Uranium mining outlook

Industry performance will continue to be driven by trends in the output and price of uranium.

Although spot uranium prices are expected to fall over the outlook period, contract prices, which remain much lower than spot levels, are expected to trend up.

In addition, production is expected to expand.

Huge increases in spot uranium prices in recent years, particularly 2006 and the first half of 2007, were driven by falling uranium stocks, increased concern over future uranium supplies and growing speculative demand for uranium.

Despite very large price rises, world uranium production has responded only slowly, reflecting the long lead-time required to either expand existing operations or bring new developments on stream. However, world uranium output is expected to expand solidly from 2008 onwards, easing concerns over the adequacy of supplies and pulling back spot prices.

Expenditure on uranium exploration worldwide has increased and uranium projects in some countries, notably Kazakhstan, are being fast-tracked.

Production is also expected to expand in Canada, Russia and Africa. Rising output is expected to lead to falling spot prices by 2008.

Australia’s uranium output is expected to expand during the outlook period, amounting to about 11,000 tonnes in 2012-13, although much of the apparent growth will simply mark a return to more normal levels of production at existing operations, such as Olympic Dam.

Although exploration spending on uranium in Australia doubled to $21 million in 2004-05 and more than doubled in 2005-06 to about $56 million, this increase is not expected to translate into large new mines during the outlook period.

The small Honeymoon mine, which is expected to commence operations in the first half of 2008 will ramp up to its capacity output level of about 400 tonnes of uranium oxide per year.

In addition to the often considerable lead times associated with feasibility studies, consultation with stakeholders and securing funding commitments, there are substantial political hurdles associated with developing new operations.

Although the Federal Government favours the development of uranium resources, the federal Labor opposition only dropped its ‘no new uranium mines’ policy in April 2007.

Labor State Governments remain opposed to the development of new uranium mines. This policy stance acts as a disincentive to uranium development in Australia, despite recent attempts by the coalition Federal Government to open up a new public debate on uranium mining and Australia’s role in the nuclear fuel cycle more generally.

Meanwhile, producers elsewhere are expanding their production capacity and locking buyers into long-term contracts for the additional output. Canada in particular is effectively capturing a large part of the growth in demand for uranium oxide over the next decade or more.

The only new mine certain to become operational over the outlook period is the Honeymoon project in South Australia, which is due to commence operations in the first half of 2008.

Both Honeymoon and the Goulds Dam uranium deposit (also in South Australia) are held by SXR Uranium One Inc, a company formed from the merger of the Canadian group, Southern Cross Resources and the South African Group, Aflease Gold and Uranium Resources Ltd in December 2005.

Southern Cross Resources received Commonwealth and State environmental clearances in late 2001 to develop the Honeymoon uranium project using in-situ leaching methods.

Design, engineering and cost studies for a 750 tonne per day commercial operation were completed in 2002, but the project was downsized to 400 tonnes per year, modified in some areas of design and re-costed in late 2004.

Higher contracting, steel and concrete prices had increased the capital and operating costs of the project, leading to delays.

Some other relatively small projects such as Energy Metals’ Bigrlyi project and Compass Resources’ Mount Fitch project (both in the Northern Territory where the Federal Government has jurisdiction) may become operational during the outlook period.

Although new uranium mines remain contentious, a large expansion at the Olympic Dam mine may proceed, although it is unlikely to have a major impact on production within the outlook period.

BHP Billiton is reviewing plans to substantially expand production at the Olympic Dam mine and in August 2005 commenced an environmental assessment of the $5 billion project.

The company expects to spend about two years undertaking both analysis of the proposed expansion and public consultation, before deciding whether to proceed.

If BHP Billiton does commit to the expansion, substantially higher uranium oxide production, of up to 15,000 tonnes (depending on the final shape of the project) will result. However, output is unlikely to become available until near the end of the outlook period.

Somewhat higher levels of output, together with rising contract prices for uranium is expected to lead to strong growth in industry revenue and value added.

Real industry revenue is expected to expand at an average annual rate of about 8.6%, with growth in value added expected to be slightly stronger at about 8.8%.

Australia will begin selling uranium to China during the outlook period.

In late 2006 a parliamentary Treaties Committee cleared the way for Australian uranium to be sold to China for non-military purposes.

The Treaties Committee reviewed two treaties between Australia and China (both signed in April 2006), one relating to the transfer of nuclear material and the other to co-operation on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The committee supported the sale of Australian uranium to China to help reduce the latter’s greenhouse gas emissions through increased use of nuclear power. However, the committee also stated that Australia would have an obligation to ensure that none of the uranium it sold to China was used for military purposes or allowed uranium purchased by China from other countries to be diverted towards military use. It recommended that Australia make a voluntary additional contribution to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear regulator.

Australia may also start selling uranium to India, although that country is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In August 2007, the Australian Government stated that negotiations regarding the possibility of sales of Australian uranium to India would commence.

The timing of possible sales is very uncertain, given that Australia will require stringent safeguards.


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