Uranium from Phosphate Rocks: A Global Win-Win
Uranium extraction at a phosphoric acid plant in the 1980s, Florida, USA
6 October 2011 | With rising demand for uranium fuel, extraction of uranium from phosphate rocks and phosphoric acid has come back into the spotlight in the past two years, thanks in large measure to the stimulus of the IAEA.
Recovering uranium directly from phosphoric acid offers two distinct advantages. Not only would this provide uranium for energy production, there would be benefits to soils and crops from removing the trace amounts of uranium that currently are found in phosphate fertilizers.
So the twin causes of food security and energy security could both be served – yielding a global win-win situation.
IAEA Technical Meeting on Uranium Production from Phosphate Rocks
Recently, more than fifty participants from government, industry and academia met at the IAEA to consider the opportunity to extract uranium from phosphate rocks and phosphoric acid. Member States from every continent were represented, as well as the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the World Nuclear Association.
With such a broad base of participation, this was perhaps the first time a fully global assessment has ever been undertaken of what benefits might ensue from a systematic recovery of uranium from this previously neglected source.
In November 2009, the IAEA held a Technical Meeting which generated interest in more than 30 Member States and resulted in a strong commitment to reassess the contribution that could be made to the uranium fuel cycle from phosphate rocks and phosphoric acid, and reinvigorate the technology base that would enable extraction to take place.
Two years on a great deal of progress has been made. “The underlying reasons for focusing on this source of uranium are clear” said Mr Harikrishnan Tulsidas, an IAEA nuclear technology specialist and Scientific Secretary of the meeting. “The technology options are well defined with laboratory and pilot-scale initiatives underway in many countries; and the potential benefits to both industry and society as a whole are well understood” he added.
But why act now?
"In the four days we are meeting, the world’s phosphate industry could be recovering enough uranium from its acid production to fuel a nuclear power plant for one year!" one of the participants remarked.
There were contributions from major uranium producers and suppliers, such as Australia and Canada, as well as consumers, such as China and India. There was consensus that mining and production processes — traditionally focused on single minerals such as phosphate - should in future progressively seek to extract everything of value from the mining process, as for example rare earths or thorium, while also eliminating potentially harmful elements such as cadmium.
In terms of extraction technologies, lessons learned from commercial plants in the United States were compared with ongoing R&D activities in countries such as Algeria, Egypt and Jordan. The relative merits of technologies such as solvent extraction and ion exchange were discussed, with emphasis on the role of social and environmental criteria in technology selection. Radiation safety for the operational workforce and wider concerns for health and safety of stakeholders were addressed, including an update on recent changes to the Basic Safety Standards (BSS).
There is no doubt that uranium can be extracted successfully from phosphate rocks, and from an environmental point of view it would be prudent to do so. In the end, however, the decision whether to proceed or not will be part economic, part social.
After fifty years of volatile market conditions for uranium, commercial producers are understandably wary of making the necessary investment to restart what has been a successful industry.
So in terms of economics there are two options: a government, with an eye on fuel security, will require the extraction of uranium and simply agree a price with the producer; or a government may seek to broker ‘win-win’ agreements between, e.g., fertilizer companies and utilities that lead to the same outcome.
From a government point of view either outcome may be warranted as the cost of uranium fuel relative to the cost of a nuclear power plant is very small (3–7%), and much more acceptable than a plant running below capacity due to lack of fuel.
In terms of social return, the key to the future lies with the stakeholders. The meeting participants were unanimous in their view that stakeholders must be brought on board right from the outset and kept fully informed. For if the stakeholders were not prepared to grant and maintain a ‘social license’ to uranium extraction in this way, there would be little chance of acceptance or long-term success.
Wave 1 of uranium production from phosphate rocks, in the 1950s and 1960s, was focused on uranium for military purposes and was driven by government. It used a number of extraction technologies, including precipitation and ion exchange, but eventually settled on solvent extraction as the most reliable.
Wave 2, from the 1970s to the late 1990s, was driven by the need for uranium fuel for nuclear power plants. It came to an end only for commercial reasons when the price of uranium collapsed at the end of the 1990s. The predominant technology remained solvent extraction.
Wave 3: To succeed, the current development must satisfy social and environmental criteria, resulting in measurable benefits. Such benefits are achievable and have the potential to enhance energy and food supply in many countries, especially those with rapidly rising demands for affordable supplies of both. Realising this potential in a timely manner will require the collaboration of government, academia and industry, and a significant global effort in capacity-building.
The Agency can play an invaluable support role in meeting both objectives.
The Technical Meeting on Uranium Production from Phosphate Rocks was held at the IAEA on 26-29 September 2011.
contact: H. Tulsidas