Uranium deal signed

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2006

Australia has signed a breakthrough trade agreement with China for the supply of uranium, which offers the opportunity for Australia to double its current export volumes. China is looking to import around 20,000 tonnes of uranium annually by 2015.

According to the Australian-based Uranium Information Centre, Australia has the most accessible mass uranium deposits in the world - 30% of the world's total deposits recoverable for less than US$80/kg. It also has 40% of the cheapest uranium globally (costing less than US$40/kg to recover).

A number of domestic political stumbling blocks have historically prevented the expansion of the uranium mining industry in Australia - the biggest issue being the ‘no new mines' rule of the Australian Labour Party (ALP), and a policy of only allowing three uranium mines - currently Ranger, Olympic Dam and Beverley - to be operational at once. This has effectively stymied exploration and investment, meaning that should the (not insubstantial) political, environmental and safety concerns be overcome, the Australian uranium industry will still be playing catch-up.

Australian Resources Minister Ian Macfarlane put the Chinese deal into perspective with his prophecy that it was unlikely a uranium mine would be built in Australia before 2010.

The deal has been welcomed by the Australian minerals industry, but Minerals Council of Australia Chief Executive, Mitchell Hooke, cautioned that ‘Australia will be found wanting in meeting the trade and investment expectations created by the agreements without change to the ALP's restrictive ‘no new mines' policy currently effective in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia.'

Industry officials are all too aware that Canada is capable of stepping in to meet China's needs. Higher level pressure from the Australian Liberal Government, a huge shift in attitude, as well as reassurances on the environmental front may ultimately be the only way that inroads are made in breaking the state deadlock.

Canada is the world's most prolific exporter of uranium, reaching 11,597 tonnes in 2004, with Australia in second place at 8,982 tonnes, followed by Kazhakstan at 3,719 tonnes.

A nuclear safeguards agreement was part of the Australia/China trade deal. It re-stressed Australia's strict regulations on uranium use for peaceful purposes only. Australia has no nuclear power facilities of its own.