Energy expert Thomas Drolet looks at nuclear power from a global point of view
by Greg Klein
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This is the second of a two-part interview. Read part one here.
Uranium stocks surged on the February 25 news that suggested Japan was reinforcing its long-term nuclear commitment. In part one of an interview with ResourceClips.com, energy expert Thomas Drolet discussed the Japanese situation and its effect on uranium prices. In part two of this interview, he covers several other aspects of nuclear energy from the perspective of a chemical engineer whose career with electrical utilities, including a term as president/CEO of Ontario Hydro International, gives him insight into the global energy picture.
Uranium prices in perspective
While miners understandably fret over uranium’s dismal price, the commodity itself means very little to the cost of nuclear power. Drolet says uranium contributes about 1% of the price of Candu energy, and about 2% to 3% of electricity produced by the average light water reactor, which requires enriched fuel.
Therefore utilities aren’t overly concerned about uranium’s price—“except do they want to keep all their cost inputs down? You’re darn right they do.”
Megatons to Megawatts has ended—or has it?
The Highly Enriched Uranium agreement ended in December, an event that was predicted to threaten supply. So far it hasn’t, Drolet maintains.
“One of the common opinions in the media is that that would mean an instantaneous falloff of 26 million pounds of U3O8 a year. That’s not true,” he says. “There were some amendments to the original contracts that allowed some continuing supply to the world, not just the U.S., to continue for about three to eight years. It’s not 26 million pounds that were lost to the world, mostly the U.S. It’s something like 14 or 15 million pounds.”
But he adds, “In several years that will be a major event.”
The source of that HEU supply has ambitious plans
“Russia’s into a very aggressive internal nuclear building program and exports to former East Bloc countries, south Asian countries and Turkey,” Drolet points out. “That will sop up a lot of supply from Kazakhstan and from Russia itself, and probably from Africa, where Chinese and Russian buyers get a lot of their sourcing. The very fact that Russia is building so much for itself and for export means that the world will have to get replacement uranium from somewhere else. And that’s why I think eventually all these shuttered mines will come back.”
Chinese nuclear expansion, he emphasizes, will be the primary reason for increased uranium demand. Russia holds second place, both for domestic use and export. The country’s state-owned Rosatom builds and operates reactors, enriches fuel and, through its subsidiary ARMZ, mines uranium in Russia and abroad.
“They have a marketing strategy that’s unique in the world, in that they’re supplying a turnkey service,” Drolet says. “Not only do they supply the reactors but they operate them or train local operators to work along with their staff. They supply the fuel and they’ll take back the spent fuel for disposal. It’s a very marketable package. Nobody else has adopted that, but I think some people will start to consider that model.”
Other countries ramp up nuclear
India ranks third for global uranium demand. “They have four or five reactors coming online this year and something like 13 under construction. Close behind them are the new commitments by South Korea in the UAE, for example, where they’ve sold four reactors. The first of those will be coming online in a couple of years. Saudi Arabia announced they’re going to construct 10, and they’re currently out with preliminary bid documents to the world suppliers. I can assure you that people like Toshiba, Westinghouse, General Electric, the Russians, the Chinese and the South Koreans are likely preparing to have a go with Saudi Arabia. Then there’s Jordan and Turkey, but we’re getting back to smaller numbers.”
What about the U.S.?
Ambivalence might characterize American policy. “The current administration has said it supports a balanced mixture of energy supply, including nuclear power,” Drolet says. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a very strong institution with a prescriptive set of policies and procedures. It’s a very onerous burden for reactor operators but good for the public.”
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