Stable uranium supply to fuel nuclear power plants will continue to be available. This conclusion was reached at the International Symposium on the Uranium Production Cycle and the Environment held from 2 to 6 October 2000 at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. The meeting included specialists from about 40 countries, in addition to the Arab Atomic Energy Agency, European Commission, OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), Office of Supervising Scientist (OSS)/Environment Australia, United Nations, Uranium Institute, World Bank, the World Energy Council and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).
Presentations at the IAEA symposium underlined that the known uranium resources of 4 million tonnes should last for about 65 years at present consumption rates without reprocessing. Estimates of potential, yet undiscovered resources would add 16 million tonnes, increasing the time period to almost 300 years. However, substantial exploration efforts are required to discover and transfer these resources into reserves. Reported uranium production has remained steady at some 35 000 tonnes annually over the past decade with roughly 50% from Australia and Canada. In these two countries, operations began in 1999 at the high grade McArthur River deposit in Canada with expected production of 4200 tonnes in 2000, and in Australia permission was granted to exploit the low grade Beverly deposit. During 1999, the uranium market spot price continued to fall and it remains low.
Much attention at the symposium was devoted to the question of what actions are necessary to assure a long term supply of uranium to sustain nuclear power programmes while taking into consideration appropriate concern for the environmental and health impacts of uranium production.
Another major issue in the discussions was the need for increasing the involvement of the local community in the planning and oversight of uranium production operations. Other topics included the outlook for the uranium supply to 2050, together with descriptions of several of the world’s uranium mines and mills that are using improved and innovative technology to increase efficiency, while meeting the high environmental standards that exist in many countries. Examples of how the environmental impact assessment process is being used to plan and license modern projects were discussed for Australia, Canada and the USA.
It was generally agreed that uranium mining is not unlike other mining. However, today’s uranium mining projects are being held to a higher standard of oversight and regulation than are other mining projects. This is primarily because of the public’s concern for possible risks from radiation. Some uranium production facilities have won awards as some of the safest and most environmentally advanced operations in the mining world. They are recognized for producing uranium for several years without a lost time accident or by operating with little or no negative impact on the surrounding environment. Some of these award winning operations are located in Africa, Australia, Canada and the USA.