nuclear power reactors aredesigned to use nuclear fuelthat contains 3% to 5% U-235, natural uranium mustbe enriched in order toincrease the U-235concentration.Because U-235 and U-238have similar chemicalproperties, uraniumenrichment processes exploitthe extremely small massdifference between these twoisotopes (i.e., U-238 atomsare a little heavier than U-235 atoms).Fuel fabrication facilitiesconvert enriched UF6 intouranium dioxide (UO2)powder that is sintered intosmall pellets and loaded intofuel tubes made of Zircaloy orother fuel cladding material. The fuel tubes are joinedtogether in a frameworkcalled a fuel assembly that isdesigned for a specificlocation in a specific reactorcore. Nuclear fuel may alsoinclude burnable poisons
and various levels of fuelenrichment to optimize corepower density, maximize fuelburnup, and extend therefueling cycle.Fuel assemblies are loadedinto a power reactor, either atinitial fuel load where theentire core is loaded, or at asubsequent refueling outage, where about a third of thefuel assemblies are replaced.A reactor with an outputof 1,000 MWe has a core withmore than a hundred nuclearfuel assemblies, dependingon type and design, andcontains about 75 metrictons (“tonnes”) of uranium.During power operation,nuclear fuel rods produceheat from fission that is usedto produce steam. Thissteam drives steam turbinesand generates electricalpower. As the reactor plantgenerates power, the U-235content is decreased andfission products are formed.
Used nuclear fuelassemblies are removedduring each refueling outageand replaced with fresh fuelassemblies. The entire set of fuel assemblies is removed when the reactor isdecommissioned at the endof operating life.
III. Demand for NuclearFuel
The world nuclear powerindustry has performed wellover the past decade or more. The world output of nuclearelectricity has been steadilygrowing as a result of poweruprates, life extensions, andhigher capacity factors atexisting nuclear powerplants. European countrieshave reversed earlier plans tophase out nuclear plants orare considering doing so. This increased performancehas led to steady growth inthe demand for nuclear fuel. The development of newnuclear power plants hasstarted in the US. Othercountries with existingnuclear power plants,including Japan, China,France, South Korea, India,South Africa, Finland, andRussia, have eithercontinued the development of new nuclear plants or areembarking on ambitious newplans. Countries withoutany nuclear power historyare now seriously consideringnuclear plants. Countriesthat have relied upon fossilfuels for electricity generationare now considering nuclearpower, even in regions whereoil and gas are plentiful.Several countries in thePersian Gulf region,including Yemen and Jordan,have expressed interest indeveloping nuclear power asa source of electricitygeneration and waterdesalination. Research anddevelopment into new reactortechnologies that willproduce hydrogen isproceeding.
Countries without any nuclear power historyare now seriouslyconsideringnuclear plants.
The primary driver of future nuclear fuel demandis the global expansion of nuclear power plants.Currently, there are morethan 20 nuclear power plantsunder construction aroundthe world, at least 60 more inthe planning stages, andeven more underconsideration. Over theperiod from the end of 2005to 2015, total net nuclearplant capacity in operation isexpected to increase by 36 to72 GWe, with an additional40 to 90 GWe expected to beadded between 2015 and2025.
This nucleargenerating capacity growth will result in an increase inthe demand for uranium overthe period from the end of 2005 to 2015 by 7.8 to 16.5thousand tonnes per year
Nuclear Fuel: A New Market Dynamic, by Edward Kee, The Electricity Journal, December 2007