Argus Media Limited

10/22/2021 | News release | Distributed by Public on 10/22/2021 05:29

Zr sponge demand to rise on nuclear construction

Demand for zirconium sponge is expected to continue rising in the coming years, with China leading global construction of new nuclear plants.

China has increased its imports of zirconium since 2017, as it has accelerated its nuclear power development. The country has brought on line 24.8GW of nuclear capacity since the start of its 13th Five-Year Plan from 2016, accounting for about half of its total installed nuclear capacity, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). This includes 4GW brought on line so far in 2021, with another 1GW scheduled to start commercial operation by the end of this year.

Chinese imports of wrought and unwrought zirconium rose from 357.7t in 2017 to 653.1t in 2018 and 631.0t in 2019, China Customs data show. Imports dropped to 404.4t in 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted trade flows and construction activity.

China has imported more unwrought zirconium as it has developed its domestic nuclear-grade zirconium sponge production. The Chinese government's National Development and Reform Commission has a policy of exporting nuclear power technology based on the development of the CAP1400 reactor design and the Hualong One reactor, which entered commercial operation last year.

China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) produced its first batch of zirconium alloy for nuclear fuel assemblies in November 2018. In May 2020, CNNC China Nuclear Energy Industry signed a deal to export nuclear-grade sponge to the Chepetsky Mechanical Plant (ChMP) in Russia, owned by fuel company TVEL, a subsidiary of state-owned nuclear company Rosatom. CNNC exported its first batch in August 2020.

China imported 140.7t of unwrought zirconium in the first nine months of this year, up from 139.9t in the same period of 2020. Imports in the first nine months of 2019 jumped to 248.5t, from 129.4t in the first nine months of 2018 and 84.2t in the same period of 2017, customs data show.

While the pandemic has brought Chinese imports down to a lower level, they are expected to rise in the future as the country expands its nuclear power generation. There is 18.7GW of nuclear capacity under construction in China, with a further 41.7GW planned, according to WNA. The Chinese government expects to exceed 100GW of capacity by the end of the 14th Five-Year Plan in 2025.

Global nuclear capacity sits at about 394GW, with 60GW under construction. This could increase to 439GW by 2030 and 615GW by 2040, WNA data show. There are seven units under construction in India, with a combined capacity of 5.6GW, and South Korea has four units under construction with 5.6GW.

Russia is building a 2.5GW nuclear plant, which is set to commission its first unit in 2022 and its second in 2023, increasing the country's total capacity from 28.6GW. The government has also approved extending the operating lifetimes of most of the country's nuclear reactors by 15 years, with its newer VVER-1000 units extended by 30 years. These extensions will require substantial upgrades at each plant.

The Chepetsky plant launched its own commercial production of zirconium sponge earlier this month. Russia's sole zirconium producer, ChMP previously produced electrolytic zirconium powder using only fluoride technology, necessitating the agreement to import sponge from China.

The new sponge production process is streamlined and reduces the consumption of raw materials and energy, creates less waste and produces higher-purity zirconium with a lower hafnium content, which is essential for nuclear-grade product. TVEL built a processing unit to separate zirconium and hafnium chlorides, producing high-purity zirconium tetrachloride with a hafnium content of less than 100 parts per million.

The creation of Russian technology and zirconium sponge production will increase TVEL's global competitiveness, as sponge can be widely used in fuel production for Russian and overseas nuclear reactor designs, TVEL president Natalya Nikipelova said.

Internationally, zirconium demand is rising in the ceramics, automotive and medical industries. US metal powder producer 6K has acquired Specialty Metallurgical Products (SMP) to develop applications and customers for zirconium additives, as well as to expand its titanium business. SMP produces titanium and zirconium tablets that are used in grain refining for metal alloys.

US-based Hyperion Metals on 21 October said it has entered an option agreement to acquire Blacksand Technology, which has developed technologies to produce titanium metal and powders. The acquisition would give Hyperion the potential to extend the research and development of its metal powder processes to zirconium and rare earths, as well as other strategic metals.

By Nicole Willing

China's January-September zirconium importst