Sparton Resources is interested in coal ash, specifically ash from lignite burning coal plants located in areas of the globe where the lignite contains higher than normal levels of uranium. Since uranium oxides are not flammable, the uranium oxide gets left behind in the ash, so there is the potential that it will contain commercially useful quantities of uranium – something close to the 500 parts per million that is generally considered interesting for in situ leach mining techniques.
In two recent press releases, one dated August 3, 2007 and one dated October 15, 2007 Sparton has demonstrated the global reach of its interest in mining coal ash piles for uranium. The August 3 press release discussed a project in Hungary while the October 15 press release announced a successful test of samples from an ash pile located in the central Yunnan Province of China.
In each case, the uranium concentration in the ash pile is about 150-180 parts per million, about 1/4th of the concentration often thought of as commercially viable for ISL mining. However, coal ash piles have some physical characteristics that might help overcome that disadvantage since they may be easier to drill and it might be easier to protect the local groundwater from contamination. There might also be some monetary value in reducing coal ash radioactivity if the government in the country hosting the ash piles has regulations in place that restrict the ash use or require its clean-up.
It will be worth watching to see if selected piles of coal ash turn out to be valuable sources of new fuel for reactors that reduce the need to burn more coal.
There are some interesting numbers provided in a story titled Sparton produces the first yellowcake from Chinese coal ashpublished on October 16, 2007 in World Nuclear News. According to the article, the ash pile being evaluated contains about 5.3 million tons of ash with a uranium concentration of 160-180 parts per million. The total quantity of uranium in the pile is thus about 2085 tons. According to the UIC ISL article the normal recovery percent from an ISL deposit ranges between 60-80% so the amount of uranium that might be recovered is about 1250-1700 tons.
It takes about 200 tons of natural uranium to power a 1000 MWe reactor for a year, so the ash pile mine could supply between 6-8 reactor years of fuel, producing about 48-64 billion kilowatt-hours of emission free electrical power. If you assume that power is sold for the average value in the US of 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour, the ash pile would help produce electricity worth 4-6 billion dollars.
I am sure that Sparton would have liked the price of uranium to have remained at or near its peak of $140 per pound – that ash pile would then be worth as much as $450 million dollars. However, uranium prices have dropped pretty quickly during the past few months; the current price listed at UXC is about $78 per pound. Even at that price, the uranium from a single ash pile might be worth as much as $250 million. Not bad for something considered to be at best a nuisance and at worst an environmental contaminant.