About the blog: What Things Are Made Of


The United States relies on imports for dozens of commodities in everyday use. Often enough, that reliance is 100%. In this book I aim to provide awareness of the hidden geology and mineralogy behind common things, and to develop an appreciation for the global resource distribution that underpins our society. While concerns about oil import reliance are in the news every day, our needs for other minerals are comparable and are typically unknown even to technologically aware Americans.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Where uranium comes from

You all know what uranium is used for: nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Some volumetrically tiny but nonetheless important uses include x-ray generators, inertial guidance systems, glass coloring agents, and age-dating in geology.

The mystique of secrecy and national security surrounding uranium and its products might lead you to think the United States produces—and jealously guards—all that we need. Nope. Although the U.S. is the consumption leader, using 30% to 40% of world uranium in recent years, U.S. production totals only about 3% of world supply.

In 2008, 85% of U.S. uranium consumption was imported, an import dependency greater than that for oil.

Canada extracts the most uranium of any country, and has the greatest known reserves. Australia is second-place producer, with Kazakhstan, Niger, and Russia in a near-tie for third place. Kazakhstan is second in reserves. The U.S. imports uranium from Canada, Australia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Namibia, Uzbekistan, South Africa, and elsewhere.

Economic viability of uranium mines in the U.S. depends sensitively on the price. Wyoming and New Mexico together have some 700 million pounds of uranium reserves if the price is $50 per pound, but only around 175 million pounds at $30 per pound. In January 2010 the price was $44.50 per pound, but uranium prices from 2004 to 2007 fluctuated widely, from $15 to $138 per pound. Volatile prices are the bane of the mining industry, which requires long lead times, huge up-front investment, and complex infrastructure.

Nuclear power plant image from Wikipedia.


William said...

Dick - I just discovered your blog and find the topics quite interesting. The uranium posting reminded me of something I remember from years ago that may interest you. Did you ever hear about buried logs in buried river bends being remineralized with uranium. It was controlled by redox. Bill

Richard Gibson said...

I'm no expert on uranium mineralization, but yes, I recall that uranium-bearing petrified logs from the Jurassic Morrison formation in New Mexico were actually mined for their uranium content. Thanks for the note.