Fracking for Yellowcake: The Next Frontier?

Posted by Jeff Rubin on February 4th, 2013 under SmallerWorldTags: , , ,  • 23 Comments

It works for oil and natural gas, so why not frack for uranium too? After all, America relies on foreign uranium just like it depends on foreign oil.

In the U.S. these days, it seems like you can sell almost anything if you spin it as part of the pursuit of energy independence. Enter Uranium Energy Corp. A junior mining company with Canadian roots, UEC is developing the newest uranium mine in the U.S. And it’s counting on fracking to do it.

Texans, in general, are no strangers to fracking. UEC is operating in the heart of fracking country, south Texas’s Eagle Ford basin, one of the most prolific shale plays in the country. Instead of oil and gas, though, UEC (recently profiled by Forbes Magazine) is fracking for yellowcake.

The technology is basically the same. It involves injecting a mixture of highly pressurized water and sand into an underground formation in order to break open fissures in the rock that allow the energy riches within to be extracted. In this case, it’s a slurry of uranium ore that’s then dried and processed into powdery yellowcake, an intermediate product that eventually becomes fuel for nuclear reactors.

Of course, the very idea of fracking for yellowcake begs the question—just because you can do something, should you?

The world isn’t exactly running short of uranium. Prices tell you that much. Uranium prices have plunged from more than $90 a pound before the last recession to just more than $40 a pound following the Fukushima disaster. Friendly countries like Canada and Australia are able to ramp up supply, as can less friendly countries like Kazakhstan. Yellowcake is also exported by Niger (part of the reason, according to some, that nuclear-powered France is taking such an interest in neighbouring Mali right now.)

What’s more, the emergence of cheap natural gas from shale plays is making nuclear energy less attractive to U.S. power utilities. Many are considering shuttering some high cost nuclear stations and switching to cheaper natural gas, just as they’ve been doing with a number of coal plants in recent years.

When it comes to fracking for yellowcake, even more pressing than shaky economics is the obvious potential for environmental contamination. The process is not only extremely water intensive, as is typical of fracking, but it’s also happening at a shallow depth. Unlike the Eagle Ford’s oil and gas reserves, which are miles underground, the in situ uranium mining is taking place at the same level as local groundwater supplies.

According to the International Energy Agency, the amount of fresh water used for global energy production will double over the next twenty-five years. Whether it’s Alberta’s oil sands that run on water from the Athabasca River or the countless gallons used to frack underground stores of oil, gas and now even uranium, it’s easy to see why.

  • yt75

    When will Mister Rubin encorporate in his talks the fact that the first oil shock was the direct consequence of US 1970 production peak, and the “embargo” an almost complete non event ? That is the first oil shock was in no way an “OPEC oil shock” but should be called “US peak oil shock” (or something)
    Summary about this, end of below post (but in french) :
    (with in particular James Akins interviews, US ambassador in KSA of the time in the documentary)
    Gettting over this myth could maybe help a bit in current situation …

  • Arctic_Fox

    Jeff, you’ve been suckered by that dumb Forbes article.  You’re making an invalid argument, based on reading an incorrect account of UEC and what it does.  In fact, the Forbes article is very “un-Forbes,” considering the magazine’s business-friendly image. 

    UEC is not “fracking” for uranium in any sense of the word.  The process is slightly more than, say, mere water-pumping, but nothing remotely like fracking.  UEC injects hydrogen peroxide & carbon dioxide into permeable sandstones, at a pressure under 100 psi — far below fracking pressures.  There’s no way at all that any rock gets fractured by a pressure pulse — and the Texas mining permit forbids UEC from doing anything even remotely like hydraulic fracturing in the sandstones.

    The peroxide-CO2 mixture essentially washes out uranium mineralization from the rock — it’s a “roll front” type of mineralization.  The end result is a solution, from which the U3O8 minerals can be removed.  There’s no harm to the pre-existing formation water, and in any event that water is already brackish — you wouldn’t drink it.  All that UEC is doing is removing the uranium minerals from the sandstone, without other formation damage. 

    For some reason (idiocy?), the Forbes writer saw this as “fracking,” and is trying to make some sort of scandal out of it.  But it’s a false alarm.  Forbes is, frankly, AFU.  All that UEC is doing is recovering uranium — without formation damage — and then processing yellowcake, for sale to willing buyers — of which there are many. 

  • EVHappy

    It all comes down to EROEI. The Japanese already figured out how to extract uranium from sea water and the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory figured out a way to make that process more efficient.

    So, the question becomes, when all is said and done, is the entire system sustainable and cost effective? 

    We must remember that the entire nuclear industry is heavily subsidized in everything from uranium refinement, security and insurance to disposal of waste and decommissioning activities.

    As fossil fuel production volumes ride down the back side of the fossil fuel bell curve, every other alternative will be continuously weighed as to what can be substituted and how.

    For now, fossil fuels are king of the hill and nothing even comes close to how cheap they are. Of course, that cost will continuously increase as we move from the conventional resources to the unconventional.

    Until men change their way of thinking from yeast-like to sustainable resource use, we will continue to burn everything, everywhere, extract every resource and kill everything just to keep business as usual and then just to survive.

    The next 150 years are not going to be as much fun as the last 150 years where we enjoyed exponential growth of net energy production thanks to fossil fuels. 

    It is going to get a whole lot uglier and dirtier, that’s for sure. Civility is likely to be tossed out the window.

  • Energyecon

    Sad to see how far you’ve fallen, Jeff.

  • DrFunk

    Jeff, have you looked at how much of the uranium market is supplied by decommissioned Russian nukes under the Megatons for Megawatts agreement that ends this year and Russia has hinted it will not renew?Probably not because you have to spend so much time explaining why oil never made it to $200.

  • Someone who can do math

    Jeff, using price is a stupid thing for you to do. In 2001 U308 prices were $8/lb. The price rose to $90, up 1050%, then dropped to $45. Since 2001 prices are up 500%.

    In 2001 the price of WTI was $24/bbl, rose to $147 up 500%, an currenlty up $95, or up 400%.

    Using price appreciation it looks like the world is more short of U308 than crude…

  • Steve

    Jeff did you do the math on the price appreciation of uranium vs. crude since 2001? If you do you would realize uranium is up on a percentage basis more than crude. If price appreciation equals supply constraints, then crude is more abundant than uranium. Personally I think you are you still trying to defend your $200 oil call.

    If France is intervening in Mali to protect uranium supplies that means it is shorter supply than crude otherwise why is France not intervening in Sudan or Chad? You have made illogical arguments. Please address them if you are not a fool.Did you do any research into the uranium market supply chain? Did you find out that 30% is from decommisioned ex-Soviet nukes and not new supply?  Did you find out there is no stock pile like the crude reserves around the world?Obviously not.The worst mistake you ever made was leaving CIBC, only now to become irrelevant. I hope you realize this is the article that makes you a laughing stock and ends any minor influence you had.Good luck trying to come back. Nobody, and I mean nobody respects you anymore.

    PS – wheres the $200 oil, your prediction marked the peak in the market. 

    You realize your are David Elias…google the name if you do not know. Sad…very sad.

  • Rigpigpetey

    self analysis kinda what happens when you don’t live in the trenches, there are some “learned” individuals down here and they speak common sense. the world still needs to support itself and will continue to “slumber and slide along”. It gets tough in those ivory towers, loss of identity,…………………..for starters. 

    Jeff,………there is help for that i hear? 

  • dave houston

    There is no shortage of oil, which is why the author is uranium focused

  • Smoisanberry


  • Douglas Jack

    Jeff, I’d like to share with you research & experience on humanity’s worldwide universal ‘indigenous’ (Latin ‘self-generating’) ‘economy’ (Greek ‘oikos’ = ‘home’). Our Indigenous accounting & governance traditions are directly applicable to our present day system.  Examples are the Keiretsu of Japan, Chaebol of Korea, Associative Economies of Europe & Participation worldwide.  While these most profitable enterprises in the world stem from indigenous roots, they can be made even more efficient when we include even more aspects of humanity’s heritage. Here’s one section to start with but I have a presentation which has been given as a keynote speech to the founding of the Canadian Society for Ecological-Economics, International Association for Public Participation, EF Schumacher Society’s Local Currencies in the 21st Century, Strategies St-Laurent, Zone d’intervention prioritaire, Eco-city Builders, Environment Canada, Montreal Biosphere, Canadian Environmental Network & more.

  • Douglas Jack

    Jeff, Thanks for this description of Fracking for Yellow-Cake Uranium.  What you most importantly point out is the volumes of water involved carrying isotopes which can’t be effectively separated & returned to the environment without radiation damage for all living creatures including humans.  We now know that no amount of artificial ionizing radiation, all low-level radio-active contamination comes without epidemiological & public health consequences.

    Those below who perceive this issue through 2-dimensional mechanical / chemical / nuclear engineering perspectives must complement these with study of natural health, epidemiological & biostatistical studies from around the world, which have been compiled over the past 70 years showing no safe way of separating atomic scale isotopes from vast volumes of water.  Leaving such material in supposed containment ponds ponds which inevitably leak & then for future generations to ‘deal-with’ are irresponsible beyond all human values.  There is absolutely no ecological history (histories of human & biosphere development) for such radio-active materials which accumulate in the food-chain & biosphere. Radio-active materials are designed to be rare in the biosphere & meant to be left deeply deposited into the earth’s crust.  Through media of long-standing community memory story tellers & graphic character writing systems, humanity’s ‘indigenous’ (Latin ‘self-generating’) ancestors know about & avoid the relatively few contaminated areas of the earth.

  • Zytigon

    Hi Jeff,

    I have read , ” Why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller ” and you make many good points. I have just listened to an interview in BBCHardtalk on YouTube where Fatid Birol of IEA was interviewed on 9th January 2013 by Stephen Sackur. Birol basically agreed with your view on need to cut back dramatically on fossil fuel use both because of global warming and that oil will not meet demand.

    Here are some ideas that would probably cause economic collapse but maybe a way could be found ?

    Ban plane & car & motorbike travel except for science & military & other top managers.
    This would make the roads much quieter and safer for cycling and pony & trap. If pony & Hansom cabs were set up instead of taxi operations it would create many jobs. It would also create the need for a large switch in land use back to ley grass which could have % clover which would help save the bees. Part of the reason for bee decline is likely the loss of wildflower nectar source due ploughing up so much pasture to grow corn for ethanol. Many people would rejoice if there was 95% reduction in cars. People could have improved standard of living. Less noise at night. Easier to walk down street listening to ipod without roar of traffic. Also easier to listen to radio in a Hansom cab. Perhaps car factories could be converted to making hi tech Hansom cabs which look like Smart car bodywork – sealed from wind and cold. Car factories could also melt down cars & make bicycles. Battery power assisted bicycles are fun and can have solar panels fitted too. Maybe with dual carriageway / motorway one lane could be for lorries and the other for bicycle & horse ?

    Anyway horse or pony is ultimate green engine. It could do 30 miles a day. A taxi operator could have a pony for morning and another for afternoon.

    This is the time for American pony express revival. You probably realize that system only ran for just over a year back in 1860. Stations were 5 to 25 miles apart. To copy that idea you could keep horses at both ends of route, so that the horse for city to suburb could be changed to a fresh steed to do return trip ? Far fetched but it should have been done back in 1940s or 1960s, anytime long before now.

    Is the world like a person needing heart surgery but they are so overweight that the operation would probably kill them ?

  • Zytigon

    Facing the end of fossil oil supply it would make sense to restrict it’s use to
    agriculture, construction & as feed stock for manufacturing. Try to conserve it for fertilizer manufacture. We should maybe learn from example of the Amish.

    There seems to be a lack of joined up thinking from leaders.

    Even with tobacco, it is surprising that the tobacco industry didn’t reply by saying, ” Ok smoking tobacco causes cancer but this could help increase death rate and so help reduce the world population if no cancer treatment is given. What we actually need is voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill – with regulation to prevent abuse. Everyone dies sometime, if you want to use tobacco as insurance policy to avoid living too long then why shouldn’t you ? ”

    Actually i don’t recommend smoking because the health effects are a bit random. Better just to live healthy and then be able to choose euthanasia when you are bored of life. Many people frown on euthanasia but by choosing to stick with fossil fuel use we are choosing the euthanasia of higher forms of life on Earth.

    Doing away with cars would mean longer travel so less hours available in the office so more people would need to be employed. Alternatively let higher percentage work from home with computer and do virtual travel.

    Give people much more holidays. They could walk across U.S.A in 100 days at 20 miles per day. This would require for more hotels / B&B along the routes, but who would bother ? Walk round the world in under 3 years ?
    By the way did you notice that M. King Hubbert back in 1960 recommended a steady state economy which involved ration vouchers where everyone was guaranteed the minimum food & stuff for life. That way people would not be so worried about job changes. I think it would be too much of a superhuman leap. The fortunes people thought they had would largely go to dust . They wouldn’t do it unless they were convinced the alternative was dying.

  • Zytigon

    I’ve talked to some one who owns horses and she says it doesn’t suit horses to trot / canter on tarmac. If matting was placed over the tarmac it wouldn’t suit cycling and would probably keep the tarmac wet which the frost would act on to break up the tarmac. Looks like we will need to be like Beijing used to be with everyone on bike. Could allow vans do deliver stuff to suburbs. Do grocery shopping on line. Maybe this world is just impossible ?
    Actually the current system would have worked ok if population had been restricted to 1 billion.
    Building a civilization from scratch how would people be distributed ? Everyone with their own house surrounded by 5 acres for self sufficient food production ?

  • Zytigon

    What do you think of the Amish as a business model ? i think the world needs to make a transition to their use of horses. i have spoken to some folk I know who ride horses and they think pony and trap would work ok on tarmac roads if the cars & motorbikes weren’t there.
    Maybe the traps could be made to look more cool. Now with laptop and iphone most people don’t need to get anywhere in a hurry. You can have conversations on the move, speaking to the people you intend to see before you actually arrive at their house. This whole notion of travelling above 10 miles per hour is unsustainable. it takes way too much energy, more than the planet has for us.
    Admittedly a very radical shift to think of all the roads in the world filled with horses. At least we would get rid of smog, improve air quality, much less noise pollution.
    It is time to leave fossil fuel before fossil fuel leaves us.

  • Zytigon

    Here is a good selling point for pony & trap – you could drink & drive because you’d be going so slow anyway it wouldn’t matter. Everyone could do like in good old days where you drive your cab to the pub & have a few pints and drive home again, cause maybe old Meg sort of knows the way anyway.
    Also we could encourage people to smoke again to die younger. There are many advantages to scrapping our cars. it is time to tax them out of existence.

  • Zytigon

    Hi Jeff,
    Reading your quote p273 from about 13 million vehicle fleet of USA uses oil energy that could fuel 2 million homes for a year.
    That sounds impressive until you read that there are 125 million homes in USA. – 1.6 %. Maybe we are just doomed ?

  • Zytigon

    Hi Jeff,

    I’ve been reading book by Daniel Yergin, ” The Quest: energy, security and the remaking of the modern world ”
    His chapter 35 is about experiments in electric cars which are failing to deliver.
    Lee Schipper of Stanford Uni jokes the Electric Vehicle should be
    renamed EEV- Emissions Elsewhere Vehicle — as they still rely on
    fossil fuel for electricity generation
    In U.S.A there are 250,000,000 cars. In the world there are 1 billion cars
    So here is my idea of computer assisted car sharing
    For the week ahead each person in U.S.A types into their computer their travel plans. Then a super clever nationwide computer program works out the most efficient way to transport those people and sends a travel plan to each driver so that in effect maybe only 10 % of cars get used each day ? Maybe a route could be sent to each sat nav and so people are driving according to computer program – where to go to pick up the next passenger. Also be told when you need to leave to arrive on time.This could result in far less congestion and so faster travel times and further reductions in fuel consumption.
    Maybe an even more clever computer program could match people type for a more harmonious travel experience?
    Ex convicts could be transported by police car taxi.
    Those on the run could be collected by security guards and taken direct to jail, do not pass go.

    What do you think ? Just a tail pipe dream ?

  • EVHappy

    We won’t leave the car, the cars will leave us. There is simply no way for the masses to afford to own and drive fossil fuel burning or even electric or hydrogen personal vehicles.

    People do not realize that it takes a massive supply chain just to build modern cars. This supply chain has more than 1 million workers involved. That is a tremendous amount of people tied up not working on the farm. This is only possible due to the incredible amount of net energy excesses provided by conventional fossil fuels.

    The less net energy a system can produce, the less free time humans (and your horses) will have to play around outside of the farm.

    Most of humanity’s time on Earth was spent hunting and gathering, leaving barely enough time for making clothing, shelter and mating.

    That is why every discussion should boiled down to the energy infrastructure. Agriculture allowed less people to be involved in the production of food, thus freeing up people’s time to do other things, like become full-time military personal, monument builders, etc.

    Our modern world, including the Internet infrastructure is only possible because of the massive amounts of free time available to build and maintain such activities.

    The Internet and all the associated equipment, including hand-held devices, towers, satellites, server farms, etc. is not possible to maintain at a cost that normal people can afford to buy without conventional fossil fuels freeing up all that time and resources.

    So, yes, we will be going back to horses but no, we will not be communicating using the Internet along the way. Our civilization will revert back, after a massive and painful powering down and depopulation era (from the current 7 billion people back down to around 1 billion people). We will be living in a very similar way to how humans lived before fossil fuels.

    Most of our technology will be lost and the knowledge needed for those technologies will fade away to a few groups or also be lost, just like the ability to make concrete was lost for over a thousand years after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

    It is all about the net energy.

  • Zytigon

    Have you seen YouTube video: Avego Real-time Ridesharing Demo ?
    There are 250 million cars in USA
    If everyone sent their travel plans to a central logistics computer it could work out the most efficient way to move people around and send a message to your iphone satnav to give directions to pick up 1-3 people to fill your car. Maybe you only take them part way on their journey and drop them off but they know another car will be along shortly to take them further. Computerized hitch hiking ?

    There are many different views how gradual or rapid oil production will decline.

    Interesting one here by Prof Fred Duennebier of Hawaii uni.

    Could Saudi Arabia power all it’s desalination plants using solar panels ?

  • Zytigon

    Hi Jeff, You might be interested in an energy analysis by physicist David JC Mackay who has website withouthotair and book, ” Sustainable energy without the hot air.”

  • B. Yerram Raju

    I went through your – shall I call it your magnum opus – the End of Growth. While you spoke of India, you always paired it with India. It gives me the impression that you are less informed of India and Indian economy.

    Coming to your blog above, Uranium did increase in price and therefore, your arguments need modification.

    Comparative price and competitive price decide the substitutability of the products. If you want nuclear energy look more affordable, raise the price of other forms of energy and accommodate grid price risks. This is what some countries like India suffering from acute power shortage are doing: keep on raising the price of electricity from other sources to levels equaling the solar energy price and people will go in for their power needs on domestic and small enterprise front through tapping solar equipment. Since India does not manufacture them open the new trade channels and negotiate.