By Dr Jonathan Cobb, senior communication manager, World Nuclear Association
THE availability of uranium resources around the world is a critical variable in the long-term viability of the nuclear industry. Central Asia has become a key supplier of uranium to the global market, and shows every sign of continuing to do so for the foreseeable future.
The current low price of uranium ore has suppressed activity in terms of prospecting for new resources and developing new mines. However, there is good potential for production to grow further in Central Asia, particularly as the global capacity of nuclear energy rises to meet the world’s increasing demand for clean, secure and affordable energy.
Kazakhstan has led the growth in uranium supply in Central Asia. It has been an important source of uranium for more than 50 years. Uranium exploration started in 1948 with economic mineralization found in several parts of the country which supported various mines exploiting hard rock deposits. Some 50 uranium deposits are known in six uranium provinces. Reasonably assured resources plus inferred resources to US$130/kg uranium were 651,000 tonnes at 2009. It has 12% of the world’s uranium resources.
In 1970 tests on in situ leach (ISL) mining commenced and were successful, which led to further exploration being focused on two sedimentary basins with ISL potential. Up until 2000 twice as much uranium had been mined in hard rock deposits as from sedimentary ISL but almost all production is now from ISL.
Uranium production in Kazakhstan has increased substantially over the last decade. In 2009 it became the world’s leading uranium producer with almost 28% of global production, then 33% in 2010, 36% in 2011, 36.5% in 2012 and 38% in 2013, producing about 22,550 tonnes. Further increases are planned through to 2018.
Of its 17 mine projects, five are wholly-owned by Kazatomprom and 12 are joint ventures with foreign equity holders, and some of these are producing under nominal capacity. In 2012, 8863 tonnes was attributable to Kazatomprom itself – 15% of world production, putting it slightly ahead of Areva, Cameco and ARMZ.
Kazatomprom has forged major strategic links with Russia, Japan and China, as well as taking a significant share in the international nuclear company Westinghouse. Canadian and French companies are involved with uranium mining and other aspects of the fuel cycle.
Kazatomprom this year said that 55% of Kazakh uranium production was exported to China.
Kazakhstan has a major plant making nuclear fuel pellets and aims eventually to sell value-added fuel rather than just uranium. It aims to supply 30% of the world fuel fabrication market by 2015.
Kazakhstan also has a history of using nuclear energy. A single Russian nuclear power reactor operated from 1972 to 1999, generating electricity and for desalination. The use of nuclear energy in the future is under consideration by the Kazakh government.
The Kyrgyz Republic has had some uranium mining activities in the past. The Mailuu-Suu district in Jalal-Abad province in the republic’s south was a significant uranium mining area for example. But there has been little sign of activity in recent years.
Mongolia has substantial known uranium resources and geological prospectivity for more. There is currently no uranium mining in Mongolia but uranium was produced from the Dornod deposit by Russian interests until 1995. Since 2008 Russia has re-established its position in developing north-eastern Mongolian uranium deposits.
According to the 2011 Red Book, Mongolia has 74,000 tonnes in reasonably assured resources plus inferred resources, to US$130/kg uranium. However, geological indications reported in the Red Book suggest that uranium resources could be 1.47 million tonnes.
The broader mining sector is Mongolia’s single largest industry, accounting for 55% of industrial output and more than 40% of export earnings. However, the country has been considered to have relatively high political risk associated with investment.
Uzbekistan has considerable mineral deposits, including uranium. It is the world’s seventh-ranking uranium supplier and is expanding production. Japanese and Chinese joint ventures are active in uranium development, especially focused on black shales.
Uzbekistan was a significant source of Russian uranium supply until independence in 1991. Uranium production until then took place in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with little regard for national borders and much of the treatment being in Tajikistan. Today, most uranium is mined in the middle of the country, with Navoi as the centre, linked to mines by railway.
According to the 2011 Red Book, Uzbekistan has 96,000 tonnes in reasonably assured resources plus inferred resources, to US$130/kg. National uranium mining company Navoi Mining & Metallurgy Combinat (NMMC) in 2011 identified 101,000 tonnes in permeable sand and gravel beds, plus 36,000 tonnes in carbonaceous-siliceous formation including black shale deposits, which have so far not supported commercial production, and foreign expertise is being sought for them. In February 2014 Goskomgeo (State Committee for Geology and Mineral Resources) reported resources of 138,800 tonnes in sandstones and 47,000 tonnes in black shales.
Navoi Mining & Metallurgy Combinat is part of the Uzbekistani state holding company Kyzylkumredmetzoloto and undertakes all uranium mining in the country, as well as gold mining and other activities. Until 1992, all uranium mined and milled in Uzbekistan was shipped to Russia. Since 1992, much of the Uzbekistani uranium production has been exported to the USA and other countries through Nukem Inc.
In 2008 South Korea’s Kepco signed agreements to purchase 2600 tonnes over six years to 2015, for about US$400 million. In May 2014 China’s CGN agreed to buy $800 million of uranium through to 2021, and China customs was reported as saying that Uzbekistan was second only to Kazakhstan as a uranium supplier to the country. In 2013, 1663 tonnes was supplied to China.