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Posted by Mark Halper

Finance this! It’s increasingly difficult to finance uranium mines. Above, Paladin’s Langer Heinrich operation in Namibia.

Regular readers of our 3-week new blog here at Weinberg will know that we don’t miss a chance to advocate a shift away from uranium fuel and toward thorium, the alternative that could help assure a safe nuclear future.

For more evidence, we take a look at tomorrow – literally.

The October 17th  (note that we’re posting on Oct. 16) edition of The Australian newspaper runs the following headline: “Uranium supply problems loom.”

The story reports that Perth-based Paladin Energy sees a uranium “supply crunch” coming “because low prices and a difficult financing environment are stifling the development of new uranium mines.”

Paladin would know. It’s a major uranium producer with mines in Namibia and Malawi among other locations. It has had difficulty securing financing from post-Fukushima investors who are wary of anti-nuclear sentiment, and of the downward trend in uranium prices.

WORSE THAN PRECARIOUS

Cruise over to Paladin’s website, and you’ll see this in a statement from CEO John Borshoff:

“While Paladin’s analysis suggests that annual demand by 2020 is only 8% lower than pre-Fukushima scenarios, low uranium prices and a difficult financing environment have generally stifled and delayed the development of new uranium projects, making what was already a precarious situation worse. As a result, primary supply is estimated to be up to 25% lower in 2020 than would have otherwise been expected if the pre-Fukushima uranium price trend had been maintained.”

Translation: Not a good outlook for anyone counting on a nuclear future fueled by uranium.

Paladin’s prospects mark just the latest in a recent string of uranium setbacks. Among them:

  • Areva has postponed its Trekkopje mine in Namibia
  • Niger has warned Areva that it must finish its Imouraren mine without further ado, following delays related to kidnappings
  • BHP Billiton has cancelled expansion plans at its Olympic Dam mine in Australia
  • Canada’s Cameco has slowed down operations at its Australian Kintyre project
  • A U.S.-Russian program that produces uranium from old nuclear weapons is due to expire, taking uranium out of the value chain.

THE Prêt-à-Porter PUNCHLINE

I think you see the punch line coming. With uranium such a tough business – let alone an inferior fuel – doesn’t today mark a juncture for pivoting to thorium?

There is more of it around in the world than there is uranium. And it’s ready to wear – you don’t have to process it into isotopes the way you do with uranium.

And then there are all those other benefits that we’ll quickly bang on about again here. Put it in the right reactor – say a molten salt or pebble bed design that’s  markedly different from today’s water-cooled, solid fuel reactors – and you have a fuel that burns more efficiently, can’t melt down, leaves less dangerous waste and is more difficult to fashion into a bomb than is uranium.

In a way the current situation circles back to the 1960s, when thorium reactor development waned in favour of previously scarce uranium once the world discovered it had much more uranium than it thought – and could build inferior reactors that happened to produce weapons waste that was desirable in the height of the Cold War. Now it’s time for thorium to skip ahead, and for uranium to take the back seat.

Sure, thorium will also require financing – the same sort of thing that’s troubling uranium. But as we said earlier this month when we wrote about the  funding hurdles for Britain’s conventional reactors, the current environment screams out for a new way. A thorium way – for  the big tomorrow.

Photo: Paladin Energy

 

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