plants today. Probably need 300, let’s move on?

Steven Chu: Yes, because I’m pretty confident, I’m confident that the Department of Energy, perhaps in collaboration with other countries, can get a solution to the nuclear waste problem.

Sen. Corker: Okay. Perfect. So, you’d move ahead while that was being solved?

Steven Chu: I think, certainly, these first several [new] plants that we talked about, use the loan guarantee to start them going. Just also, as you well know, Senator, I think, this is a complicated economic decision by the utility companies that will invest in these plants. So it’s partly loan guarantee, it’s partly the rates that utility companies will allow. But it, there is certainly a changing mood in the country, because nuclear is carbon-free, that we should look at it with new eyes.

Sen. Mary Landrieu : So would you just briefly state again what are your number one, number two, and number three strategies to move us forward on nuclear?

Steven Chu: The first is to accelerate this loan guarantee program for the several [new] nuclear reactors, their need to start, to restart the nuclear industry. So that, certainly, you’ve got to get going as you say. I agree with you, Senator. The other question, and it’s a concern of other Senators, is that we need to develop a long range plan for the safe disposal of the waste. And this is something that’s the responsibility of the Department of Energy. And that has to go forward as well, because you have to develop that concurrently with the starting of this industry again. And so those are [inaudible], in my mind, the two highest priorities. The third is that there is research that has to be done. Again, because reprocessing has the potential for greatly reducing both the amount and lifetime of the waste and to extend the nuclear fuel.