The Outcrop, by Robin Bromby: Another worry for uranium hopefuls – Now the phosphate boys are muscling in on the story


The Outcrop, by Robin Bromby.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Another worry for uranium hopefuls

NOW the phosphate boys are muscling in on the story. 

Here’s an item from the Morocco World News service: Moroccan Scientific Research Minister Lahcen Daoudi has announced that the country will start extracting uranium from its phosphate. It confirms the news a few months ago from the state-owned phosphate company, Office Cherifien des Phosphates, that Morocco’s project of extracting uranium had reached a very advanced stage. Morocco’s phosphate contains a very significant concentration of uranium.

The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates Morocco (including its occupied Western Sahara) has a huge potential resource of uranium contained in the phosphate – the country has 75% of the world’s known resources of phosphate rock. Three months ago, in Brazil, a consortium filed applications to mine a phosphate deposit near Santa Quiteria for both phosphate and uranium. According to reports, even at 0.1% uranium the venture is economic because of the phosphate revenues (Brazil being still dependent on imports for about half its phosphate needs and thus anxious to encourage new projects). The project apparently has the capacity to support annual production of 240,000 tonnes of phosphate and 1600t uranium. There is growing interest worldwide in extracting uranium from phosphate.

According to the London-based World Nuclear Association, rock phosphate deposits contain millions of tonnes of uranium. Some 20,000t uranium was produced from phosphates before the price collapsed (yellowcake bottoming at $US7 per pound in 2001).

WNA noted the move by the world’s largest uranium producer – Canada’s Cameco – and Australian junior Uranium Equities to set up a demonstration plant in the US using the PhosEnergy process. Cameco originally agreed to put up $12.5 million – its spend so far has passed $21 million. Some 140 million tonnes a year of phosphate is produced around the world and there’s around 20Mt of contained uranium in this rock. PhosEnergy process recovers about 92% of the uranium.

Morocco has by far the largest known resource of uranium in phosphate rock. Other resources known to contain uranium are the Santa Quiteria and Itataia mines in Brazil; it is estimated that US uranium-in-phosphate totals 170,000t; then there are similar known resources in Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia. Some 140 million tonnes per annum of phosphate is produced around the world and there’s around 20Mt of contained uranium in this rock.

Uranium Equities recently demerged its PhosEnergy process into an unlisted company. It estimates that some $1 billion a year of uranium a year goes unrecovered during the manufacture of phosphate-based fertilisers. Phosphate rock generally contains between 30 parts per million and 300ppm of uranium. PhosEnergy and Cameco are working with an unnamed US fertiliser producer to commercialise the PhosEnergy process. They estimate that in the world’s 300 billion tonnes of reasonably assured phosphate resource there may be as much as 25Mt of recoverable uranium. The partners estimate that, at the present rate of 100Mtpa of phosphate rock extraction, there is the potential to recover about 9000t annually of uranium. That’s roughly equivalent to the combined output of Canada’s mines – and Canada is the world’s second largest producer.

The sole phosphate mine in Canada has just closed but certainly the US has enormous production of the fertiliser feedstock as well as a large nuclear energy industry. The new technology would be an obvious fit. Morocco is now, effectively, controlling the world phosphate price by its level of production. But with food prices falling internationally — with obvious implications for the ability of farmers to keep spending on fertilisers — you can see why Morocco is looking to add by-product revenue.

China is actually the world’s largest phosphate producer: it doesn’t get frequent mentions, though, because all its output is consumed domestically. Morocco is the key player because it dominates the world’s seaborne trade. And it’s not as if Morocco is just starting out on the uranium trail. Exploration with French companies began in 1946. In the 1970-1983 worldwide uranium exploration boom, the French along with Soviet and Japanese geologists were very busy in the country.

Morocco has long wanted to be uranium producer and it has a large obvious market (France) not too far away. With the uranium spot price at just $36/lb, the last thing the beleaguered uranium miners and explorers need is the phosphate boys trying to jump aboard: after all, the miners are pinning their hopes on forecasts of a serious uranium shortage by 2020.

They really need that shortage story to stay intact.