Most nuclear power reactors operate on enriched uranium. In the natural chemical element the share of uranium -235 is approximately 0.7 percent, and the remaining 99.3 percent is uranium-238 that is not currently used. The world uranium enrichment market has only two key players. One of them - Russia - is going to take an unattainable technological lead.
The power of a uranium enrichment device designed to increase the percentage of U-235 is measured in units called kilos. Separative work units (SWU) in the enterprise production-level power plants usually range from several hundred to several thousand metric tons of SWU. Separative work unit is a complex unit that depends both on the proportion of U-235 whose obtainment is desired in the enriched stream, and the amount of U-235 from the original substance remaining in the stream depleted by this isotope. SWU can be regarded as the amount of effort that must be applied to achieve a prescribed degree of enrichment.
Several methods of uranium enrichment have been tested, for example, "diffuse" and "laser" ones. However, it was discovered that the most cost-effective method of enrichment is in gas centrifuges that resemble milk separator apparatus. Gaseous compound in uranium separators (uranium hexafluoride) spins at a high speed. The heavier isotope (uranium-238) is "pushed" to the wall, while the lighter (235) is concentrated at the rotation axis. This makes it possible to separate the isotopes.
If tens of thousands of centrifuges were to be combined, it would make it possible to achieve enrichment up to 5 percent (energy uranium), up to 20 percent (uranium for research reactors) and 90 percent (fuel for nuclear submarines). The remainder contains the so-called tails with "235" at the level of 0.23 percent (this depleted uranium is stored, and is sometimes used in the U.S. tank and artillery shells, notorious for the wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq).
The gas uranium centrifuge - despite its seeming simplicity - is extremely complex and high-tech equipment. Not everyone, even the well-known engineering companies such as Samsung, can build those. Uranium enrichment has many unapparent obstacles and non-trivial problems in the operation. Russia is a recognized leader in uranium centrifuges.
"The characteristic feature of the Russian technology is the production of high modulus and high strength carbon fiber, a critical structural material for gas centrifuges. Carbon fiber is produced at "Argon", "Plant of carbon structural materials," and "SNV." The details are developed in three design bureaus: "Centrotech - St. Petersburg," OKB "Nizhny Novgorod" and Novouralsk Science and Engineering Center.
Production of gas centrifuges in Russia is managed by Engineering Center "Russian Gas Centrifuge." Firms engaged in the uranium enrichment are part of fuel company "TVEL," that brings together all organizations in one way or another associated with the production of nuclear fuel.
Only four companies are directly involved in uranium enrichment: Angarsk Electrolytic Chemical Plant (Irkutsk Region), Production Association "Electrochemical Plant" (Krasnoyarsk region), Ural Electrochemical Integrated Plant (Sverdlovsk region), and Siberian Chemical Plant (Tomsk Region). These capacities allow Russia represented by "Rosatom" occupy 40 percent of the world market of uranium enrichment services and plan for an increase of this market share.
Not all countries that have nuclear power plants have their own enrichment plants. Even the U.S. does not have such plant, and all enriched uranium is imported to the U.S., including from its "sworn friend" - Russia.
Currently there are only a few players on the world market of enriched uranium. There are only two main players - Russia and the EU. But this is not a classic oligopoly. There are a number of important points. First, as such, the global market of gas centrifuges or separating plants does not exist, primarily because of the sensitivity of this sector in terms of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Accordingly, manufacturers of gas centrifuges do not enter in direct competition in the international markets.
Second, in addition to Russia, only West European consortium Urenco has advanced and cost effective gas centrifuge technology. To be exact - it is ETC company joint with the French nuclear engineering holding Areva. U.S. Enrichment Corporation - USEC - is only unfolding its project "The American Centrifuge," and it is too early to tell what the economic indicators of the Americans will be.
Third, neither Russia nor its main competitor - Urenco / ETC - aspire to replicate innovative separation plants and conduct "unaddressed" sales of gas centrifuges. Third countries are sold only outdated technology and equipment.
Russian separating capacity is now approximately 25 million SWU, and will continue to grow slowly (up to 30 million SWU by 2020). We spend no more than 4 million SWU for the needs of our own nuclear power plant, and about the same amount of units is spent on the fuel supply of the units built abroad. The remaining free capacity serves the orders of foreign companies.
The prices for uranium enrichment services demonstrate stability, and in the short term volatility in the prices of SWU is not expected. Globally there is a gradual increase in enrichment capacity, but the number of power plants is also growing (for example, many new power plants are being built in India and China). In the distant future market prices will depend on many factors, for example, the success of laser enrichment being developed in the U.S. based on Australian technology.
Global average price of SWU (with tails at 0.23 percent) of long-term contracts last year was "floating" in the area of $100. However, the spot price shows more volatility (the last two years it was reduced from $160 to $140 dollars), but the deals on them are scarce. It is estimated that the cost of production of uranium enrichment services in Russia and Urenco / ETC is comparable, but in favor of Russia.
The cost of SWU in Russia is no more than $70. Therefore, in Russia, standard tails are considered to be not 0.23 percent, but 0.18 percent and below. As a consequence, there is a direct financial benefit to take other people's tails and "milk" them to get more. This does not involve the cost of primary phases, such as the conversion of raw uranium into uranium hexafluoride.
It is crucial that our competitors have suspended centrifuge R&D, and Russia is considering the tenth generation of these units. This will allow us, with a share of the global market at 40 percent, significantly increase the value added and get into a situation of a great technological advantage.
Vladimir Teslenko, Ph.D. in Chemistry.
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