Global energy demand has increased dramatically and the world has encountered the most serious energy crisis since 1970. Now nuclear power is onstage again but, when the world restarts nuclear power, the demand for uranium, a key mineral resource, will be resurrected again. Uranium supply chains are as vulnerable to geopolitical influence as those for natural gas, cobalt, and rare earths, and nuclear power is not a life-saver without a secure supply, Bloomberg reported.
Nuclear power comes from the splitting of uranium atoms. The energy released by trace elements is much higher than that of other fuel sources. Uranium is originally stored in rocks, soil, and water, but it is usually extracted from uranium mines in large quantities and is a limited resource.
Nearly three-quarters of nuclear power generation now comes from developed regions in Europe, North America, and Asia. Of the 75,000 metric tons of uranium oxide that fuels these reactors each year, wealthy countries and allies provide only 19%, and most come from anti-Western countries. In 2021 China, the former Soviet Union, Iran, and Pakistan together accounted for 62% of mine production.
The largest source is Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is blessed with a large number of uranium deposits close to the surface. These uranium deposits can be obtained at low prices by pumping fluids into the ground through a similar hydraulic fracturing process. Provides more than 40% of the world's uranium.
However, Kazakh uranium mines use land transport. If developed democracies fight against authoritarian rivals and use energy supply control as a weapon, such as in the Russian-Ukrainian war, the report believes that in terms of Kazakh’s geographical location, not only will land transportation be hindered, even air transportation will be blocked. There probably will not be enough fuel to provide for western reactors.
Other countries actually have large uranium deposits, with more than a quarter of the world's uranium resources in Australia and another 9% in Canada. The post-311 global anti-nuclear movement has led to a sharp drop in the price of uranium. The market is severely oversupplied. The price is too low, causing many Central Asian miners to lose money. Western countries are even more reluctant to invest heavily in development.
The need for low-cost resources has led the world to rely on unreliable suppliers, not much different from what has been seen in other key commodities in recent decades. The report called for developed countries to lock in mineral resources if they want to rely on nuclear power as a reliable source of zero-carbon energy in the 2030s and 2040s.
Some new technologies are sprouting. Due to the limited uranium resources on land, scientists have recently begun to target marine uranium. Scientists estimate that seawater has about 4 billion tons of uranium, but the concentration is very low. Therefore, it is not economically feasible to extract uranium from seawater in large quantities, and efficiency is also insufficient. To compete with the mining of uranium, using a technique called ionic macroporous metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), researchers at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) have recently created gels that can extract more than 95 percent uranium from seawater. Scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing have also made polymer membranes that resemble blood vessels and are said to absorb 20 times more uranium than previous materials.
However, these are emerging technologies, and it will take time before large-scale application. Although nuclear power is restarted, most countries are only extending the life of nuclear power. Only a few countries plan to build new nuclear power plants. Therefore, developing new uranium mines will not be a profitable business and developers will find it hard to escape low-cost temptations. With political barriers soaring, the challenge of reviving nuclear power may not be as easy as imagined.