Interest in nuclear power is increasing as the world's demand grows for cheap, reliable electricity, along with the need to reduce air pollution. Nonproliferation of weapons and the safe disposal of spent nuclear fuel dominate the nuclear power debate, while nuclear fuel supplies have garnered little attention. Russia and Europe are poised to enter the U.S. commercial market, sparking concerns about the U.S. enrichment industry. Meanwhile, international efforts to expand use of a nuclear-fuel bank in lieu of domestic production continue in an attempt to quell proliferation fears while allowing expansion of civilian nuclear power. Though uranium mining is making a comeback after a two-decade slump, obstacles such as infrastructure problems, stable access to enrichment services, and environmental concerns still dog the industry.
Discerning Supply and Demand
Close to five million tons of naturally occurring uranium is known to be recoverable. Australia leads with more than one million tons (about 24 percent of the world's known supply), followed by Kazakhstan, with over 800,000 tons or 17 percent of known supplies. Canada's supplies are slightly less than 10 percent of the world's total, while the United States and South Africa have about 7 percent each.
Still, the overall amount of uranium is less important that the grade of uranium ore, according to a 2006 background paper (PDF) by the German research organization Energy Watch Group. The less uranium in the ore, the higher the overall processing costs will be for the amount obtained. The group contends that worldwide rankings mean little, then, when one considers that only Canada has a significant amount of ore above 1 percent--up to about 20 percent of the country's total reserves. In Australia, on the other hand, some 90 percent of uranium has a grade of less than 0.06 percent. Much of Kazakhstan's...