Advocating for Exploration, Extraction and Export

Australian Uranium Association

As the Australian uranium industry’s exclusive advocacy body, the Australian Uranium Association (AUA) rallies on behalf of its members for policy reform to enable uranium to “compete on its merits as an energy source appropriate for the needs of the twenty first century.”

Australia, of course, is home to the world’s largest uranium resources, amounting to over thirty-one per cent of the global total, with the most significant uranium deposits located in South Australia, the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and Queensland. Surprisingly, however, only twelve per cent of the global market is actually supplied by Australian exports.

At present, South Australia, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland are perhaps at the top of that heap because they are in fact the only states which permit for uranium exploration and mining; uranium exploration is permitted in New South Wales while mining is not, and both exploration and mining of uranium are banned in Victoria.

Currently Australia exports approximately $700 million worth of uranium annually, with a variety of other benefits flowing on from the industry, not the least of which is the provision of approximately 4,200 full time equivalent jobs in mining, exploration, supervision and regional flow-on – frequently located in remote areas of Australia where little other economic activity occurs.

The Olympic Dam deposit in South Australia is the single largest deposit in the world, containing more than 1,000,000 tonnes of uranium. The extent of the resource at Ranger in the Northern Territory has been confirmed as also being of global significance. Large deposits, such as Yeelirrie, Mulga Rocks and Kintyre, also exist in Western Australia. As exploration is not permitted in Victoria and has only recently been permitted in New South Wales, the extent of resources there is not yet known.

“Australia has around thirty per cent of the world’s uranium resources that are recoverable at reasonable cost,” states the AUA. “However, due to political and other constraints the industry has not expanded to its full potential.”

The industry itself includes a broad spectrum of companies who are all represented by the AUA, including small, Australian-owned exploration companies with a handful of employees; subsidiaries of large international companies; large and medium-sized Australian companies with uranium mines and projects overseas; and mining companies of world significance operating some of the largest uranium mines in the world.

“What the AUA has done,” explains Michael Angwin, Chief Executive Officer of the AUA, “is to make the case for our industry to key stakeholders – politicians who control the policy and regulatory instruments for our industry, the media, regulators, people at universities, sometimes NGOs. We place great emphasis on the ability of our industry to meet testing for environmental assessments and on the very good relationships we’ve developed with local communities – especially indigenous communities. We have spoken about our operational record which includes standards of radiation protection which are well in excess of the standards required of us by law and that includes both the way in which we protect our workers and local communities from the impacts of our operations.

“One of the reasons why we are a good supplier is because we are a very reliable supplier – and that’s not just for uranium but for all commodities,” Mr Angwin continues. “We think that being a reliable supplier is quite a competitive advantage, and we think that being a supplier as a country which is known for only supplying for peaceful purposes is also a competitive advantage because that’s what people want to see in the world; they want to see uranium exported and used only for peaceful purposes and the framework for that, which we have, is a strong guarantee that that is what happens.”

Nuclear fuel is of course an exciting alternative to many of the common energy sources we currently rely on. Consider, for example, that a coal power station requires more than two and a half million tonnes of coal each year, whilst only twenty seven tonnes of fresh fuel is required by a 1,000 MWe nuclear reactor to produce the same amount of much electricity. In another example provided by the AUA and sourced from the US Nuclear Energy Institute, the resulting waste of each type of energy is compared, showing that a typical large nuclear energy facility generates enough electricity for more than 740,000 homes but produces only 20 tonnes of used uranium fuel each year whilst a coal-fired station of similar size produces 400,000 tonnes of ash each year.

While the uranium industry is of course quite similar to other resource recovery sectors, its low-level radioactivity requires that uranium exploration and mining be subject to stricter regulations. Australian uranium is exported under a framework of anti-nuclear weapons proliferation safeguards and strict health, safety and environmental regulations. At present, Australian uranium is exported for peaceful purposes in civil nuclear power stations, and a small amount of uranium reserved for use in Australia’s research reactor at Lucas Heights, Sydney. This facility undertakes highly advanced scientific research and medical isotope production for cancer treatment and medical diagnosis.

Before it can be used in a nuclear reactor, uranium processed in Australian mines must be put through three additional processes – conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication. Furthermore, the uranium must be enriched to between a three to four per cent concentration. This enrichment is far too low for the uranium to be used in a nuclear weapon, which requires enrichment of at least eighty per cent, thus helping to ensure that Australian uranium is used for only peaceful purposes.

“We’ve also drawn attention to the good record of environmental impact we’ve had,” adds Mr Angwin, referring to the industry’s remarkable record of no significant industrial impacts by the uranium industry in Australia. Where there have been incidences – as there always are from time to time in any industry – they have been no worse than moderate and they have had no lasting impact,” he explains.

“And so on all those measures, we have done really well. For example, we are particularly proud of our record for the transport of uranium – there have been eleven thousand contained loads of uranium transported within and from Australia over the past thirty years which have had not a single incident which has had any impact on the environment or public health.”
During transport, uranium is double-sealed inside steel drums which are then Kevlar-strapped into shipping containers. Until the final overseas destination is reached, these containers remain locked and unopened, unless for official inspections.

“Trust is tremendously important,” continues Mr Angwin, “and I think sometimes in the past the uranium industry has made the mistake of thinking that a kit bag of facts is what you need to persuade people about our industry; but it’s not how many facts we have which matter, it’s how we behave. I think that goes to our operational performance, our environmental performance, our radiation protection performance and our transportation performance, but also to the way in which we engage openly with people.

“We are very conscious that people do fear radiation and have feared the uranium industry, and we treat those fears as legitimate expressions of the way people feel and we respond to those with openness and genuineness and understanding that when people are unfamiliar with our industry or unfamiliar with the people who work within it or unfamiliar of our operations then yes, they will be fearful.”

Any major societal changes of course will be slow; however, Mr Angwin is pleased to note that significant political changes have occurred recently which have been beneficial for the uranium industry. “There is now national consensus between our two major political parties for the expansion of our industry,” he says, “and there have been some quite important policy changes as well including the former Prime Minister Gillard’s decision to permit uranium exports to India which I think is really a key signal that the uranium industry is now clearly a part of the Australian mainstream. State policies as well in the last few years in QLD, WA and – at least to some extent – NSW have all adopted policies which are much more in favour of the development of the uranium industry.”

The challenges the uranium industry is facing at present, however, have more to do with the excess supply of uranium at the moment and not from public opinion. This excess situation, explains Mr Angwin, is attributable both to the normal supply and demand situation as well as to the fact that the Japanese nuclear industry has not yet resumed its full capacity following the Fukushima disaster.

“We expect that to continue for some time yet, which will mean there will be an excess of supply in the market for some years and that will mean it will not be economically feasible to develop mines in the short term. We do expect that the excess supply situation will give way to excess demand during the course of this decade, and that means that at some point in the future Australia’s uranium mining companies will be competing for that excess demand.”

Already, some projects are well prepared for that – such as Toro Energy’s Wiluna project which has already received all of its environmental approvals – and will be waiting for the market to improve so that they can begin operation. “It’s a test of time during much of this decade,” explains Mr Angwin, “but we can see some light at the end of the tunnel when there will be some excess demand which will give incentive to new projects to begin operations.”

Over the longer term, the AUA remains very confident of the growth of the nuclear industry. “Currently there are more nuclear power plants under construction than there were at the height of the first nuclear construction boom in the 1970s,” shares Mr Angwin. “So we are very confident in the long-term future of our industry and we know that reputable international forecasters including the International Energy Agency and the International Atomic Agency are projecting or forecasting an increase in demand for uranium perhaps as much as double by the middle of the 2030s. So, whilst times are going to be very tough for a little while, the outlook is still a positive one.”

Ultimately, “The Australian Uranium Association works closely with all the state mining associations and we believe the progress we’ve made wouldn’t have been possible without close relationships with those associations. We also have a relationship with ARPANZA, the AUA in Australian Radiation Rejection Nuclear Safety Association, Australia’s nuclear regulatory organisation – we meet formally with them twice a year to discuss issues of mutual interest. Obviously, we also have good working relationships with policy makers and regulators right across the country.”

Strategic Resources

There are 17 classified rare earth elements, many of which have strategic purposes. Rare in name only, these elements are anything but scarce as they are found all over the world. The challenge rare earth elements pose is during extraction, as they exist in low concentrations and are difficult to separate from one another.

July 26, 2017, 12:31 PM AEST