A glance at the supply-demand picture of the zirconium market reveals the importance of the role of the great nuclear nations. Without France, USA and Russia there would be no world trade in Zirconium. The origins of this structure lie deep in the original development of nuclear power, which dates from the post war days of the early 1950s. France and America remained steadfast in their strategic commitment to maintain a nuclear industry, as did Russia. Russia, though, was absent from any East-West trade in Zirconium metal until 1991. China has only emerged in the last five years as a supplier of zirconium sponge and is unable as yet to produce nuclear grade. India is able to produce nuclear quality (de-hafniated) zirconium but is not an exporter.
For any trader visiting this subject for the first time, it is important to note that about 70% of all metallic zirconium will go into the nuclear industry which exploits the element’s property as a low neutron absorber. This will be either in the form of tube assemblies, which are used to house the uranium granules for fission, or in other semi-finished products of tubes and sheets where low neutron absorption is imperative. It is the nuclear industry’s demand for de-hafniated zirconium that creates the main metallic supply which ultimately feeds into the non-nuclear market. De-hafniated Zirconium sponge is also required in certain high end aerospace alloys for rotating parts made from Titanium alloyed with Al, Sn, Zr, and Mo (6Al2Sn4Zr2Mo).
Non-nuclear applications are thus dependent on either a supply of clean useable scrap off-cuts or turnings generated while making nuclear fabrications, or the use of metallurgical grade sponge. Such applications include certain amorphous metal alloys currently being exploited by Apple™ while other areas of demand include ferro zirconium for special steels, copper-zirconium, aluminium-zirconium and alloys with magnesium. Another factor restricting the supply of suitable scrap to the non-nuclear sector is the philosophy now being adopted by the nuclear industry to recycle as much of their zirconium units as possible so as to advertise their green credentials.
The apparent simplicity of the statistics for the world zirconium market belies the complexity of the transition of metal in the right form and specification from nuclear to non-nuclear applications. As an example, it may be noted that ASTMS (American Standard) grades such as Zr 702 or Zircaloy 2/4 will contain levels of tin, deliberately added, which assist the working of the material. However, this premium material is downgraded (value-wise) when used as feed for making alloys where tin is almost always deleterious.
Looking to the future, we expect China to work towards production of nuclear grade de-hafniated zirconium metal in the next five years but we expect demand for non-nuclear zirconium to grow even faster.
With no stockpiles of Zirconium overhanging the market either in USA or Russia and a fire at the main zirconium sponge producing plant in France in early 2011, available supply was reduced by about 10% in 2011/12 and prices in both metallurgical and nuclear sectors reflect this.