Unlike most metals that are mined for multiple uses and markets, uranium's main use is as a nuclear fuel in power generation. Approximately 17% of the world's electricity is generated from nuclear reactors, and demand for nuclear energy is set to increase given the declining oil supplies and pressure to find cheaper and cleaner forms of energy.
Three countries, namely Australia (30%) Kazakhstan (17%) and Canada (12%) account for over half of the world's uranium supply - estimated to be circa 3,500,000 tonnes U. However, with the world electricity demand predicted to double by 2030, demand for uranium and nuclear power is set to increase. Nuclear power offers energy security without compromising climate change or economic performance. The challenge for the uranium industry now is to satisfy this demand by undertaking more exploration, increasing production, improving operational efficiency and technical performance and to ensure the market adequately reflects the costs of providing nuclear fuel on a sustainable and secure basis.
While uranium is one of the most abundant elements in the Earth's crust, concentrated uranium ores are found in only a few places, usually in hard rock, such as granites or consolidated sediments, such as sandstone.
Uranium is commonly found as the mineral uraninite or pitchblende, a form of uraninite mixed with other minerals. It is usually black to steel black with a dull lustre. The most stable form is Triuranium octoxide (U3O8), better known as yellowcake, which is the concentrate most commonly derived from uranium mining operations.
Removing uranium ore from the ground can be undertaken in one of three ways, depending on how it is deposited. Open pit mining is used to extract uranium deposits close to the surface.
Underground mining methods are used for deep deposits. The known 'in situ leaching' (ISL) process injects chemicals to dissolve the uranium underground into a uranium-bearing solution that can be pumped to the surface for processing.