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The economics of oofle dust

By Chris Shaw - posted Monday, 29 May 2006

The prime minister has asked for a robust debate on uranium mining. So be it. In the matter of Australia's role in the global nuclear industry, there is no substitute for general knowledge. Acceding to the desires of political or economic ideologues is not an option.

Most of us see the gathering of energy as being analogous to taking the trusty chainsaw out into the forest. We pay brave souls to cut coal from the ground, or pump oil from a windswept platform far out to sea. Others process and refine coal, oil and gas to produce the distributable energy and goods of our everyday lives. No mystery there.

Nuclear energy requires us to think again. This is not "business as usual". There is no trusty woodsman gathering fuel for the nuclear hearth in the way that we usually think of it.


Uranium begins its journey

From the orebody to the reactor, uranium begins its journey conventionally enough. Like other metallic mining operations, the wanted mineral is carefully separated from the natural matrix. When the separation has been achieved to the level of purity that is practicable in an outback processing plant, the uranium oxide "yellowcake" is now concentrated enough to be conveniently transported away. Radiation levels of yellowcake are tolerable with respect to its relatively small quantity. Steel containers provide adequate short-term shielding.

The opposite might be true of the plant tailings, which although weaker in radioactive mineral, are now cast upon the surface of the land in very large amounts. Here I yield to the wisdom of the environmental scientist to inform us what is or is not tolerable.

Only a pinch of oofle dust remains

Only a small portion of natural uranium has the ability to detonate the process that generates uranium heat energy. Seven atoms in every thousand are subtly different to their brothers. In my naive way, I will tell you that those seven atoms have the potential to release some of the energy that went into the creation of the heavier elements, in old stars, so long ago.

In that distant past, unstable transitory atoms were far more plentiful. By gathering remnant transitory atoms together in greater abundance, we can re-create those energetic times once again, if only for a brief while, in the heart of a reactor.

Hunt the oofle dust

There is no chemical difference between the scarce uranium atoms (U235) and the plentiful (U238), so common chemical processes will not serve to separate them. They are isotopes.

U235 atoms are one per cent lighter than U238. This subtle difference is how we differentiate between the two. Imagine searching for a tablespoon of flour in a crate of talcum powder, grain by grain - then multiply the problem a million fold, because we are forced to deal with nature's smallest building blocks.


In order to separate all the atoms first, we must turn the uranium into a vapour. The heat required to do this is so great that it would rob a very significant amount of our nuclear energy output - and remember, we are in the business of making an energy profit.

Externalising the problems

Like any good corporate pirate, we must maximise profit and externalise the costs. This is why nuclear power generates really bad karma. This is the principle that is hushed up by nuclear profiteers. This is the rub. This is the bit that we all have to learn and understand. Read on ...

Liberating the oofle dust

In order to vaporise uranium "cheaply" at a low temperature, it is first necessary to combine it with fluorine. The combination of 6 fluorine atoms with each single uranium atom, gives the only compound (UF6) that will become a gas when moderately heated.

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About the Author

Chris Shaw was a mining metallurgist, until retreating to care for his beloved partner. Mining metallurgists are trained to appreciate the laws of natural abundance. Mining is where the wishful thinking of economists meets the reality of nature. Chris sometimes operates under the pseudonym "Feral Metallurgist", so that he can enjoy an air of mystique which he doesn't actually deserve.

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