Uranium

URANIUM HAS TO PASS THROUGH SEVERAL STAGES BEFORE IT BECOMES FUEL FOR A NUCLEAR REACTOR. TO READ MORE, CLICK ON THE LINKS BELOW OR SCROLL DOWN.

U3O8

The first component of nuclear fuel is uranium concentrate produced by mining companies from uranium-bearing ores. Sometimes called “yellow cake,” it is usually sold in the standard chemical form U3O8 with prices quoted in U.S. dollars per pound U3O8. 

The top five uranium-producing countries in 2015 were (in order) Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Niger and Namibia. Mines in these countries produced almost 80% of the global total.

Besides freshly mined uranium, there are also inventories of uranium mined in years gone by and held for strategic reasons by governments and commercial entities. NUKEM is an active purchaser of both freshly mined uranium (largely but not exclusively from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) as well as inventories making their way into the market from different sources.

For more details please see the information in the uranium glossary provided by our parent company CAMECO Corp:

https://www.cameco.com/uranium_101

CONVERSION SERVICES AND UF6

Before it can be used as nuclear fuel, most of the world’s U3O8 must be fluorinated at a conversion facility. Fluorination further purifies the uranium, and in the form of uranium hexafluoride (or UF6), the uranium is now in the ideal chemical form for the next step in the value chain, enrichment (see below). 

There are three conversion facilities in the Western world, one each in the U.S., Canada and France, plus Russia and China. Conversion services are priced by the kilogram of uranium being converted from U3O8 into UF6. 

Utilities typically execute multi-year conversion services contracts with start dates two or more years in the future. However, pre-existing inventories of UF6 also facilitate a near-term spot market in conversion services.

Besides acting as purveyors of a highly specialized chemical process, the converters play a pivotal role as storage and transshipment points for commercial uranium.

Uranium producers, nuclear utilities, market intermediaries and other commercial parties maintain storage agreements with one or more converters. With a few notable exceptions (such as deliveries to China and India), most commercial transactions in U3O8 specify the premises of a converter as the delivery point. These storage agreements make it very convenient for parties in the fuel chain to buy and sell to each other by “book transfer” at a given converter location, eliminating the need for a physical shipment.

For more details please see the information in the uranium glossary provided by our parent company CAMECO Corp:

https://www.cameco.com/uranium_101

ENRICHMENT AND SWU

Fluorinated uranium in the form of UF6 is shipped for further processing into “low enriched uranium” (LEU) at enrichment facilities. The enrichers use state-of-the-art centrifuge technologies to increase the relative abundance of the fissile isotope U-235. The energy intensive gaseous diffusion process is considered obsolete and has been replaced entirely by centrifuge technologies worldwide.

Enrichment services are priced by the Separative Work Unit, or SWU, which is a measure of the work effort required to physically concentrate fissile U-235 in the “product stream” while depleting it from the “tails stream.” As a rule of thumb, eight to ten kilograms of unenriched (“natural”) uranium “feed” enter the enrichment process for each kilogram of enriched UF6 that exits the process and is shipped on to a fabrication facility for subsequent nuclear fuel production.

As with conversion facilities that act as commercial delivery and pick-up points for U3O8, enrichment facilities play a comparable role in the commercial market for UF6. Thus, a utility that needs conversion services may buy conversion directly from a converter, or it may buy UF6, taking delivery at an enrichment facility.

The Russian Federation is the world’s largest operator of enrichment plants, followed by URENCO, the British-Dutch-German consortium with facilities in the U.K, Netherlands, Germany and the US, and AREVA with its new centrifuge enrichment facility GB 2 located at Pierrelatte, France in third place.

USEC, previously the only commercial enrichment facility in the US employing the gaseous diffusion process, is in the process of ramping up a self designed centrifuge facility, but does not currently produce any SWU. China has more modest sized enrichment facilities, but is believed to be adding to them in order to become self-sufficient in the not too distant future. Brazil also has a modest enrichment program that covers part of the local requirements.

For more details please see the information in the uranium glossary provided by our parent company CAMECO Corp:

www.cameco.com/uranium_101

EUP - ENRICHED URANIUM PRODUCT

NUKEM can supply Enriched Uranium Product in the form of U02 or UF6 that meets all quality criteria for nuclear fuel manufacturing. NUKEM can provide substantial customer benefits by delivering either form of EUP to the chosen fuel fabricator.

Enriched UF6 can be supplied as ASTM C996-04 compliant or as a non-conforming (up to 500 ppm of U236) material. NUKEM offers enriched U02 as high-quality ADU powder (produced by the Ammonium Diuranate process), satisfying all criteria for density and chemical purity needed for nuclear fuel designs.

NUKEM can supply enriched/natural U02 powder compliant with ASTM C753-04, as well as enriched/natural U02 pellets compliant with ASTM C776-00.

For more details please see the information in the uranium glossary provided by our parent company CAMECO Corp:

https://www.cameco.com/uranium_101

FABRICATION SERVICES

While utilities used to purchase fuel as a “package deal” (and some still do), most nuclear utilities in the Western world prefer to procure fuel on a component basis, taking advantage of competitive forces at every level.

These components are uranium (in the chemical form U3O8), conversion services (the process of converting U3O8 into uranium hexafluoride, or UF6), and enrichment services (the process of boosting the proportion of the fissile isotope U-235 that drives the chain reaction).

There are active markets in uranium, conversion and enrichment, with prices quoted on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis.

The final step in turning enriched uranium into fuel for reactors is called fabrication, with most fabricators being associated with nuclear plant vendors. Although the fabrication business is intensely competitive, the process is so specialized that it does not lend itself readily to commoditization, and prices are normally kept confidential.

For more details please see the information in the uranium glossary provided by our parent company CAMECO Corp:

https://www.cameco.com/uranium_101

NONSTANDARD URANIUM PROCESSING

NUKEM has broad experience with various non-standard uranium recovery projects. Typically, recovery projects are structured as single or multiple delivery contracts of natural or enriched nonstandard uranium, shipped from various Western locations for subsequent recovery to conversion facilities and fabricators worldwide. The recovered uranium is then book transferred to a NUKEM account with the processing facility.

NUKEM's record of projects completed during the last 30 years comprises a large number of countries, including Germany, Sweden, Italy, Portugal, the US, Bulgaria and others. Our fabricators are selected worldwide dependent on their abilities to process specific NSUM populations at economically feasible conditions.

NUKEM is continuously pursuing further projects in order to help companies and institutions world wide to mitigate potential risks and other issues related to the existence of non-standard material not suitable for direct use in the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle.