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Uranium Exploration: Historical Analysis

The uranium resource industry since the late 1960s has presented a paradox to those concerned with the growing energy shortage and the relative ability of uranium resources to respond to the need on a timely basis. Although the industry had been reduced by termination of the federal market from a status of peak production and seemingly unlimited supply in the late 1950s (Fig. 1) to a struggle for existence by the early 1960s, the general assumption was that the industry would be able to regain its healthy status in a short time, stimulated by the emergence of a private power market for uranium and growing criticality of the energy shortage. However, this assumption has proved inaccurate. Although the industry resumed operations in the late 1960s, it did so on a very limited scale, and an all-out effort did not commence until 1974, when the time remaining before a critical shortage was reduced to an alarming status. Coupled with the hesitancy of industry was its failure, despite intensive exploration effort, to discover enough uranium to supply the anticipated market. The situation has not improved greatly. National uranium reserves in the traditional cost category of $8 per pound, as well as in the $10 and $15 categories established to reflect inflation and less conventional reserves, peaked at the end of 1973 (Table 1), dropped sharply at the end of 1974, and have remained static since then, as new discoveries have about offset production. Concurrently, the price of uranium has risen dramatically to over $40 per pound, enabling the inclusion (after accounting for inflation) of lower grade resources that could not be exploited at the lower price.

These conditions have imposed a considerable problem on national and industry planners in determining (1) the extent to which the nation’s energy generation should depend on uranium in contrast to other fuels, (2) whether the astronomical cost of developing breeder-reactor technology should be undertaken if additional uranium supplies cannot be developed, (3) what range of uranium price the industry can tolerate in competition with other fuels, and (4) what relative emphasis should be accorded to exploration for more high-grade conventional uranium deposits in contrast to development of known large, low-grade resources in view of price-trend uncertainties. Other questions are: (1) Is the industry’s hesitancy to invest heavily in uranium real or apparent, and does it suggest an intolerable operating climate that should be alleviated by legislation or regulation? (2) What should be the relative roles of government and industry in uranium resource development? (3) How much can geologic technology help to solve these problems?

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