Extracting Uranium from Phosphoric Acid - Jordan Takes Lead

Site visit to the Jordan Phosphate Mining Company
facility, Aqaba, Jordan


18 May 2011 | Phosphoric acid is an attractive source for uranium. It contains enough uranium to serve as a potential fuel source for nuclear power plants. It entails no further mining, requires low inputs of energy or water and generates little waste.

Phosphate plays an important role as fertilisers, animal feed supplements and additives in food. Phosphate rocks are therefore a highly sought after resource. They also contain some quantities of uranium. A number of countries considering entry into the nuclear power family also produce phosphoric acid. It is then commonly mixed with ammonia and granulated to form di-ammonium phosphate (DAP), one of the most widely used fertilisers in the world. By tapping the acid before it gets processed into fertilizer, uranium can be extracted at relatively low cost.

Jordan has considerable experience and expertise in the extraction of uranium from a number of sources, including phosphoric acid, stretching back over thirty years. With the collapse in uranium prices in the 1990s, commercial-scale extraction was put on hold worldwide. Due to rising demand for uranium and an increase in price, extraction of uranium from phosphoric acid is once again gaining importance.

At a recent IAEA meeting at the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) in Amman, some 30 experts from Jordan, Spain, the UK and the USA assessed technical and financial lessons learned from earlier commercial uranium extraction operations in the USA that would benefit Jordan's activities on extracting uranium from phosphoric acid and other phosphorus resources.

"We were asked to consider how to reduce costs and risks associated with extracting uranium from Jordan's phosphoric acid, and also what investments in both human and technical capital would be required to successfully restart extraction on a sustainable industrial scale", said Mr Harikrishnan Tulsidas of the IAEA's Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Materials Section and Scientific Secretary of the meeting.

In particular, the experts at the meeting addressed four main topics:

 

  • Technology, including technology transfer and some targeted research and development;
  • Human resource development and capacity building, including the potential for the creation of a Centre of Excellence in Jordan, with support from international institutions and the installation of a pilot plant for both training and development;
  • Health, safety and environment, including state of the art management of energy, water and waste streams, and occupational, public and environmental health;
  • Social return, including direct benefits such as increased self-reliance in energy supply, job creation and stimulus to the knowledge-based economy in Jordan, as well as indirect benefits such as a reduction of the currently high proportion of GDP spent by Jordan acquiring energy from its neighbours.

A technical tour to the phosphate plant in Aqaba, run by the Jordan Phosphate Mining Company (JPMC), offered ample opportunity to discuss siting of an extraction facility and the impact of uranium extraction on the quality of phosphoric acid itself. "We learned that this is actually beneficial, since removing uranium also makes the fertiliser cleaner" remarked Mr Tulsidas. Also, critical factors such as health, safety and potential impacts on the environment were considered. The latter are of particular concern to JPMC staff and the wider Aqaba community.

By combining lessons learned from US plants with state-of-the-art design and engineering techniques, it is very likely that capital and operational costs could be significantly reduced. And with a capacity building plan already in place, due to assistance from the IAEA, it is possible to foresee a Centre of Excellence being established in Jordan that will act as a focal point for implementing uranium extraction from phosphoric acid on a strategic and commercially profitable scale.

This will consolidate Jordan's emerging potential for leadership in the field in a way that will benefit both the country and the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The findings of the meeting were also presented to the Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources of Jordan, Mr Khaled Toukan.

The meeting on "Uranium Production from Phosphate Rocks" was held on 2-6 May 2011 upon the invitation of JAEC, and with support and active participation of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, JPMC, the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan, the Jordan University of Science and Technology and the Al-Hussein Bin Talal University. The meeting was chaired by Mr Kamal Araj, Vice Chairman of JAEC and Mr Julian Hilton, Chairman of the UK Aleff Group.

Contact: H. Tulsidas

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