Does Australia have the will to develop the next critical mineral at scale?

The forces of demand driven by the global energy transition and supply limited by geopolitics are coalescing to make yet another mineral globally ‘critical’—uranium.

Australia’s rich economic geology has endowed it with the world’s biggest uranium resources. Yet we have a long-term aversion to uranium mining driven in no small part by fears among many people stemming from the Cold War era when nuclear Armageddon was a persistent worry, periodically reinforced by civil reactor accidents.

A full generation on, it’s time for a national conversation on consistent policies under which we could expand uranium production and help meet the global demand for materials that will help the world transition to a low carbon economy. This conversation must be underpinned by science and must acknowledge the negative global impacts of a ‘not in my back yard’ driven attitude.

After decades of changeable and inconsistent policy, state and federal governments need to marshal the collective will if we are to maximise the potential contribution of Australia’s uranium to global decarbonisation, and to take advantage of booming price projections and economic opportunity. This will take a coordinated overhaul of their approach, with the goal of nationally consistent policies based on science as well as Australia’s 60 years’ experience of safe uranium production.

In November 2023, 22 COP28 summit countries pledged to triple nuclear electricity production by 2050. Individually, China’s nuclear growth is expected to move faster, tripling by 2040. The global need for uranium is set to multiply as a result.

In early  2024, Japan added uranium to its list of critical minerals, responding to greater demand driven by the restarting of nuclear power generation suspended in the wake of the Fukushima accident in 2011, and potential restrictions on supply, especially from Russia.

In 2023, the United States Department of Energy also assessed uranium as meeting criteria for inclusion on the US critical materials list for the energy transition, but it is not currently included because legislation proscribes ‘fuel minerals’ from being added.

Fast-rising global demand and looming US restrictions on imports of Russian uranium have doubled uranium spot prices in the past year to exceed US$100 a pound, the highest level in 12 years. Multi-year price projections are bullish, ranging from close to or more than that level.

S&P Global Market Intelligence data shows Australian uranium exports to the United States more than doubled in the 12 months to September 2023 in response to the impending ban on uranium imports from Russia (the fourth largest supplier to the US) and a fall in imports from Canada, the largest supplier.

Uranium-focussed mine production has responded to demand and price expectations, with activities increased in Canada, the United States, Australia and elsewhere. Shuttered mines are being reopened and new mines being developed. In South Australia, the Four Mile uranium mine remains operating, while the reopened Honeymoon project is expected to produce its first drum of uranium oxide (U3O8 – yellowcake) in the first quarter of 2024. Meanwhile, BHP’s Olympic Dam continues to produce around 3,500 tonnes of U3O8 a year, alongside copper and precious metals. Ranger Mine in the Northern Territory ceased operations in 2021 after 40 years of production.

Several commercial uranium deposits in Western Australia have been delineated and have in-place approvals to allow mine development in the short to medium term. They are Mulga Rock, Wiluna, Yeelirrie and Kintyre. Another 59 uranium exploration prospects have been identified: 14 in Western Australia, 24 in the Northern Territory, 14 in South Australia and seven in Queensland.

Australian companies are very active in uranium mining and exploration overseas. Australia’s Paladin Energy is targeting production in the first quarter of 2024 from its reopened Langer Heinrich Mine in Namibia. Three other Australian-owned projects in Namibia and Tanzania have completed feasibility studies. There are another 40 Australian-operated uranium exploration projects across Africa, and in Canada, the US and Argentina. ASX-listed companies spend more than two-thirds of their uranium exploration budgets outside Australia. While Australian companies—and even the Australian aid program—engage with uranium abroad, domestic policy has stagnated.

Data from S&P Global Market Intelligence shows that annual global exploration budgets for uranium increased 17% to US$248 million between 2022 and 2023, though they are a long way behind the peak US$937 million of 2011.

The 2023 exploration budget in Australia was 54% higher than in 2022, at US$21.4 million, but this is a fraction of the high in 2011 of US$256 million in 2011, when a brief period of greater policy certainty attracted the largest share of global budgets. Nevertheless, the exploration efforts of the past 15 years have generated detailed knowledge of deposit geology, allowing for rapid reserves delineation, feasibility assessment and development should politics, policies and approval processes allow.

Despite Australia having a third of the world’s uranium resources, national and state governments have equivocated on uranium mining policy for many years. The infamous and illogical three-mine policy might be no more, but the remaining confusing tangle of policies inevitably leads to uranium-focussed companies to feel unwelcome. It’s little wonder that the decades of Australian policy incertitude and capriciousness have had a chilling effect on investment potential, despite undoubted geological prospectivity.

Uranium is the only mineral that is subject to different policies in different states. Currently, uranium exploration and mining is allowed only in South Australia, the Northern Territory and Tasmania. Exploration for uranium is allowed in Queensland and New South Wales, but not mining.

Western Australia, which opened up to uranium mining in 2008, has now implemented a ‘no uranium’ condition on future mining leases, permitting only the four previously approved projects to proceed.  Bizarrely, it states in a government-issued fact sheet ‘the State Government would prefer that no uranium is mined in the State’. Further, Western Australia prohibits U3O8 exports through its ports, preferring to have its future production shipped via Darwin or Adelaide.

Australia and its states enthusiastically embrace opportunities to grow critical minerals production and pursue a clean hydrogen industry to help the world decarbonise. But we remain oddly ambivalent and inconsistent about uranium, another critical mineral key to the energy transition. Not only is Australia selling itself short economically, but it could fail to meet its responsibility to use its abundant resources to supply allies with another of the minerals vital to a low carbon future. Further, whilst we restrain ourselves, far less reliable uranium suppliers do not.

The fact that residents of South Australia and the Northern Territory have been happy to accept uranium mining for decades and that a previous Western Australian government’s approvals for the four proposed mines raised barely a ripple in that state tells us that other Australians are likely to be open to discussions about expansion of uranium production. Regulatory systems are tried and tested, and uranium is being produced safely, but not enough of it to meet future needs of Australia’s strategic partners for their energy transitions.

What’s needed is for the Australian Government to lead the states to adopt nationally consistent, stable policies for uranium exploration and development that welcome investment while also setting out the conditions required for safe mining and supply chains to Australia’s energy partners.