Home to almost a third of the world’s uranium resources – 28% according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA) figures for 2019 – Australia is, or at least should be, the epicentre of global supply. However, only two of its mines rank among the ten largest producers in 2021, a conundrum the country has been contending with for some time.
The first, owned by Quasar, ranked sixth. Producing 2,241 tonnes – 5% of global production – the Four Mile site is actually an in situ leach facility. The BHP Billiton-owned Olympic Dam site – which ranked eighth and delivered 1,922 tonnes or 4% – is also not a uranium mine per se, only extracting the resource as a by-product.
In part the reason for the country’s seemingly untapped abundance can be tracked back for a decade or so. In 2013, as the world grappled with the consequences of the Fukushima disaster, global uranium prices plunged as countries questioned the wisdom in operating such facilities. At the time mine operators faced perhaps one of the biggest questions they could – can large-scale uranium mining ever be justified? – and Australia, for the last decade at least, has responded with an emphatic ‘no’.
Mixed fortunes for uranium in Australia
In what was a blow to the Australian sector Canadian-based Uranium One announced it was to place the Honeymoon mine in South Australia into care and maintenance, cutting production and jobs. “This is not a closure phase, so the option to reopen is there,” said Kuzma Otto, the company’s vice president. It was a decision that took almost a decade to reverse. In June last year the mine’s owners said they planned to resume production by the end of 2023, having announced a multimillion dollar revival package. Boss Energy, which bought Uranium One in 2015, estimates the site will produce 1,134 tonnes of uranium by 2026.
It’s a shot in the arm for Australia’s uranium mining sector. However, it came just a matter of weeks after the elected government of Anthony Albanese, a politician with a long noted background of nuclear objection. Stating there were “problems with the nuclear fuel cycle” during his time as shadow environment minister back in 2006, he contradicted his party’s stance on nuclear calling for ultimate closure of the country’s uranium mines.
For Albanese, his political counterparts and the country more broadly, the future of its nuclear sector – or not – has been a topic of debate for years. Largely due to issues relating to defence, which then evolved into civil nuclear and power, Australians have been enduring something of a rumpus over the matter. Most recently the prime minister clashed even with his own party over the potential role nuclear power can play in the country’s energy mix.
Albanese said that every five years an analysis on the issue concludes nuclear doesn’t stack up. “I think you’ve got the issue of waste and you’ve got where it goes,” he said, “so I think it’s a distraction from what we need to do. That’s my position, and it hasn’t changed.”
Albanese’s opposition to nuclear extends to the entire fuel cycle, and by association potentially uranium mining, to which he clearly been opposed since the mid 2000s. It puts the country, and his principles, arguably in an arduous position. The office of the chief economist’s December 2022 Resources and Energy Quarterly Report said the sector was worth more than $346.6m (A$500m) in exports, rising to as much as $623.9m (A$900m) by the end of 2024. It added growth would be driven by extra production, higher prices and the restart of the Honeymoon mine.
Resourcing the power mix
Accounting for 17% of energy exports, uranium is an important component of the country’s economy, and vital to international supply. According to the WNA, the sector employs 1,400 in the Australia’s uranium mines, at least 500 in uranium exploration and about 60 in regulation. However, given the prime minister’s position, both today and in the past, his support for the sector remains highly questionable.
Sitting on such a massive resource, many have quizzed the wisdom in not utilising it at home too, particularly in light of the deepening climate crisis. The country outlawed nuclear power in the energy mix as part of political wrangling at the end of the last century. However, there is a growing chorus of politicians and industry bodies suggesting that is outdated, holding back economic and technological development.
The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) branded it “a decision that has cost the nation” in terms of “significant” global investment and scientific collaboration. “The good news is,” it added, “the nuclear ban can be reversed.”
Senator Matt Canavan is one such proponent. He said the world is turning back to nuclear power – the likes of France, the UK and Sweden among them – and that there are some “game-changing” developments in small modular reactor technology. “With the world’s largest uranium reserves, Australia cannot afford to be left out of global nuclear progress,” he added.
It is no doubt with relief, for the uranium mining industry at least, that government officials said work was underway on a national critical minerals strategy, and there was a commitment to accelerating growth in the critical minerals sector and support for clean energy technologies. In perhaps the biggest indication yet as to the future of uranium mining, Albanese was reported as saying: “Australia’s natural resources have powered our nation and we are committed to supporting the critical minerals sector and new clean technologies to reach our target of net zero, and make our nation an economic powerhouse with a clean energy future.”
Yet contradictions remain. The 2020 scandal at Rio Tinto’s iron ore mine at Juukan Gorge – where blasting resulted in the destruction of 46,000-year-old rock shelters and one of the country’s most important archaeological research sites – continues to haunt the country’s mining sector, and leaves another difficult issue for the country to navigate. With more than 60% of mining taking place near Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, covered by native title and land rights, balancing the sector’s development with indigenous people’s traditional rights and interests in land and waters held under traditional law and custom is a difficult yet imperative obligation.
For its part Rio Tinto has taken significant steps to address issues Juukan Gorge exposed. Speaking in late 2022 it said: “We recognise the cultural, spiritual and physical connections that Indigenous peoples have with land, water, plants and animals… We know we have work to do to be better partners with Indigenous peoples.”
The company was talking in general terms but its words came just weeks after calling on senior figures at its Energy Resources of Australia’s (ERA) subsidiary to stand down after one of its reports called for greater development at the Ranger uranium mine. The incident raised the prospect of uranium mining being restarted at the project, close to the protected area of Kakadu National Park. After more than 30 years the site ceased mining for the resource in 2012, and finally ended all operations in 2021 – going into a state of rehabilitation, which is already mired with overspend and delay.
The very notion that mining could resume was seen as an insult by the Mirarr people, traditional owners of the land, and potentially a total paradox to Rio’s new-found veneration. The company acted quickly to respond and, following pressure from its parent, the ERA chairman and two directors announced they would stand down.
The rehabilitation has the support of the government, which has acted to ensure legal mechanisms are in place to see the project through, and counter the delays already faced. Such a position supports the belief that Albanese is perhaps not committing, with any conviction at least, to a uranium future.
However, the sector’s importance to Australia’s economy is unquestionable, providing a prosperous outlook. With countries the world over looking to decarbonise, nuclear power enjoying something of a renaissance and Australia with an estimated 1.7 million tonnes of untapped resource, opportunity is immense according to the MCA. The question is, will the government opt for the status quo or do something else?