Special uranium report: A modern renaissance

Paul Hayes reports on the future of the uranium mining industry in Australia. Part one.

Uranium is increasingly being seen by key mining professionals as a bridge to the future of both mining and power generation.

Since 2007 relaxed Federal Government policies have lead to an increase in uranium exploration, but many in the industry feel that Australia should increase its production and exports of the mineral.

Australia is home to nearly 40% of the world’s economically recoverable uranium but responsible for less than 20% of the world’s supply.

“Australia has traditionally punched below its weight in terms of uranium production,” former chairman of the Australian Uranium Institute Tony Grey said at the World Nuclear Fuel Cycle Conference held in Sydney in April.

In this series, Paul Hayes interviews central industry figures and discusses the current state of the Australian uranium industry, as well as its future.

John Borshoff is managing director and chief executive of Australian uranium explorer Paladin Energy.

Hayes: Is Australia failing to take advantage of a major resource in uranium?

Borshoff: When you look at it from a framework from the 70s and 80s I think the country has failed.

But in a space of 18 months we have seen this huge shift with local pronouncements initially by Martin Ferguson and pulled passed the line by Ian McFarlane in the Northern Territory. Then with South Australia, the Federal Government and Western Australia.

That is not even a party political thing. It is now across both sides of the political fence.

I think this next uranium phase is going to be the biggest one when compared to what I called the ‘starter’ period from the 1970s to the end of the century.

I think it’s a new era.

I see this new phase of uranium interest as a much deeper and much more supported move.

It has tested the resilience of demand and that has shown to be strong.

Hayes: Do you think we are on the verge of something big in uranium?

Borshoff: I think that something big is actually happening globally.

As a result of that Australia needs to take its place as a stable country that can contribute however many thousands of tonnes one could imagine.

Hayes: The ‘something big’ is a shift to nuclear power?

Borshoff: Yes. In terms of the nuclear component there is China, Sweden is changing its policies, now Germany has to do it within nine months.

People’s opinions on nuclear power in the global surveys are now around 60% positive. Once upon a time nuclear was looked at as the only risk technology in the world producing electricity or being used in industry.

Well blow me down.

All of a sudden, with fossil fuels there are comparative risks and there is much more balance in the debate now.

Hayes: Have people moved past traditional negative perceptions?

Borshoff: The industry started in 1968 and in a matter of 10 years got up to 17% of global electricity contribution.

So that shows you what sort of horse­power this stuff has got. In that was a Three-Mile Island, which was a contained accident. There was also Chernobyl.

How many aeroplanes have crashed since 1904? Since 1986, it has one of the safest records of any industrialised technology in the world.

Hayes: Will we see nuclear energy in Australia in the future?

Borshoff: It has to be here by 2025. Otherwise what are we going to be marginalised as?

Hayes: What would big advantages for Australia be to increase uranium mining and exports?

Borshoff: By exporting 20,000 tonnes of uranium there would be an industry that could be bringing in over half a billion dollars a year.

Good relationships with the Chinese, the Japanese and the energy people that want to offset against what I call the Dickensian technologies (Fossil Fuels) will help.

Australia would be extremely well regarded when it has to supply critical energy that can only come out of a few continents, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Canada.

Australia does offer an amount of stability that is good to have in the industry.

Hayes: Is expanded uranium mining in Australia inevitable?

Borshoff: Yes, I think it is.

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