Australia, known for its vast landscapes and rich mineral resources, stands at the forefront of global uranium production. As the world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium behind Kazakhstan, Canada and Namibia, Australia plays a pivotal role in fuelling the world’s nuclear power plants. However, recent developments and emerging trends hint at changes for the future of uranium mining in the country.

Australia’s uranium mining industry has deep roots dating back to the 1950s, when significant quantities of uranium were exported to the UK and US for nuclear weapons development. The country’s abundant uranium deposits, concentrated mainly in South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, have attracted significant investment and interest from both domestic and international stakeholders.

Despite fluctuations in market demand over the years, Australia has maintained a steady position as a reliable uranium supplier to global markets. The nation holds the largest share of the world’s recoverable resources, with 2021 estimates suggesting Australia holds more than 1,684 kilotonnes (kt) of recoverable uranium, accounting for 27.7% of the world’s uranium resources.

Australia plays host to some of the world’s largest operating uranium mines, including Olympic Dam and Four Mile. As such, it is unsurprising that production has been strong for many years; the country produced 4.27kt of uranium in 2023, and GlobalData’s Uranium Outlook to 2030 report predicts that Australia’s output will see an estimated 8% year-on-year growth in 2024 to hit a high of 5.1kt – but why is such an increase expected?

The Honeymoon phase

The answer to these optimistic predictions lies in the upcoming restart of the Honeymoon uranium mine in South Australia. Owned and operated by Boss Energy, Honeymoon began production in 2011 but was shut down in 2013 owing to high production costs, falling uranium prices and struggles to meet production targets.

GlobalData analyst Vinneth Bajaj anticipates that the restart of the Honeymoon project will account for around 90% of the growth predicted for Australian uranium production in 2024. The mine is expected to produce 404.7 tonnes (t) of uranium in 2024 and see rising output levels, peaking at an estimated 854.4t of production in 2027, before levels steadily fall until 2030. At peak output, it is expected to contribute 1.1% of the global uranium supply.

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It is not just Honeymoon boosting Australia’s numbers. Several other major Australian uranium projects are due to commence operation in the next five years: the Nolans project in 2025, the Bigrlyi project in 2026, the Westmoreland and Wiluna mines in 2027, and the Manyingee and Mulga Rock projects in 2028. These new projects will have a huge impact on Australia’s uranium output through 2030, with the country’s total uranium output expected to peak at 6.83kt in 2029.

Australia ponders a nuclear future

In recent weeks, Australian officials have been floating the idea of building nuclear power plants on the former sites of disused coal facilities. It is a plan that has been praised by some, criticised by others, and met with scepticism by many more.

Major mining companies including BHP have expressed their support for the relaunch of nuclear power stations in Australia, but criticism remains strong from other sources. Many have questioned the viability of getting nuclear reactors online quickly, with Dr Dylan McConnell, an energy systems analyst at the University of New South Wales, telling the Guardian that “recent nuclear power projects in comparable countries have experienced considerable delays and cost overruns” and that “there is little prospect of a conventional nuclear power plant delivering electricity before the 2040s”.

However, the proposers of this plan seem doggedly committed to it despite such criticism, and if the plan goes ahead, it could have a significant impact on the global uranium market. With Australia exporting its uranium at present – uranium makes up 17% of its energy exports – nuclear power plants within the country would likely motivate producers to keep uranium in the nation, which could trigger significant price changes for uranium across the globe. While it is hard to say how likely it is that Australia’s nuclear power proposals will materialise, it is certainly worth keeping a close watch on them.

Despite these uncertainties, opportunities are very much available for Australia’s uranium mining industry. The country’s stable political environment and proven track record of resource development make a strong case that the nation can meet potentially increased future uranium demand.

Export opportunities

If Australia continues to focus its attention on uranium exports, there are some major opportunities ripe for the picking as new leaders in nuclear power begin to emerge.

China, for instance, has been rapidly expanding its nuclear power capabilities, a trend that is expected to continue. China has 24 nuclear reactors under construction as of September 2023, which when completed will have a total capacity of 26.2GW. The country is notable for the sheer speed at which it constructs nuclear power plants – almost every Chinese nuclear power project founded since 2010 has been constructed in seven years or less, contradicting conventional wisdom that nuclear power plants always take more than a decade to build.

As such, Chinese demand for Australian uranium could well skyrocket over the next decade, providing a major potential revenue stream for Australian uranium producers.

The outlook for uranium in Australia

As we look to the future of uranium mining in Australia, it is important for stakeholders to take a smart approach to seizing opportunities while managing risks. Exploring new markets to supply, using advanced exploration methods and teaming up with international partners are key steps to keeping the uranium sector strong in the long run.

Moreover, as the Australian mining industry continues to grapple with the irrevocable impact of the destruction of Juukan Gorge, it is crucial to ensure mining companies have open conversations with local communities and indigenous groups, respecting their rights and concerns about the environment. Taking care of the land and minimising environmental impact are vital for keeping Australia’s reputation as a responsible uranium producer intact.

Overall, the future of uranium mining in Australia looks bright. By being innovative, sustainable, and actively involving stakeholders, the industry can overcome uncertainties and make the most of Australia’s uranium resources, helping both the economy and global energy security. As the world moves toward cleaner energy, Australia is ready to play a big role in the future of uranium mining.