Jeff Rubin: Fracking for yellowcake: The next frontier?

Special to The Globe and Mail

Workers at a uranium mine are seen in this file photo. Is fraking for uranium viable? (© STRINGER Canada / Reuters/REUTERS)

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.

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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.

 

Jeff Rubin is the former chief economist of CIBC World Markets and the author of the award-winning Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller. His recent best seller is The End of Growth .