Uranium’s state of play

Forecasts for Australia's struggling uranium market are indicating growth, with an upturn fuelled by Asian demand.

Global ura­nium markets have been in decline since the Fukushima dis-aster, when uranium was priced above $US70 a pound.

As of the beginning of November, it was $US35 a pound.  

Australia's uranium industry has the potential for fast, positive growth, with Australia holding 31 per cent of the world's uranium,and  the largest deposits in the world.

With only three operating mines (Ranger, Olympic Dam and Beverley), Australia ranked third in global uranium production, with a total output of 5897 tonnes of U3O8 in 2014.

As Australia relies on coal for electricity generation, and does not use nuclear power, all production is currently exported. 

Despite ongoing weakness from global uranium markets, characterised by low demand and prices, Toro Energy's acting chairman John Cahill, and managing director Vanessa Guthrie are confident the "bottom of the uranium cycle has passed, with a gradual return to more encouraging prices".

This return to more robust market conditions is derived from emerging economies who are turning toward efficient and low emission means of generating power.  

New resources minister Josh Frydenberg is a strong advocate of Australia's uranium industry and strongly believes it holds vast amounts of potential. 

"We've got around one-third of the world's supply of low-cost uranium reserves and we successfully export uranium to other countries…31 countries use uranium to produce nuclear power," Frydenberg told the media. 

"We continue to encourage the export of uranium and new mines will go through the proper approval processes and assessments." 

 China's nuclear power capa­city continues to expand on its 29 operating nuclear reactors with the construction of 22 reactors, and more planned to achieve its target of 58GWe by 2020, a threefold increase in nuclear capacity.

Its first new nuclear projects for two 1000MWe reactors since the Fukushima incident were approved by the China General Nuclear Power Cooperation.

Eventually, China's goal is to build 129 reactors by 2030, and achieve 150 GWe. Currently, coal is China's main energy source, however transportation costs are too high, and reliance on coal-fired plants for electricity production contributes to much of its air pollution.

The nation is opting for nuclear energy to power its vast population, while decreasing its reliance on polluting fossil fuels. 

As a geographically close economic power Australia has increasing relationships with, Frydenberg has placed China high on his list of priorities.

There is a strong likelihood China will source uranium from Australia, rather than nearby Kazakhstan or Can­ada.

China has also developed an energy policy where it is looking to export nuclear technology, increasing demand in the long term.  

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also set a goal of supplying 25 per cent of power demand with nuclear capacity by 2035, and achieving 17 GWe within ten years. India has 21 operating nuclear reactors, six under construction and plans for a total of 43 by 2030.

The country's nuclear program envisions India becoming a world leader in nuclear technology with its expertise in fast reactors and the thorium fuel cycle. It is expecting to have 14,600 MWe nuclear capacity by 2020.

Like China, India is heavily dependent on fossil fuels to account for 87 per cent of its energy mix, and is now favouring nuclear energy for reliability and efficiency as its energy consumption has doubled in the past two decades, and CO2 emissions are expected to rise by 115 per cent.

BP has estimated in its Energy Outlook report India's energy consumption will rise by 128 per cent, outpacing its production growth of 117 per cent by 2035. With a growing population and over 300 million people without access to the internet, India needs to seek an alternate solution. 

Australia's uranium market is expected to profit from India's growing nuclear capacity with the supply of uranium, solidified with the signing of the Nuclear Civil Cooperation Agreement, last year.

The prime ministers of both countries have expressed further interest in forging bilateral economic agreements, marked by the Australia-India CEO forum.  

Japan is also offering growth opportunities for Australia's uranium market, particularly with the restarts of Sendai Reactors No 1 and 2, following the Fukushima incident.

It currently has 43 operating reactors, with 24 awaiting restart approvals. As Japan needs to import 84 per cent of its energy requirements, and relies on nuclear power for 30 per cent of its electricity requirements, Australia is a geographically optimal source for uranium.

However, with the Fukushima incident, there are political tensions regarding the balance between nuclear energy's risk, and its ability to provide reliable and affordable electricity.

Currently, the government has adopted a 20 year energy plan which maintains nuclear energy will be continued to be used to supply electricity and combat global warming.  

Australia is also examining its stance on nuclear power with the South Australian Government initiating the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission to consider the feasibility and viability of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The commission is reviewing the potential exploration, extraction and processing of minerals, the manufacture of radioactive materials, the use of nuclear fuel for electricity generation and the storage and disposal of radioactive and nuclear waste.  

When asked about the Royal Commission, Frydenberg was carefully neutral and stated that Australia's future with nuclear power will depend on the commission's findings.  

"Australia has an abundance of coal and gas and any discussion about nuclear energy in ­Australia would have to take into account the cost effectiveness versus existing forms of energy generation," he said. 

As a result, the use of nuclear power in Australia can possibly become reality in the near future.

ith growing demand internationally, and possible demand domestically, Austra­lian uranium can supply to more markets.

In the long term, third world, developing nations could potentially turn to nuclear energy as a cheaper means of generating electricity for their emerging infrastructure.

Combining long term demand with an increasing global awareness for the environment, Australia's uranium market has a secure and sustainable upturn.  

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