Uranium in Ukraine and Abroad: Realities and Prospects
The world: demands and reserves
According to the IAEA, 451 nuclear reactors are currently operated in the world (in 31 countries), which produce in total about 11% of the world’s electricity generation. Although a number of countries are rejecting the use of nuclear and thermal energy, they are heading towards recovery energy.
The refusal from electric energy produced at thermal power plants is primarily due to the need to reduce air pollution by coal combustion products and decrease the rate of global climate change since according to forecasts, the temperature rise on the planet could grow by 39% by 2050. Under these conditions, the demand for clean and low-carbon energy will be even more urgent than it is now. Therefore, it is worth thinking about minimizing the use of coal by complementing the country’s energy profile with cleaner maneuvering sources.
There is nothing surprising in the fact that with the current trend for the energy of the sun, wind and water, the countries (our neighbors including the nearest ones) strive to achieve a balanced energy mix and plan to strengthen their own energy industry with nuclear power. In particular, Poland expresses its intention to construct a nuclear power plant, and two VVER-1200 reactors will be put into operation in Belarus very soon.
In turn, the construction of nuclear power units means an increase in demand for nuclear fuel. Three types of nuclear fuel are known today: uranium, thorium and plutonium fuel. The last two types are not used for a number of reasons, although they are considered promising. In this regard, uranium fuel remains the only one that is currently operated in nuclear reactors in the world, therefore the demand and price for uranium will grow. According to some estimates, the total demand for uranium by 2030 may amount from 50 to 140 tons per year. According to the IAEA, the world produces about 60 thousand tons of uranium annually as a whole today. According to the assessments of scientists from the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and the IAEA, the world reserves (excluding reserves of undiscovered deposits) will be enough for about 118 years with the current level of dynamics of demand for uranium.
20 countries among 170 IAEA members mined uranium as of 2018. For a long time, the leaders in uranium mining have been Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia, which in general produce about two-thirds of the world’s uranium. However, only a few countries are involved in uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel production.
Uranium ore mining in Ukraine: who and where?
The uranium mining industry of Ukraine is developing according to the State Target Economic Program “Nuclear Fuel of Ukraine”. In recent years, uranium production in our country has fluctuated approximately in the range from 500 to 800 tons per year, which does not allow meeting the demands of the domestic nuclear energy even by 50%. Ukraine makes up for shortfall of national uranium through imports from Russia and Kazakhstan; it also buys nuclear fuel from Westinghouse Company, but does not abandon plans to provide itself with uranium due to its own production.
The need for uranium oxide concentrates for Ukrainian nuclear power plants is in general 2.5 thousand tons per year. Let us give an example to understand the logic: a 1000 MW reactor operating with a load of about 80% requires 20 tons of nuclear fuel containing 3.5% of uranium-235. It is necessary to enrich about 153 tons of natural uranium to obtain such amount of nuclear fuel. In turn, it is worth noting that about 1000 tons of ore should be extracted from the earth crust interior to obtain one ton of uranium oxide U3O8 and ore with uranium-235 content of 0.1%.
Ukraine ranks first now in terms of uranium ore deposits in Europe. According to the data provided by the World Nuclear Association, they amount to 114,100 tons, which are 2% of the world reserves, and take 11th place in the world. 14 types of uranium ores and more than 100 uranium minerals are known in total, but only 12 of them are of industrial importance, and uranium tar, uranite and carnotite are of the greatest importance among them.
If we take into account that the cost of uranium as of June 2020 in the world market is about 33.15 U.S. Dollars per pound ($ 73.06 per one kilogram), against the price in the beginning of April of about 29 U.S. Dollars per pound (63.91 dollars per one kilogram), then things do not look so bad for our country. The only competitors of Ukraine in Europe in this area are the Czech Republic that recently mined about 300 tons of uranium annually, and Romania that extracts about 80 tons of uranium oxide concentrate and fully meets the demands of its own nuclear power plants.
Uranium prices are currently not stable. In 2016, they reached their minimum level, and the price is not high now. In addition, IAEA uranium production specialist Bret Moldovan noted that “an excess of uranium concentrate reserves has accumulated over the past few years that has led to a decline in prices. This was due to high production rates and lower demand. That is why it is economically inexpedient to operate many mines at the current uranium price”. Because of this, many uranium mines have been transferred to standby and storage mode. Thus, we can say that the uranium crisis is a problem inherent not only in Ukraine.
Uranium ore deposits in Ukraine contain up to 0.1% uranium. According to the licensee of the Eastern Mining and Processing Plant (SkhidGZK), our ores are aluminosilicate, low in iron, and monometallic in terms of chemical composition. For example, in Canadian ore whose deposits are largely localized in the Athabasca Basin in the north of Saskatchewan and related to Precambrian quartz conglomerates, the average uranium concentration is 0.08% (from 0.03 to 0.18%), and Australian ore contains up to 0.2% or more of uranium and its main component is copper; uranium, gold and silver are mined together. It consists of medium-grained chalcopyrite, bornite, chalcosine, fine-grained uranite and brannerite, as well as gold, silver, and rare earth minerals.
The State Balance of Mineral Resources includes 17 deposits in total in Ukraine, 14 of which are located in Kirovohrad region, two are in Mykolaiv and one is in Dnipropetrovsk region, and 21 deposits in total have been explored with significant reserves of ore containing 0.1% of uranium.
The reserves of the explored in detail, but not exploited yet uranium deposits in the Kirovograd ore region in total could meet the demands of Ukrainian nuclear power plants at least for the next 100 years.
Uranium mining in Ukraine began at 11 deposits back in 1945. Four of them (Zhovtorichens’k, Pervomaysk, Devlatovo and Bratske) were exhausted before the 1970s. Three of them, namely Safoniv, Severyniv and Kvitneve deposits, either are in a status of final shutdown, or are not being exploited due to a number of circumstances. Accordingly, only Vatutinsk (separated subdivision of Smolinska mine, Smoline village in Kirovohrad region), Michurinsk and Central deposits are active (separated subdivision of Ingul mine in the city of Kropyvnytsky) as well as Novokostiantyniv deposit (separated subdivision of Novokostiantyniv mine that implements major construction of the underground and surface complex facilities in the mine and was included to the SkhidGZK on 1 September 2010 in accordance with Order of the Minister of Fuel and Energy of Ukraine No. 659 dated 26 November 2009, Oleksiyivka village, Kirovograd region).
The reserves of Novokostiantyniv mine are estimated as the most powerful ones in Europe and those that are in the top ten of the world and amount to about 76 thousand tons, at least 70 thousand tons of which are technically extractable.
According to specialists’ estimates, all these mines can produce up to four thousand tons of uranium ore annually. It was even planned to increase production of about 6.4 thousand tons of raw materials per year in 2025-2030, and even up to 7.5 thousand tons per year later.
According to the statement on the determination of the scope of strategic environmental assessment of the project of the State Strategic Environmental Assessment by 2024, task No. 1 for uranium production was to increase the amount of uranium ore production through the development of Novokostiantyniv, Kvitneve and other new uranium deposits, reconstruct the hydrometallurgical plant in the city of Zhovti Vody, increase the capacity of the tailing pit for the disposal of uranium ore processing waste, reconstruct the production facilities of ion-exchange resins in the city of Kamyans’ke, as well as implement new progressive technologies for uranium ore processing.
Thus, the uranium mining industry should receive a significant governmental support for the development and expansion of its production. However, the production of uranium concentrate has significantly decreased now due to certain circumstances in accordance with the Report on SkhidGZK Management for 2019.
Ukraine with its powerful uranium ore reserves is not among the countries that can independently enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel. However, uranium oxide concentrate “yellowcake”, which is a yellow powdery substance and a material for obtaining uranium 233 and 235 isotopes used in nuclear power, is obtained from uranium ore of Ukrainian deposits at the hydrometallurgical plant in Zhovti Vody in the Dnipropetrovsk region.
The resulting uranium concentrate is partially used for the needs of the domestic market after enrichment and final production of nuclear fuel (in 2019, contracts with the Energoatom No. 8-020-08-18-00962 dated 5 December 2018 and No. 8-020-08-18 -00971 dated 19 December 2018) and is partially exported to other countries. In particular, the SkhidGZK exported uranium oxide concentrate in 2019 in accordance with Contract No. 914/09 dated 30 November 2018 concluded with INTERNEXCO GMBH, Switzerland.
How is uranium ore mined in Ukraine and abroad?
Miklos Gaspar and Noah Mayhew noted in their article “Ebb and Flow: the Economics of Uranium Mining” for the IAEA Bulletin “Uranium. From Exploration to Remediation” that “uranium mining is practically no different from the extraction of other basic metals: exploration, obtaining a license, deposit development and mine closure at the end of its life”.
It takes a lot of time and effort in general to mine uranium at the site of probable uranium ore deposit. Therefore, deposit exploration takes from 10 to 15 years; the development of a feasibility study lasts from one to three years. Approximately the same amount of time is required for mine construction, namely, deposit operation, mining and processing to obtain uranium concentrate takes from 5 to 50 years depending on deposit resources. Rehabilitation and remediation after operation completion will last another 2 — 10 years.
This all is surely reflected in the cost of the raw materials obtained.
The prime cost of Ukrainian uranium is slightly higher than the prime cost of this product of competitors, but Ukraine has one very significant advantage for its European partners, that is the distance. When it comes to yellowcake transport, let us say, from Australia or Canada to any of the European countries, the transport from Ukraine is much easier, more profitable and safer. European nuclear power plants will require about 18-19 thousand tons of uranium annually and the suppliers for them are Australia, Canada and some African countries.
The cost of raw materials is also influenced by the method of its extraction. Uranium ore is mined today by conventional (open and underground) mining, underground (borehole and in-situ) mining and heap leaching.
Open-pit mining is used when ore is deposited close to the surface. This method is the simplest and cheapest. Underground mining is used when ore is deep. The danger of this uranium mining method is that radon gas is one of uranium decay products; it is radioactive and has a harmful effect on the body. Consequently, when it comes to uranium mines, their operation is impossible without powerful ventilation systems.
According to the SkhidGZK, Ukraine uses mainly underground uranium mining method. It is said particularly about the use of in-situ and heap leaching, as well as downhole leaching in sandstone-type deposits. The underground leaching technology is widely used now in Australia, Kazakhstan, and the USA. The Devladiv and Bratsk deposits were mined in a similar way in Ukraine, and activities have been started in the Safoniv deposit. A significant amount of uranium is mined in this way in the world, and it is considered the safest and most environmentally friendly uranium mining technology. In addition, its application reduces the cost of raw materials by 2.5 times.
The production process of uranium oxide-oxide is complex and multistage. Therefore, particularly ore from Ukrainian mines goes to the hydrometallurgical plant, where it is unloaded and sorted, and then fed to the feed hopper of the mill section for grinding.
Triuranium octoxide production process is complex and multistage. Thus, ore from Ukrainian mines goes to the hydrometallurgical plant, where it is unloaded and sorted, and then transferred to the feed hopper of the mill section for grinding.
Ore is transported by vibrating feeders and belt conveyors to grinding blocks, where it is grinded according to the scheme of semi-self-grinding using steel balls with a diameter of 80—120 millimeters.
Substances that remain insoluble are called “tails” and require special handling.
Uranium is transferred from ore to solution at the next leaching stage. More than half of the ore is leached with sulfuric acid in autoclaves, and some part is leached in pachucas. The leaching process in autoclaves is carried out using an oxidizing agent such as nitric acid with pneumatic mixing, exceeded pressure and temperature.
In order to increase uranium concentration in the solution and purify it from admixtures, the sorption process is carried out on AMP anionite synthetic sorbent (or its analogs), as well as process of uranium desorption from anionite into enriched solution, which is further purified from admixtures and enriched by extraction to obtain crystals of ammonium uranyl tricarbonate (AUTC) that are fried at a certain temperature to triuranium octoxide. Thermal decomposition of AUTC crystals is carried out in a frying rotary oven.
The finished product contains triuranium octoxide mixture (yellowcake), and the content of tetravalent uranium should be at least 80%.
Only one company: the Eastern Mining and Processing Plant (SkhidGZK) that controls the production sites in Dnipropetrovsk and Kirovohrad regions, three plants and about 20 auxiliary subdivisions in addition to mines has been engaged in uranium ore extraction and production of natural uranium concentrate in Ukraine until recently.
Nuclear Energy Systems of Ukraine LLC (NESU, Mykolaivka village in Mykolaiv region) obtained a permit for the exploration of uranium fields for the first time in Ukraine in 2019. It announced its intention to mine up to 300 tons of uranium per year in Mykolaiv region, construct a mining and processing complex in Kazankiv region and use SkhidGZK facilities in Zhovti Vody. The deposits that the NESU plans to mine were explored back in the days of the Soviet Union, but they have not been mined due to the lack of a technology for efficient uranium extraction from sandstone rocks at that time. This technology is widely used in foreign countries at present. The bedding of the rock in these fields is at the level of 50-70 meters from the surface, the extraction will be carried out by leaching.
Where and how are uranium production “tailings” stored in Ukraine and what impact the uranium facilities have on personnel, the public and the environment?
The so-called “tailings” are among other uranium ore processing waste. SkhidGZK ensures its storage and monitors the environmental situation near the tailings, as well as the situation near other radiation-hazardous and chemical facilities of the enterprises, in particular the Ingul, Smolinsk, Novokostiantyniv mines, the hydrometallurgical plant, etc.
Up to 4-5 m3 of circulating water from settling ponds of “tailing pits”, which contaminates soil, surface and underground water due to the high content of chemical and radioactive substances, is used for processing of one ton of uranium ore in a closed cycle; therefore, they require constant monitoring and implementation of measures to reduce harmful effects on the environment.
A significant amount of waste was accumulated during the operation of the Prydniprovsky chemical plant, where 65% of uranium ore in the entire Soviet Union was processed in 1946-1972., Nine tailing pits that store about 42 million tons of waste with a total activity of 3.17 × 1015 Bq were constructed in 1948-1991. A significant content of natural uranium in the environment is also observed near the tailing pits in Zhovti Vody, where the uranium ore processing plant is located.
Monitoring and other measures to reduce the technology-related load of uranium processing waste on the environment should be continuously taken under such conditions. Thus, particularly, the measures for environmental protection and radioecological monitoring were taken, dams and pits were strengthened, and beach coating was applied to prevent dust-like particles from spraying on the tailing pit in the Shcherbakivka dam under the “Memorandum of Cooperation and Partnership between the SkhidGZK, State Concern “Nuclear Fuel” and Kirovograd City Council, Kirovograd Regional Council and Kirovograd Regional State Administration” in 2019.
Despite the fact that uranium mining in Ukraine should bring significant profits, it is unprofitable today. Therefore, the National Energy and Utilities Regulatory Commission of Ukraine approved the price for uranium dioxide of $ 75 per kilogram for 2019, although the cost of production at the Novokostiantyniv, Smolinsk and Ingul mines ranges from $ 79 to $ 143 per kilogram. At the same time, the market price ranged from $ 27.7 to $ 29.9 per pound (that is, from $ 55.40 to $ 65.78 per kilogram). Full-fledged development of the industry, radiation protection of uranium facilities, and decent salaries to personnel on time become almost impossible with such a policy.
SkhidGZK received a warning about a possible electricity disconnection due to debt in May 2020, which practically means flooding of mines. The enterprise has currently significant debts to personnel due to non-payment of wages. The reason for this was Energoatom’s debts to the plant that in turn owed payments to the SC Guaranteed Buyer.
However, there is still hope that mining of uranium deposits using new and improved technologies, correct and responsible control, and competent management can include Ukraine to the world leaders in the uranium mining industry. Perhaps overcoming the monopoly in the uranium mining industry and the emergence of healthy competition will help overcome the crisis.
What are the prospects?
A gradual increase in nuclear energy generation is predicted according to the Energy Strategy of Ukraine for the Period up to 2035 “Safety, Energy Efficiency, Competitiveness”. Consequently, the electricity production of 8.76 billion kW*h was predicted at nuclear power plants for 2015, while it made up already 94 billion kW*h in 2035.
Therefore, the priority tasks for the nuclear fuel production sector are to ensure an increase in uranium and zirconium production, prepare for the industrial development of deposits suitable for open exploitation, develop explored deposits, optimize production and create a reserve of fresh nuclear fuel (uranium concentrate).
The advisability in extending the production range of components for nuclear fuel was also discussed, including production from zirconium, in order to enable further import substitution of nuclear fuel fabrication by creating appropriate capacities in Ukraine. The key task is also the actualization of the national program for the development of the mineral resource base of Ukraine for the long term in order to expand the national resource base of uranium and other minerals through the exploration, development and commissioning of new uranium deposits.
Uranium is not only nuclear fuel, but also…
Nowadays, uranium is mainly used in nuclear energy as a nuclear fuel. However, this is not the only way to use it. Uranium isotopes are also used in medicine, science and industry.
Uranium was earlier added in glass production as a pigment for pictures and painting of ceramics, uranyl nitrate was used in photography to enhance negatives and toning photographs in brown at the beginning of the 20th century. Uranium-235 carbide together with niobium carbide and zirconium carbide serves as fuel for nuclear jet engines. In addition, Ukrainian uranium will possibly become the fuel that will once help delivering people to distant stars.
- Bekman, Uranium: Textbook, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Radiochemistry Department (2009) (in Russian).
- Data of the State Scientific and Technical Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety.
- Data of the Eastern Mining and Enrichment Plant (in Ukrainian).
- Uranium Production, IAEA.
- Sorokin, Issues in the Development of Uranium Industry, Presentation at the International Conference “Ukrainian Nuclear Forum 2019: Nuclear Energy – State and Trends of Development” (in Ukrainian).