WHAT IS URANIUM USED FOR?
The main commercial use of uranium is to make fuel for nuclear power reactors, which provide 20 percent of electricity generation in the United States. As with power stations fueled by fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas, nuclear power stations heat water to produce steam that in turn drives turbines to generate electricity. In a nuclear power station, the nuclear fission of uranium atoms replaces the burning of coal or gas as the energy source.
PREDICTING FUTURE DEMAND FOR URANIUM
The market for uranium is driven by the electric power industry’s need for nuclear power. As of November 2011, the United States has 104 nuclear reactors in operation, and in 2011 these reactors required 20,256 short tons (18,376 metric tonnes, as shown in Figure NS.2) of concentrated uranium. Projections for future energy use by the Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency show that by 2035, reactors in the United States are expected to require between 12,000 and 25,000 tons of uranium per year. In 2010, the United States imported more than 90 percent of the uranium that it needed to fuel its nuclear power stations.
Understanding future uranium demand is difficult because it is hard to predict when aging reactors will be retired, and when new reactors will be constructed. Also, unanticipated events at nuclear power plants, such as the Chernobyl or Fukushima accidents, could affect how people and governments plan for and utilize nuclear power. This affects demand for nuclear energy and, therefore, uranium.
FIGURE NS.2 Projections for uranium requirements to fuel nuclear reactors in the United States through 2035. SOURCE: Compiled from data in NEA/IAEA (2010).