Know your Business Part 9: In-Situ Recovery (ISR) vs. Hydaulic Fracturing (Fracking)

I talk to a lot of people in the course of my job as Director of HR and IR/PR at my company.  I love to explain the method of mining – in-situ recovery (ISR) – that my company does because it is technologically fascinating, environmentally friendly, and economical.  Often when I’m explaining ISR, people wrinkle their noses – and sometimes sneer – at me and say that it sounds just like fracking.  I have to explain to them its not but, as a big supporter of fracking (aka hydraulic fracturing), I consider it important to explain what fracking is when I get this reaction.

I’ve already written about ISR uranium mining here. Today, I’m going to explore fracking.

Fracking has actually been around since 1949 and estimates are that over one million wells have been hydraulically fractured since.  The method is used primarily to extract natural gas and shale oil from shale formations that used to be economically impossible to develop.  With the recent technology advances in horizontal drilling, fracking has made these formations economical and as started an oil and gas boom in the United States.

Today, fracking is being used in the Bakken Shale deposit in North Dakota and Montana, the Barnett Shale deposit in Texas, and the Marcellus Shale deposit in the northeast.

Here is how fracking works.  A well is drilled straight down until a “kickoff” point is reached where the drillers start to arc off horizontally to reach the shale layer.  The well is typically about 7,000 to 8,000 ft deep from the surface to the shale layer and is cased with cement to protect the water table which is at about 800 to 1,000 ft deep.   Once the shale layer is reached, the horizontal drilling continues for about 3,000 to 4,000 ft.  Production casing is inserted into the horizontal borehole and then surrounded by cement.  Charges are then detonated inside a perforating gun that blasts small holes into the shale.  At this point, a pressurized mixture of water, sand (proppant), and chemicals are pumped into the well at about 4000 gallons per minute.  This action generates many small fissures in the shale which frees the trapped gas and oil allowing it to flow out of the well and to the surface where it piped to the market.

Its important to note that the water table is no more than 1,000 feet down and the fracking is occurring 7,000 to 8,000 feet down.  I doubt the fissures are reaching the water table 6,000 to 7,000 feet away.  I mention this because those who oppose fracking claim that the method contaminates drinking water by leaching the chemicals and methane into the water table.

Know Your Busienss Series: The U2013 Global Uranium Symposium

I am attending the U2013 Global Uranium Symposium in Corpus Christi this week.  In addition to manning the company booth and doing some recruiting, I will attend as many sessions as possible in order to learn what I can about the latest in uranium mining.

I strongly recommend HR pros attend the symposiums and conferences relevant to their company’s industry when and if possible.  You will certainly  feel uncomfortable and out of place, especially when people ask you what you do for the company but be proud and confident of your profession when you answer!  Most of them will be impressed that you are making the effort to learn about your company’s business and industry.

It will definitely impress those in your company because you are making the effort and give you a very valuable opportunity to build on your professional relationships with your co-workers.

Gotta go and get set up!  I hope to be back in the next couple weeks with some new “Know Your Business Series” posts.

Know Your Business Part 8: Permits Required to Mine Uranium via ISR

There are six permits – as well as several state and local permits –  required to mine uranium via the ISR method.

1.  Radioactive Materials License –  Granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in Non-Agreement States and through the state in Agreement States.  The NRC considers the ISR process underground milling – not mining – therefore, requiring this license.  It is the most difficult license to acquire since it is the only permit that deals with uranium and radioactivity.  It requires baseline studies, mine design plans, pump tests, Environmental Impact Statements (EIS), and waste disposal plans.

2.  Underground Injection Control (UIC) Permit – Usually granted by a state agency and allows the recovery of uranium using Class III injection wells.  Class III injection wells are used to inject fluids to dissolve uranium and is key to ISR uranium mining.

3.  Mining Permit – Usually granted by a state agency and is the general permit allowing mining operations. Provides baseline water quality, pump test data, and focuses on the mine’s use of the subterranean water.

4.  Deep Disposal Well – Granted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Non-Agreement states or through the Radioactive Materials License in EPA Agreement States.  Its a Class I well used for disposing non-hazardous waste water.  These wells provide a safe way of removing wastes from the surface by isolating them deep below safe drinking water resources.

5.  Well Field Permit – Granted by a state agency.  Each well field is required to be permitted and usually needs two to four quarters of well data before they cam come online.

6.  Aquifer Exemption – Granted by the EPA in Non-Agreement states or through the Radioactive Materials License in EPA Agreement States.  Required if the aquifer is drinking water quality.

7.  State and Local –  State permits can include air quality and surface and groundwater discharge permits.  Local permits can include land use and noise pollution permits.

References for this post:

NRC – Source Material
EPA – Industrial & Municipal Waste Disposal Wells (Class I)
EPA – Mining Wells (Class III)
Dundee Capital Markets – In Situ Recovery – Uranium in the United States

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Know Your Business Part 7: Agreement States vs. Non Agreement States

When permitting for an ISR uranium mine, ‘Agreement States’ have been given the authority to issue permits on behalf of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  A state can be an Agreement State with one or both of the above Federal Agencies.

An NRC Agreement State has the authority to issue the Radioactive Materials License normally issued by the NRC.

From the NRC:

Agreement States, have entered into agreements with NRC that give them the authority to license and inspect byproduct, source, or special nuclear materials used or possessed within their borders. Any applicant, other than a Federal agency or Federally recognized Indian tribe, who wishes to possess or use licensed material in one of these Agreement States should contact the responsible officials in that State for guidance on preparing an application. These applications should be filed with State officials, not with NRC.

An EPA Agreement State can issue the Underground Injection Control (UIC) permit normally issued by the EPA.

From the EPA:

In a cooperative effort between EPA, state and tribal governments, the UIC Program works toward protecting underground sources of drinking water (USDW) from contamination by regulating the construction and operation of injection wells. Underground injection wells are primarily used to dispose of wastes into the subsurface and have the potential to adversely affect USDWs. Five classes of wells are defined according to the type of waste that is disposed and where the waste is injected. 

Wyoming is not an NRC Agreement State but is an EPA UIC Agreement State while Texas and New Mexico are Agreement States for both.

References for this post:

Dundee Capital Markets – In Situ Recovery – Uranium in the United States
NRC – Directory of Agreement State and Non-Agreement State Directors and State Liaison Officers
EPA – Region 8 Underground Injection Control

Know Your Business Part 6: The Uranium Market

The uranium market is very different from most other commodity markets.  Instead of uranium being traded in an organized commodity exchange like gold, silver, and copper, it is traded through negotiated contracts most often between a uranium mining company and an electrical utility.

Unlike most other commodities, uranium has only one single significant commercial use – fuel for the world’s 440 operating nuclear reactors.  So there aren’t very many transactions occurring – sometimes only three or four transactions in a week.

There a basically only two uranium price markets, the spot price market and the long term price market.

The Spot Price Market:
The spot market usually applies to a single delivery priced at or near the published spot price and usually account for only about 15-20% of the total market.

Long Term Price Market:
The remaining 80-85% of uranium sales are sold in the long term market.  The long term market is usually structured in multi year contracts that are typically in three to five year terms but can be as long at 10 years.

Investors, accustomed to the other commodity markets,  often look to the spot price when they talk about and consider future sales for a uranium company. They should be looking at the long term sales price instead since it accounts for the vast majority of the market and gives a much more accurate picture of the uranium market.

There are only two weekly uranium price indicators that are accepted by the uranium industry and published by Ux Consulting and Trade Tech.  These two organizations independently monitor, analyze, and report uranium market offers, bids, and transactions. They report their findings weekly and are usually pretty much in sync with each other.  It’s important to note that the prices they report are their best judgment from the data they gather as evidenced from Trade Tech’s definitions of their Spot Price Indicator and Long Term Price Indicator.

The Weekly U3O8 Spot Price Indicator is TradeTech’s judgment of the price at which spot transactions for significant quantities of natural uranium concentrates could be concluded as of the end of each Friday.

The Long-Term Price Indicators for U3O8, Conversion, or SWU are TradeTech’s judgment of the base price at which transactions for long-term delivery of that product or service could be concluded as of the last day of the month, for transactions in which the price at the time of delivery would be an escalation of the base price from a previous point in time.

References for this post:

World Nuclear Association – Uranium Markets
Trade Tech – Uranium Primer – Uranium Contract Pricing
Ux Consutling – About Uranium Prices
Wikipedia – Uranium Market

Know Your Business Part 5: Steps 5-9 of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

This is the second half, steps 5 through 9, of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle that I started a couple posts ago where I covered steps 1 through 4 – Uranium Mining, Uranium Milling, Conversion  and Enrichment.

Step 5: Fuel Fabrication. Since uranium hexifloride gas (UF6) can’t be used in reactors, it must be converted into uranium oxide (UO2) which is formed into fuel pellets.  The fuel pellets are small, cylindrical in shape and about a third of an inch in diameter by half an inch long.  The pellets are packed in long metal tubes (fuel rods) which are bundled into fuel assembles which is what is used in the reactor.  A typical fuel assembly in a light water reactor contains 264 fuel rods bundled into a 5 to 9 inch square by 12 foot long unit.

There are six uranium fuel fabrication facilities in the U.S:  Richland, WA; Wilmington, NC; Erwin, TN; Columbia, SC; and two facilities in Lynchburg, VA.

Step 6: Electricity GenerationThe fuel assemblies are loaded into a nuclear reactor and fission is begun.  Fission is the U-235 isotope is split, producing heat in a process called a chain reaction. The reactor core is inside a water filled steel pressure vessel.  The operating temperature exceeds 320 degrees which forms steam either above the reactor core or in separate vessels which drives the turbine that produces electricity.  The fuel lasts for about 3 to 6 years.

Simply put, the atomic reaction makes heat that creates steam that turns the turbine that spins the generator that produces electricity.

There are currently 65 nuclear power plants operating 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S. These plants generate 20% of the country’s electricity.

Step 7:  Spent Fuel Storage. Spent fuel assemblies are very hot and radioactive when they are removed from the reactor and must be stored under water in order to cool and shield from radiation.  The spent fuel can be removed from the water after several years and is sent to a interim storage facility where it is stored in water pools, or dry storage casks.  After about 40 years, the fuel in storage is about one thousand times less radioactive than it was when it was removed from the reactor.

Step 8: Reprocessing. Spent fuel is 96% uranium and 1% plutonium and 3% waste products.  The uranium which 1% is U-235, and the plutonium can be reprocessed.  The recovered uranium is returned to the conversion plant, converted to UF6 and re-enriched at an enrichment plant.  There are no reprocessing facilities operating in the U.S.

Step 9:  High Level Waste Disposal.  Spent nuclear fuel – high level waste – can be safely disposed of underground in deep stable rock formations.  The waste is packed in long lasting containers and buried deep in the stable geological formations which have been determined to have stability for over hundreds of millions of years.

Yucca Mountain in Nevada was determined to be a safe underground disposal facility but the project was abandoned in 2011 for political reasons.

Well, that’s it for a quick summary of the nine steps of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle.  I plan on expanding on a few, if not all, of these steps sometime in future posts.

References for this post:

World Nuclear Association – How a nuclear reactor makes electricity
World Nuclear Association – Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel
NRC – Fuel Fabrication
NRC – Reprocessing
Wikipedia – Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository
IAEA – The Nuclear Fuel Cycle

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Know Your Business Part 4: First Four Steps of The Nuclear Fuel Cycle

The nuclear fuel cycle consists of nine stages that are necessary in order to produce electricity from uranium in nuclear power reactors.  The cycle starts with the mining of uranium and eventually ends with nuclear waste disposal.  Today I’m going to summarize the first four steps in the nuclear fuel cycle.

Step 1: Uranium Mining.  I already wrote about uranium in Know Your Business Part 1.  It is actually a very common, mildly radioactive, metal found throughout the world and, in fact, it is just about as common as tin! Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia are the top producers, in order, of uranium with the US ranking 8th in the world.  Uranium is mined via open pit, underground and through insitu recovery.

Step 2: Uranium Milling. The milling is commonly done near or on location of the uranium mine.  In conventional mining, the mined uranium ore is crushed and chemically treated to separate the uranium   In solution mining, the uranium ions are separated through the ion exchange process.  Uranium oxide U308, a yellow powder called yellow cake, is the result from both milling processes. The uranium concentration in yellow cake is raised to more than 80%.  The yellow cake concentrate is shipped to a conversion facility after milling.

Step 3: ConversionAt the conversion facility, the yellow cake is converted to uranium hexifloride gas (UF6) in order to increase the concentration of the U-235 isotope.  The U-235 isotope is what creates the heat energy released in a nuclear reactor (fission) and is only 0.7% of the total amount of isotopes found in natural mined uranium – the U-238 isotope makes up the remaining 99.3%!  The UF6 gas is drained into large cylinders where it solidifies and then is shipped to an enrichment plant.  The only conversion plant in the US is located in Metropolis, KY.

Step 4: Enrichment.  At the enrichment plant,  the uranium is enriched by introducing the UFinto centrifuges where the heavier isotopes are pushed to the centrifuge walls.  Enrichment increases the proportion of the U-235 isotopes or uranium atoms that can be split by fission to release energy that is used to produce electricity.  There is currently only one enrichment plant operating in the US and is located in Eunice, NM.

Tomorrow, hopefully, I will cover the next five steps of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle.

References for this post:

IAEA – The Nuclear Fuel Cycle
USNRC – Stages of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle
USNRC – Uranium Conversion
USNRC – Urnaium Enrichment

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Know Your Business Part 3: In Situ Recovery (ISR) Uranium Mining

In situ recovery (ISR) uranium mining (aka in situ leaching and solution mining) is one of the most economical and cost effective techniques of mining uranium in the United States.  ISR mining was developed in Wyoming during the 1960s and has been the primary of mining uranium in the US since that time.  In 2011, the most recent data from the  US Energy Information Administration, the five US ISR mines (Crow Butte, Alta Mesa Project, Hobson ISR Plant/La Palangana, Smith Ranch-Highland Operation, and Willow Creek Project)   produced about 4.1 million pounds of uranium.
ISR is best done in roll front uranium deposits and involves pumping and circulating groundwater mixed with a bicarbonate solution into the ore body through a series of injection wells leaving the ore in the ground and recovering the uranium by dissolving the minerals and pumping the pregnant solution to the surface through production wells (wellfield design will be a future topic), where it is recovered as yellowcake in a processing plant.  
The processing plant of an ISR operation is basically a large water softener. The process of separating the uranium from the pregnant water solution  is called ion exchange.  The processing facility is primarily composed of large tank that hold resin, regenerating water, and pumps to move the water.  Uranium in solution is a negatively charged ion (anion) so the tanks contain anion resin beads.   In the ion exchange process, the uranium-in-solution passes over the resin transferring the uranium onto the tiny plastic resin beads.  While this is happening, the bicarbonate (a negative ion) transfers off the resin and into the water, completing the ion exchange.  With most of the uranium removed, the water is refortified with oxygen and re-injected into the ground repeating the process until most of the uranium has been removed from the deposit.  
Image from World Nuclear Association

References for this post:

Uranium Producers of America – Uranium In Situ Recovery Technology
World Nuclear Association – June 2012 In Situ Leach (ISL) Mining of Uranium
Wikipedia – In-situ leach

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Know Your Business Part 2: Roll Front Uranium Deposits

This is the second in my “Know Your Business” series where I will discuss what a Roll Front Uranium Deposit is.

Basically, a roll front uranium deposit is found in a permeable and porous sandstone aquifer through which uranium bearing groundwater flows. The deposit bed or channel must be flat or gently dipping and sealed above and below by a non porous mudstone or shale layer. The channel must also be below the water table or in a confined aquifer. Roll front uranium deposits are the usually the best deposits for in-situ mining, which I will discuss in Part 3.

Roll fronts are formed when oxidized groundwater migrates through the porous sandstone aquifer carrying disolved uranium from a source rock location and re-deposits it as a reduced precipitate uraninite. This reduction and oxidation – redox process – is what creates the crescent shaped roll front ore body seen in the illustration and photo.

Sandstone deposits make up about 18% of the world’s uranium resources and are usually at a low to medium grade (0.05 – 0.4% U308) – I will explain grade in a later post. The deposits are usually small to medium size and the main method of mining them are through the in-situ recovery (ISR) mining method which is very economical.

Well, that’s it for Part 2. On to Part 3: In-Situ Recovery Uranium Mining!

Photo courtesy of Power Resources

References for this post:

Wyoming State Geological Survey – The Origin of Uranium Deposits
ICMJ’s Prospecting and Mining Journal – October 2003 – Roll Front Uranium Deposits – Edgar B. Heylmun, PhD
Wikipedia – Uranium
World Nuclear Association – January 2010 – Geology of Uranium Deposits
WMA Minelife – Uranium Roll Fronts

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Know Your Business News Update: Yucca Mountain Work Ordered by Court to Restart

Yucca Mountain by NRCgov
Yucca Mountain, a photo by NRCgov on Flickr.

In addition to my regular posts in the Know Your Business Series, today I am starting a sub-series called News Update where I will post on current news events that I find interesting in the nuclear and mining industries.

On August 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a ruling of mandamus to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordering it to re-start its licensing work on the Yucca Mountain application filed by the Energy Department in 2008 and approve or reject it.

What does this mean, exactly?  

In a sharply worded opinion, the court said the nuclear agency was “simply flouting the law” when it allowed the Obama administration to continue plans to close the proposed waste site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The action goes against a federal law designating Yucca Mountain as the nation’s nuclear waste repository.

The appeals court said the case has important implications for the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.

“It is no overstatement to say that our constitutional system of separation of powers would be significantly altered if we were to allow executive and independent agencies to disregard federal law in the manner asserted in this case by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The commission is simply defying a law enacted by Congress … without any legal basis.”

The appeals court says the NRC must continue to carry out he Nuclear Wast Policy Act of 1982 that instructs the Department of Energy to investigate the creation of a geologic repository for nuclear waste.  There is currently 75,000 metric tons located in 80 different sites in 35 states. 
There is only $11 Million left in the NRC budget for the project and it will take much more than that to complete the processing of the application.  Congress can appropriate additional money but isn’t obligated to do so.  
So we will see where this all goes…