DOST’s Nuclear Scientists to Recover Uranium from Seawater

As the government mulls to include nuclear in the country’s energy mix, local scientists are looking at seawater to possibly source uranium which serves as power source for nuclear energy.

“Seawater is an unconventional uranium resource, where this heavy metal is known to be abundant and pseudo-renewable,” says Dr. Jordan Madrid of the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Nuclear Research Institute. Dr. Madrid heads a project which will provide a way to tap uranium through the development of adsorbent through radiation grafting technology.

Dr. Madrid’s team earlier used radiation technology to develop abaca into a non-woven fabric that can filter toxic materials such as heavy metals and other contaminants.

If uranium can be recovered locally from seawater, it may help alleviate costs and importation challenges of nuclear fuel, Dr. Madrid says.

Researchers worldwide are also studying this technology. Further, seawater uranium recovery technology is seen as a "game-changing approach" such that the US government considers it as an area worthy of long-term support.

Uranium as nuclear power source

Uranium is a heavy metal which has been used as an abundant source of concentrated energy for over 60 years. This main fuel for nuclear reactors can be found in many places around the world, including seawater. To become fuel, uranium goes through refining and enrichment before it is used as a source for nuclear power. 

A small pellet of uranium the size of a pencil eraser produces as much energy as a ton of coal, or three barrels of oil, or about two fuel tankers of natural gas.

Based on studies and global trends, Dr. Madrid believes that this technology, when developed successfully, can help source uranium locally.

Nuclear as energy option

Last July 24, President Rodrigo Duterte signed EO 116 which directs a study for the adoption of a national position on nuclear energy program. Said study shall be conducted by an inter-agency committee headed by the Department of Energy, with DOST as vice-chair.

Adding nuclear in the current energy mix becomes an important consideration as experts see a 70 percent rise in energy demand by 2030. Currently, the country is still very dependent on coal and oil which are highly unstable in terms of cost as natural gas reserves are already on the decline. 

The Philippines has been heavily importing oil and coal, which makes electricity price in the country remarkably high. In fact, the Philippines is among the countries with the most expensive electricity rates in Asia, next to Japan and Singapore, according to the Asian Development Bank.

To make for a more stable energy baseload for the country’s electrical supply, the government is considering other energy sources, including nuclear.

Among those recommending nuclear energy is the National Academy of Science and Technology (DOST-NAST), the country’s advisory body on science and technology matters, which describes nuclear energy as “an attractive base load power generation source.”

According to a DOST-NAST statement, nuclear energy is “less sensitive to price volatility and remains one of the greener energy sources, which can aid in the world effort for climate change mitigation.”

Benefits of nuclear

Several researchers and advocates believe that if proven successful, the technology on recovering uranium from seawater will further support affordability and accessibility of nuclear energy as it allows nuclear fuel to be sourced locally.

DOST-PNRI Director Carlo A. Arcilla says, “Successful incorporation of nuclear power into the country’s energy mix and local sourcing of nuclear fuel can alleviate electricity costs and accessibility.”

 “Lower cost of electricity can enable enhance productivity and reduce risk of chronic poverty,” he adds.

Based on studies using current estimates of the technology, the energy of return of investment (EROI) from uranium sourced from seawater ranges from 12 to 27. EROI is a physical metric that calculates the ratio of the amount of usable energy from a particular energy resource to the amount of energy used to obtain that resource. It is a key determinant of energy price and utilization efficiency.    

“The cost of uranium is a small fraction of the energy it generates,” explains Dr. Arcilla. “The cost would not increase electricity rate dramatically and would still yield overall cost savings.”

In the United States, 98 nuclear units generate substantial economic value in electricity sales and revenue at USD 40-50 billion per annum.  Meanwhile, in Japan, nuclear contributed 51 percent of the country’s emission reduction.

In Europe, the nuclear industry is said to have a significant impact on the European economy by sustaining 1.1 million jobs, generating EUR 507 billion (or USD 556 billion) in EU gross domestic product, EUR 124 billion in state revenues, EUR 383 billion in household income. and a EUR18.1 billion trade surplus in the EU economy in 2019.

France, for one, has 75 percent of its electricity derived from nuclear energy and has one of the lowest CO2 emission per unit of electricity in the world. (By Framelia V. Anonas with report from Bin Jeremiah Barba, DOST-PNRI)