Readers pay plenty for uranium information

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Their books are unlikely ever to figure on any best-seller list, the authors admit. After all, the market for books priced between $2,475 and $9,000 (US) is somewhat limited.

Yet there is a steady demand for the recently published "The Uranium Potential of 110 Countries" -- four volumes sold for a mere $9,900 by Robertson Research, an international consultant group.

The precisely written and painstakingly illustrated books are bought by the mining industry and governments. It is the first comprehensive review of world uranium deposits and potential reserves.

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Although such agencies as the United Nations periodically take stock of the mineral wealth of member countries, such inventories are usually restricted to known deposits and, perhaps, the more obvious prospects.

The unique "front end" study chose to examine the world's uranium potential from a geological point of view, says David S. Evans, the chief mineral geologist of Robertson Research Canada Ltd.

It found that:

* Uranium occurs either as low-or high- grade ore throughout the world.

* Canada probably will never be able to use all its reserves.

* Current surplus supplies on the international market will prevail into the late 1980s.

* Uranium will probably remain very much a government-controlled commodity even though most of the exploration and production is usually carried out by private business.

Virtually every country examined has a uranium potential of sorts. But economic considerations often prevent their exploitation. The advanced industrial countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa have the highest degree of uranium development, mainly because they possess the fiscal resources and technology necessary to explore for uranium and mine it.

Robertson Research has not been able to conduct on-the-spot work on uranium prospects in the Soviet Union or the communist countries of Eastern Europe. However, for the first time the firm has been able to make an assessment of the uranium potential of China.

The assumption is that the Soviet bloc's uranium prospects are "at least equal" to Canada's or that of Australia, where in recent years massive ore bodies had been struck. The Soviets "must have good uranium potential, simply because of the enormous piece of real estate they hold," Dr. Evans states.

Canada is credited with 80,000 metric tons of proved uranium reserves. About twice as much is considered "inferred," and twice as much again is in the "probable" categories.

According to Dr. Evans, Canada's ultimate uranium potential "is much greater, and I don't think we could ever use it all."

Canada is credited with about 15 percent of the free world's "identifiable" or proved uranium reserves. The domestic production level of 6,800 metric tons recorded in 1978 -- equal to about 10 percent of the free world's annual production -- is expected to rise to 15,000 tons of concentrates by 1990.

At present Canada consumes only about 15 percent of all the uranium produced domestically. The generally "soft" international uranium market actually prevents large-scale exploration, particularly in the frontier regions of the world, says Graham R. Wallis, director of minerals for Robertson Research.

Although uranium has seldom experienced free markets conditions, prices for a pound of "yellowcake" slipped from a record $43.50 (US) two years ago to an average of $40. Stockpiling by government agencies and large users at the time created an artificial demand and high prices for uranium.

Purchasers with large and expensive stockpiles on hand tend to hold back from additional contractual commitments. According to Robertson Research, the temporary lack of market interest, especially in the US, may cause another of the firm's publications, a two-volume special edition on continental uranium prospects to "bomb out." The publication now in preparation will be offered to clients at $18,000.

Dr. Evans points out that the Three Mile Island near-disaster a year ago was not alone responsible for cooling public ardor for nuclear energy. "But it acted as a trigger" to bring long-felt public concerns over nuclear programs to the surface.

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