Australian uranium: a new chapter?

Scarlett Evans 14 January 2020 (Last Updated January 20th, 2020 09:32)

Despite possessing some of the largest uranium resources in the world, globally unstable prices and state-wide regulatory impediments have stopped the Australian industry from reaching its full potential. Now, miners are beginning to back its recovery as demand picks up and inventory falls. So what does the future hold for Australia’s uranium sector? We take a look.

Australian uranium: a new chapter?
Aerial views of Jabiluka and Ranger Uranium Mine, ERA. Staff working at Ranger plant

The global uranium market has been relatively uncertain in recent years. A report released by the World Nuclear Association (WNA) in September said an oversaturated market led to a general decline in production, reducing globally from 62,200 tonnes in 2016 to 53,500 tonnes in 2018. Prices have also been seen to drop from a January 2019 average of $28.90 a pound to $25.30 a pound in August.

Yet the same report found a change in global policies is marking a favourable return for the material, a shift many hope will be echoed in Australia. With a history of regulations blocking the use of nuclear power, the Minerals Council Australia (MCA) has this year revitalised the debate over utilising this resource, and mining company Boss Resources has recently unveiled plans to revive their South Australian Honeymoon project. While the benefits of harnessing nuclear remains contested, there is a sense that change is beginning to be seen.

Uranium in Australia

Figures from the WNA show Australia’s uranium resources to be the largest in the world, representing almost a third of the global total, while the MCA found the country to have 111 known uranium deposits – representing around 1.8 million tonnes of the material. All of this is exported however, as legislation enacted by previous governments has blocked the use of nuclear power in Victoria and New South Wales.

“The current state of nuclear power in Australia is zero. There is none and there are no immediate prospects of any,” says Ian Hore-Lacy, senior advisor at the WNA. “However, quite apart from that, there is widespread support for uranium mining and export, and that has been ongoing really since the Fox enquiry in the 1970s.”

The distinction between nuclear power and uranium may seem arbitrary, yet it is prevalent in public perception.

“Uranium is well established, understood to be well regulated, ongoing, and there is very little public dissent around it,” says Hore-Lacy. “Nuclear power (generating energy from that uranium) is a different kettle of fish. Australians have been subjected to years of propaganda against it, which has remained largely uncontested because the emphasis has always been on coal.”

Yet now, with concerns over climate change beginning to dominate consumer’s energy choices, shifting away from this carbon-intensive energy source has become high on the public agenda, and harnessing the country’s abundant uranium is a popular solution.

“Australians are being short-changed because of the various federal and state bans on the exploration and mining of uranium and nuclear power,” says Patrick Gibbons, principal advisor in energy, coal and uranium at the MCA. “These are an obsolete remnant of the 1980s, before Australia had a clear focus on climate change related issues and the need to replace our retiring baseload plant with affordable, reliable low emission power sources.”

An attractive alternative

As well as being low in emissions, nuclear power requires far less fuel than traditional energy sources, with Hore-Lacy saying that for a 1,000MW plant you only need around 27 tonnes of fuel each year.

“At the same size coal plant, you need over 2 million tonnes of coal,” he says. “In one sense it doesn’t matter where the uranium comes from, it’s easy to move around, but for coal, if you’ve got to move it any distance it becomes very expensive.”

Nuclear has also been pitched as a remedy to the intermittency of renewable sources. New-generation small modular reactors- which are on the cusp of regulatory approval in places such as North America – have been highlighted as viable additions to the power grid, offering backup energy on cloudy, windless days or at night.

Considering its wealth of deposits, the industry’s potential would be significant if Australia were to truly harness nuclear power. The country’s primary sites of Ranger, Beverley and Olympic Dam currently generate around A$21m in royalties each year, and according to the MCA, the country’s uranium has energy potential equivalent to 96% of Australia’s total annual electricity generation.

Gibbons points to the example of Canada for the industry’s benefits. Here, nuclear power generates 60,000 high paying jobs, 15% of the country’s power supply with zero emissions, and provides an industry worth $6.7bn. It is also an example of the kind of competition Australia faces when it comes to this market.

“Australia has the world’s largest deposits of uranium,” says Gibbons. “This should be used as the basis for a global-scale uranium and nuclear industry which includes nuclear medicine, zero emission 24/7 nuclear power and industrial applications like hydrogen production. If Australia is denied these benefits, the nuclear industry in countries like Canada will continue to prosper.”

A changing landscape?

It would seem such calls are beginning to be heard, with a number of legal developments in the country over the past decade. Commonwealth support for uranium mining, the lifting of bans on uranium mining in Western Australia and Queensland, and the New South Wales Government’s repeal of the ban on uranium exploration have sparked optimism amongst industry members. Public support for nuclear energy has also been found to be on the rise, with recent surveys showing a majority of Australians support a role for nuclear in the nation’s energy mix.

“Public opinion has shifted slowly over the last five to ten years to be much more positive about nuclear power,” says Hore-Lacy. “Despite the well publicised Fukushima accident, people can see that a tenth of the world’s energy comes from nuclear power. It’s safe and uncontroversial in the countries where it is used, so why should we worry about having it here?”

Boss Resource’s reopening of its Honeymoon project is also a nod in the direction of change, though the company is awaiting a rise in uranium prices before the restart process can truly begin. Yet according to Boss CEO Duncan Craib, when it comes to the price spike, it is a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’. Speaking with Hore-Lacy, he echoed this sentiment.

“I’m sure this will happen, it’s [just] a question of when,” he says. “There’s plenty of uranium in the world, it’s a very abundant resource in relation to how much is needed, and the main deposits are easily accessible. When the price gets up to around 50 dollars a pound, then we will see a change.”