Electricity from nuclear power plants accounts for about 10% of all electricity generated in the world. Many researchers, climate change activists, and decision makers see the expansion of nuclear energy as a key ingredient in any plan to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The story of nuclear power begins with uranium that is mined from the Earth and then processed (“enriched”) into fuel suitable for electricity generation. Like many natural resources, especially minerals and fossil fuels, the distribution of uranium resources exhibits a distinct geographic pattern. A relatively small number of nations hold the largest quantities of recoverable resources.
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The amount of uranium available for commercial use is measured in cost categories. Lower quality deposits require higher prices to be mined. At $130/kg U, about 6.2 million tonnes are recoverable. This would last for about 90 years at the current rate of consumption by the world’s power reactors. Just five nations (Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Russia, and Namibia) hold 72% of recoverable resources. Australia alone has more than 1/4 of the total, and most of that is in a single accumulation known as the Olympic Dam deposit.
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Recoverable uranium resources approximately doubled from 1997 to 2019 due to technological advances and increased exploration. In the U.S., government incentives and trade barriers fueled a development boom in the 1960s and 1970s. But foreign competition entered the market and domestic demand fell as nuclear energy fell out of favor, leading to the observed decline in recoverable resources.
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There is a pronounced asymmetry in the pattern of uranium production and consumption. The major producers (Kazakhstan, Australia, Namibia, Uzbekistan, and Niger) have no nuclear power plants. On the other hand, the major uranium-consuming nations with a large nuclear power industry produce far less uranium than they need. These conditions are the basis for significant international trade in uranium products.