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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

$10Bln Uranium Program Unveiled

Russia plans to pump $10 billion into expanding its uranium resource base over the next 10 years, part of a program to accelerate the country's nuclear energy output, top government officials said Monday.

Spearheaded by the Natural Resources Ministry and the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, the program would increase annual uranium production sixfold by 2020, ensuring ore supplies for existing and new nuclear stations.

If the government does not act, Russian stockpiles of the ore will dry up in less than a decade, said an official from the Federal Subsoil Resource Use Agency, part of the Natural Resources Ministry.

"Our geological exploration has greatly lagged behind production for the last 10 to 15 years, since the government did not spend any money on it," Anatoly Ledovskikh, head of the agency, said Monday at a briefing.

In 2005, the country's three uranium producers mined just 3,325 tons of ore, one-fifth of the amount Russia annually consumes to fuel nuclear power stations and to meet military needs and export obligations, Ledovskikh said.

To increase future supply, the government would double production at existing uranium mines and start exploration at a number of fields in Siberia and Buryatia. It would also set up joint ventures with CIS partners.

The investment plan comes at a time when Russia is seeking to increase its nuclear energy production to diminish its dependence on fossil fuels.

Last month, President Vladimir Putin said nuclear power's share of Russia's energy use would increase from 15 percent to 25 percent by 2030. To achieve that goal, Russia plans to build 40 new nuclear reactors in place by 2030.

According to the ministries' plan, Russia would mine 60 to 70 percent of its uranium needs by 2015, with a further 30 percent coming from joint ventures in CIS countries, Vladimir Bavlov, deputy head of the Federal Subsoil Resource Use Agency, said at the briefing.

With global uranium prices nearly twice what Russia's state nuclear fuel monopoly TVEL pays domestic producers, the country needs to minimize its exposure to global markets, he said. In 2005, TVEL paid $17.30 per pound for yellowcake, a type of processed uranium, mined at the Priargunsky Combine, Russia's largest uranium producer. The world price for yellowcake in 2005 was $27.30 per pound, according to a report published by investment bank UBS earlier this month.

Securing supplies of uranium comes at a time of increasing energy consumption both at home and abroad.

Russia needs an additional 40 gigawatts of nuclear energy annually within 20 years to meet Putin's target, Federal Atomic Energy Agency head Sergei Kiriyenko said recently in a speech published on the web site of the agency, also known as RosAtom. By 2030, global annual nuclear power usage will amount to 600 gigawatts, according to U.S. Energy Department estimates, and 570 gigawatts by Russia's estimates, Kiriyenko said.

Under the ministries' plan, production at the country's largest uranium producer, the Priargunsky plant in Krasnokamensk, is set to almost double from 3,300 tons to more than 5,500 tons per year. The miner, which is 84 percent owned by TVEL, currently accounts for 7.5 percent of world uranium ore output.

The smaller Khigda and Dalur mines, which together accounted for just 200 tons of ore in 2005, will be brought to 1,000 tons and 2,000 tons annual production capacity within a decade.

"We'll take on ourselves not only the risks of geological exploration but also bind ourselves to deliver uranium to factories for enrichment," said Bavlov.

A key part of the plans will be start of production at Elkonsky Gorst, a deposit in south Sakha, that has proven resources of 342,000 tons, Bavlov said.

"As of now, the infrastructure around Elkonsky Gorsk is in place. We expect it to mine annually 3,000 tons in 10 years, and 6,000 tons in 15 years," Bavlov said.

Russia also has some early-stage uranium resources in eastern Siberia and several uranium veins discovered in Buryatia, Bavlov said.

The country's total proven uranium reserves are estimated at 615,000 tons, according to Federal Subsoil Resource Use Agency data.

Analysts questioned mainly how financing would be secured.

"It's extremely ambitious. Whether Russia can meet the whole amount -- and I am skeptical -- is a serious question. But this is very good news," said Al Breach, chief strategist at UBS.

As Russia competes with France and the United States to build nuclear reactors for countries unable to build their own, setting up a reliable uranium network will be key.

"TVEL also supplies enriched uranium to countries which have nuclear reactors built by Russia, and they will want to stay in that market," Breach said. Russia supplies enriched uranium mainly to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, India and China, he said.

"RosAtom has no money, so where will the money come from?" said Gennady Pshakin, a nuclear industry expert at the Obninsk Institute of Physics and Power Engineering close to Moscow.