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U3O8

The Uranium Information Centre provides an interesting paper on Australia’s uranium industry. Yes, the UIC is funded by companies involved in uranium exploration, mining and export in Australia – but the observations seem broadly consistent with the Federal Governments’s Geoscience Australia report (pages 65-69) for 2005 –the UIC do lump in ‘inferred’ with actual reserves, hardly a hanging offense.

Australia’s reserves of U3O8 are the world’s largest – 30% of the total at prices up to $80US per kilogram. Australia has 38% of the world’s lowest-cost uranium resources (exploitable under US$ 40/kg) and indeed most reserves fall into this category. Only 3 mines are currently operating (Ranger, Olympic Dam, and Beverley) but these produce 22 % of the world’s uranium, around 11,000 tonnes of U3O8 per year. Two more Jabiluka and Honeymoon are proposed.

A significant expansion in production could come about from BHP-Billiton’s attempts to demonstrate the viability of a much expanded operation at Olympic Dam – which would yield up to 15,000 tonnes of U3O8 per year. The capital cost is A$5 billion. Proved and probable reserves are currently some 376,000 tonnes of U3O8, the total resource being some 1.6 million tonnes or over one third of the world’s known total. Present production capacity is 4500 tonnes annually with 235,000 tonnes of copper also produced. Olympic Dam is primarily a base metals prospect and the decision to expand its uranium production is conditional on its ability to profitably expand copper production to 500,000 tonnes per year.

Uranium comprises about 40% of Australia’s energy exports in thermal terms. The customer countries’ contracted imports of Australian uranium oxide concentrate are the USA (c 4100 tonnes per year with 103 reactors supplying 20% of electricity), Japan (c 2700 tonnes per year with 55 reactors supplying 30% of electricity, South Korea (c 1000 tonnes per year with 20 reactors supplying 40% of electricity) and EU countries ( c 3200 tonnes per year, including Spain: 9 reactors supplying 24% of electricity, France with 59 reactors supplying 77% of electricity, the UK with 23 reactors supplying 20% of electricity, Sweden with 10 reactors supplying 50% of electricity, Germany with 17 nuclear reactors supplying 30% of electricity, Belgium with 7 reactors supplying 55% of electricity and Finland with 4 reactors supplying 27% of electricity.

About 16% of the world’s electricity is currently generated using uranium in nuclear reactors. Some 439 nuclear power reactors operate in 31 countries; a further 69 new reactors are under construction or planned for completion within the next 10 years. Much of this growth will occur in China, India, Japan and South Korea. A total of 16 countries generate more than 25% of their total electricity from nuclear reactors (Geoscience Australia, 2005).

In Australia we have no commercial nuclear reactors and the media still regards as a key debating point whether nuclear power is a viable source of electricity.

Australia is a preferred uranium supplier to world, especially East Asian, markets. It could readily increase its share of the world market because of its low cost reserves and its political and economic stability. Australia has recently signed an agreement to supply China with uranium after about 2008. China will build 40-50 reactors over the next 20 years. So far Australia has proven resistant to supplying the equally large Indian market which currently uses nuclear fuels for about 3% of its electricity.

Update: One of the founders of Greenpeace makes the case for nuclear power here.

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