LONDON, April 23 (Reuters) - Following are some facts about zirconium used to clad fuel rods containing uranium for the production of nuclear energy.
* Silvery-grey zirconium is the 20th most abundant element in the earth’s crust.
* The separation of zirconium and hafnium is a technology that only a few companies have.
* There are good reserves of zircon sand in many countries including South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Australia, Ukraine, Peru, India, China and the United States.
* Fractions of the sand are turned into sponge, then zirconium metal or zircaloy and hafnium — used in control rods at some nuclear reactors to slow down or speed up the fission process. The ratio of zirconium to hafnium produced is 50:1.
* Control rods can also be made from a mixture of indium, cadmium and silver.
* Zirconium metal is used to make tube or fuel rods which contain the uranium fuel pellets to create fission or split the atom. Splitting the atom creates heat which produces steam and drives the turbine to produce electricity.
* Zirconium is used because fuel rods have to last for six years or more in a high temperature, high pressure, high radiation environment without failure. No other metal can match zirconium’s low neutron absorption qualities.
* However, there are some research programmes looking at the use of ceramics as an alternative.
DEMAND/SUPPLY/CAPACITY * U.S-based Ux Consulting in a recent report estimates current zirconium metal production capacity at about 8,600 tonnes a year, demand at around 5,000 tonnes. Also estimates demand in five years could be 6,500 tonnes.
* Trading firm Lipmann Walton estimates global zirconium supplies at around 6,750 tonnes a year.
* French nuclear power specialist CEPFi.PA, Cezus-Areva estimates worldwide zirconium metal market at about 5,000 tonnes, with 40 percent of that produced by itself.
* Prices are hard to come by for nuclear grade zirconium metal and sponge as the industry is secretive.
* Most zirconium is sold on a long-term contract basis.
* Lipmann estimates prices of nuclear grade zirconium sponge at between $60 and $80 a kg, up from $40 a kg five years ago.
MAJOR PRODUCERS OF ZIRCONIUM SPONGE, ALLOY PLATE, SHEET, BAR STOCK, TUBE REDUCED EXTRUSION AND FUEL RODS INCLUDE THE FOLLOWING COMPANIES
* France - Cezus-Areva.
* Sweden - Sandvik (SAND.ST)
* Russia - Chepetsky Mechanical Plant
* Earlier this week Westinghouse said it had agreed form a joint venture to build and operate a plant to produce nuclear grade zirconium sponge with China's State Nuclear Baoti Zirconium Industry Company. (For details click here+21-Apr-2009+PRN20090421)
NUCLEAR REACTORS (Source: World Nuclear Association)
* Currently there are around 436 nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries plus Taiwan. In 2007 they provided about 15 percent of the world’s electricity.
* Nuclear power capacity worldwide is increasing steadily, with more than 40 reactors under construction in 12 countries.
* Most reactors on order or planned are in the Asian region, though plans are firming for new units in Europe, the United States and Russia.
* As of April, 110 nuclear reactors are planned and another 272 have been proposed.
AMOUNT OF ZIRCONIUM NEEDED FOR DIFFERENT NUCLEAR REACTORS (Source: Ux Consulting)
* Boiling water reactors with a full core of fuel rods will contain about 44 tonnes of zirconium.
* Pressurised water reactors will contain about 29.5 tonnes of zirconium.
* Pressurised heavy water reactors contain about 12.5 tonnes of zirconium.
* Mainly Russian light water cooled graphite moderated reactors have about 31.8 tonnes of zirconium alloy in their core.
* Zirconium’s use elsewhere accounts for about 16 percent of demand, according to Lipmann Walton.
* An alloy made of copper, chrome, nickel and zirconium is used to conduct electricity, used by the electronics industry.
* An aluminium zirconium alloy is used to make parts for aeroplanes and cars.
* Zirconium is the main element in an alloy called Liquidmetal used for things such as tennis racquets and golf clubs.
(For story zirconium’s use in the nuclear industry click on [ID:nLN722868])
(For opinion piece on zirconium’s sister metal hafnium click on [ID:nLN933696])
(For Ux Consulting website click on www.uxc.com/)
Reporting by Pratima Desai; editing by Sue Thomas