- Saudi Arabia Updates Plans to Mine Its Uranium Deposits
Following on a NYT August 2020 report that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) plans to use technical expertise from Chinese state-owned enterprises to process uranium ore from hard rock mines to make yellowcake, this week (01/13/22) Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman al-Saud told a mining conference in Saudi Arabia that the kingdom plans to use its uranium resources to develop a nuclear power program.
According to a Reuters wire service report, Prince Abdulaziz said that Saudi Arabia would be mining and developing its uranium resources. The actual extent of the commercially viable ore remains uncertain but the intent to pursue the mining venture appears to be quite certain.
“We do have a huge amount of uranium resource, which we would like to exploit and we will be doing it in the most transparent way,” Prince Abdulaziz told the Future Minerals Summit in Riyadh.
For the time being the program’s public profile is that in terms of the nuclear fuel cycle, it only goes to the extent of turning natural uranium (U308) into yellowcake. So far there has not been an announcement from KSA officials that the country plans to build conversion and enrichment facilities to produce nuclear fuel at commercial levels (U235 at 3-5%) or beyond that point.
The cost of the nuclear fuel facilities need to get to that point is not trivial. They would include hard rock mining operations which would require multiple mines, a mill and a related facility to convert the extracted uranium, perhaps at a rate of 4 pounds per ton of ore, into yellowcake.
Commercially recoverable rates of uranium from ore run from dismal, at less than 1 pound per ton to exceptional, at 11-15 pounds per ton of ore which are found in Saskatchewan, Canada. Knowing how much uranium is available and how much can be retrieved per ton of ore are crucial commercial metrics for making a decision to open a mine and build processing facilities to make yellowcake.
It has not been a secret for a long time that Saudi Arabia has deposits of uranium that could be commercially viable to form the basis for mining operations. However, the deposits are not listed in directories of uranium deposits with verified estimates of recoverable quantities.
S&P Global/Platts reported on 1/12/22 that while there are no official figures published on Saudi uranium reserves, in 2020, a report by UK-based newspaper the Guardian, based on leaked internal documents, put the kingdom’s “inferred deposits” at an estimated 90,000 mt, which would be equivalent to around 1.4% of current global reserves if verified by subsequent efforts. The prospecting that reports the inferred deposits was carried out by geologists from Chinese state owned enterprises. Their report identified three major sites where potentially uranium could be mined.
The Guardian newspaper reported that Prof Kip Jeffrey, head of Camborne school of mines at the University of Exeter, commented, “If some of these became actually viable deposits – and there’s no way of knowing whether that’s possible or not – the actual amounts are probably going to be well in excess of what a power plant, or a few power plants would need.”
Mark Hibbs, senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, told the newspaper, “If you are considering nuclear weapons development, the more indigenous your nuclear program is, the better. In some cases, foreign suppliers of uranium will require peaceful-use commitments from end users, so if your uranium is indigenous, you don’t have to be concerned about that constraint.”
Note that in the world of uranium prospecting the U.S. Geological Survey defines “inferred deposits” as the least accurate method of estimating commercially recoverable quantities of uranium from ore. This is the method Saudi Arabia is using to report its recoverable levels of uranium based on prospecting surveys. It means that Saudi Arabia doesn’t really know at this stage how much uranium can be taken from their domestic deposits or what the yield will be from the ore.
“Inferred reserves” are those for which quantitative estimates are based largely on broad knowledge of the geologic character of the deposits, and for which there are few, if any, samples or measurements.
By comparison, “indicated reserves” are much more accurate. They are defined as those for which the grade is computed from drill-hole samples, exposures in mine workings and natural outcrops, gamma-ray logs, and production data, and for which the tonnage is computed by projection for a reasonable distance on geologic evidence from points of exposure (drill holes, mine workings, and natural outcrops).
To get to the next step in the nuclear fuel cycle in terms of producing usable nuclear fuel, once you have the ore out of the ground and into a mill, the yellowcake it produces would have to then be sent to a conversion facility to make a gaseous form of uranium hexafluoride (UF6). From there the gaseous form would go to an enrichment facility to extract the fissile U235 isotope to make nuclear fuel (5% U235) Note that bomb material has an enrichment level greater than 80% U235.
The enrichment facility spins the gas in centrifuges at a very high rate of speed to separate the lighter U235 isotope (the fissile material) from the heavier U238 raw uranium. The reason it is called “enrichment” is that U235 in raw uranium is only 0.7% of the mass. It takes a lot of spinning centrifuges to get to 5% U235 which is the high end for commercial nuclear fuel.
Saudi Arabia has none of these facilities and the cost of building them would be several hundred million dollars and take two-to-three years. Yet, Prince Abdulaziz said in his remarks that KSA would consider exporting the yellowcake to other countries which could include its long time partner Pakistan or China.
Saudi Arabia currently has no nuclear power generation plants but has said it will add around 17 GW of nuclear capacity by 2040 and has ambitions to bring two reactors with a combined capacity of 2.8 to 3.2 GWe online within the next decade. Plans to release a tender to bidders for the first two units have repeatedly been pushed back repeatedly although a request for information from potential vendors was distributed several years ago.
Last August there was an indication that the process was underway once again. A Saudi note published in a construction trade press journal requested management consulting support services for the nuclear program indicating the country’s energy ministry may be restarting the bid and proposal process.
After a long period of relative quiet, KSA announced in August 2021 that The King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE) plans to hire the services of a global management service company to advise on Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear project in the next two months. The report was monitored on a CNBC Arabia TV channel.
According to the report, the global bidders for the project include Deloitte, Ernst & Young, HSBC and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
KSA does not have a 123 Agreement with the US and has repeatedly affirmed its “right” to develop uranium enrichment and spend fuel reprocessing facilities albeit without have the capacity or budget to build them. In rejecting U.S. nuclear technologies by refusing to sign on to a 123 agreement, KSA has turned to China as a potential partner for new nuclear reactors.
Plans for Making Hydrogen
S&P Global / Platts also reported that KSA has expressed interest in becoming a leader in blue and green hydrogen as it looks at alternative energy sources. Saudi Arabia will adopt a partnership approach towards developing hydrogen, Prince Abdulaziz told the summit.
“We are working with our friends from the EU but we hope that we can aggregate for example, our EU partners to work with us on delivering hydrogen, either it is ammonia [that is] shipped or even piping it,” he said.
Saudi Aramco signed agreements last year to develop hydrogen manufactured from electrolysis powered by solar and wind. In 2020, the company shipped a cargo of blue ammonia to Japan, one of its biggest buyers of crude. Ammonia is the currently easiest way to store and transport hydrogen.
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