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Amreica’s Enery Future: Technology and Transformation
duced from U.S. mines (EIA, 2007). This remains a small fraction of the approximately 49,000 tonnes of U3O8 produced in the world in 2007 (42,000 tonnes in 2003 [www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf23.html; accessed July 2009]).
This foreign dependence does not appear to represent a security risk, as there are extensive uranium resources in Canada and Australia. In 2007, 33 percent of the uranium purchased by owners and operators of U.S. civilian nuclear power reactors was imported from Russia, and it was primarily produced from down-blended38 Russian weapons-grade uranium; 88 percent of the remaining uranium was mined and milled outside the United States, primarily in Canada (21 percent of uranium purchased in 2007) and Australia (23 percent of the uranium purchased in 2007).39
The process of conversion results in less waste than from mining and milling, and these by-products are characterized by the presence of thorium, radium, and radon gas. Finally, enrichment separates natural uranium into enriched uranium for use in power plants and depleted uranium (DU). The DU must be disposed of. Because of its large density and relatively low radioactivity levels, some depleted uranium is used for commercial applications, such as ballast in commercial aircraft and ships, and in military applications, such as armor and armor-piercing munitions. Significant inventories of DU in the form of UF6 remain for disposition at enrichment sites, and these materials present potential health and environmental risks because they are maintained in the form of UF6.
The expanded deployment of nuclear power in the United States (particularly after 2020) may result in increased demand for uranium with an associated increase in worldwide uranium mining and milling. However, as noted previously, very little uranium is mined in the United States, and few nuclear plants are likely to be constructed in the United States before 2020. Thus, domestic environmental impacts related to the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle due to an increased
“Down-blending” refers to a process in which low enriched uranium (reactor grade) is produced from highly enriched uranium (weapons grade).
Environmental regulations for mill tailings are equivalent to those in the United States in both Canada and Australia. However, the majority of uranium purchased in 2007 by owners and operators of U.S. nuclear plants that was not domestically produced (8 percent) or imported from Russia, Canada, or Australia was imported from Namibia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan (13 percent). These nations may not have equivalent regulations. (Less than 1 percent was imported from the Czech Republic in 2007. Data were not included on the origin of the remaining 2 percent of the uranium—around 889,000 lb of U3O8 equivalent—in the EIA’s statistics.) See EIA (www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/nuclear/umar/table3.html; accessed July 2009).