Australia's Uranium Production and Exports

Statistics related to Australia’s exports of Uranium Ore Concentrates (UOC) are listed in Table 1.

Table 1 UOC export and nuclear electricity statistics
Item Data
Total Australian UOC exports 2017–18 7,343 tonnes
Value Australian UOC exports $575 million
Australian exports as percentage of world uranium requirements5 9.6%
No. of reactors (GWe) these exports could power6 39
Power generated by these exports 246 TWh
Expressed as percentage of total Australian electricity production7 96%

Geoscience Australia estimates Australia’s Reasonably Assured Resources (RAR) of uranium recoverable at costs of less than USD130 per kilogram uranium to be 1,270,000 tonnes uranium.8

This represents around 29 per cent of world resources in this category. In addition, Australia has an Inferred Resource (IR) of uranium recoverable of 915,000 tonnes, giving a combined estimate of Australia’s uranium reserves of 2,185,000 tonnes uranium, or 38 per cent of the world’s uranium resources.9

In 2016, Olympic Dam was the world’s fourth largest (five per cent of world uranium production) uranium producer.10 Overall, Australia is the third largest uranium producing country after Kazakhstan and Canada. In the decade to 2016, Kazakh uranium production increased by over 370 per cent, resulting in Kazakhstan being responsible for almost 40 per cent of global uranium production in 2016.11

Worldwide, in 2016 uranium mining provided the equivalent of 98 per cent of the global nuclear power industry’s uranium requirements, the closest to parity it has been in almost 30 years.12 The global installed and operating capacity of nuclear power continues to steadily grow, with a net increase capacity of nine GWe in 2016, the majority of which was due to new reactors coming online in Asia. Despite 43 new reactors being connected to the grid since 2011,13 offsetting some of the drop in nuclear power due to continued shutdowns in Japan and phasing out of nuclear power in Germany, the uranium price remains near its lowest point in a decade. This is due to the high level of uranium production, coupled with improvements in reactor productivity and higher capacity factors, continuing to dampen the corresponding demand for uranium as less uranium is required per kWh output. Asian countries with plans to increase their reactor fleets are taking advantage of low uranium prices to ensure supply into the future. As a result, future global demand of uranium will likely increase more slowly than the net capacity of the global nuclear power sector.

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ASNO participated in a tour of Cameco’s facility of Port Hope, Canada.

Figure 1 Quantity and value of Australian UOC exports from 2008/09 to 2017/18 FY

In 2008-09 Australia exported 10,114 tonnes of UOC valued at A$1,033 million. 
In 2009-10 Australia exported 7,555 tonnes of UOC valued at A$758 million. 
In 2010-11 Australia exported 6,950 tonnes of UOC valued at A$610 million. 
In 2011-12 Australia exported 6,918 tonnes of UOC valued at A$607 million.
In 2012-13 Australia exported 8,391 tonnes of UOC valued at A$823 million. 
In 2013-14 Australia exported 6,701 tonnes of UOC valued at A$622 million.
In 2014-15 Australia exported 5,515 tonnes of UOC valued at A$532 million.
In 2015-16 Australia exported 8,417 tonnes of UOC valued at A$926 million. 
In 2016-17 Australia exported 7,081 tonnes of UOC valued at A$596 million.
In 2017-18 Australia exported 7,343 tonnes of UOC valued at A$575 million.

Figure 2 Civil Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Click on each stage of the fuel cycle to discover more.

Uranium mining eventually produces uranium ore concentrates. This leads to
Conversion. This process sends uranium hexafluoride for Uranium Enrichment, or for some reactors, directly to fuel fabrication. During Uranium Enrichment, depleted uranium can be siphoned off as Tails Storage. Enriched or natural uranium (depending on the reactor type) is sent for Fuel Fabrication. This produces fresh fuel for a Power Reactor. From there, heat is given off for Electricity Generation.  Spent fuel is sent to one of two places: a Repository or Reprocessing. From reprocessing, fission products are sent for Waste Disposal. Recovered plutonium can be put back into the cycle at Fuel Fabrication. Recovered uranium can go back to Conversion. Uranium and Milling Mining Conversion Uranium Enrichment Tails Storage Reprocessing Fuel Fabrication Power Reactor Energy Generation Storage and Disposal Waste Disposal

A characteristic of the nuclear fuel cycle is the international interdependence of facility operators and power utilities. It is unusual for a country to be entirely self-contained in the processing of uranium for civil use. Even in the Nuclear-Weapon States, power utilities will often go to other countries seeking the most favourable terms for uranium processing and enrichment. It would not be unusual, for example, for a Japanese utility buying Australian uranium to have the uranium converted to uranium hexafluoride in Canada, enriched in France, fabricated into fuel in Japan and reprocessed in the United Kingdom.

The international flow of nuclear material means that nuclear materials are routinely mixed during processes such as conversion and enrichment and as such cannot be separated by origin thereafter. Therefore, tracking of individual uranium atoms is impossible. Since nuclear material is fungible—that is, any given atom is the same as any other—a uranium exporter is able to ensure its exports do not contribute to military applications by applying safeguards obligations to the overall quantity of material it exports. This practice of tracking quantities rather than atoms has led to the establishment of universal conventions for the industry, known as the principles of equivalence and proportionality. The equivalence principle provides that where AONM loses its separate identity because of process characteristics (e.g. mixing), an equivalent quantity of that material is designated as AONM. These equivalent quantities may be derived by calculation, measurement or from operating plant parameters. The equivalence principle does not permit substitution by a lower quality material. The proportionality principle provides that where AONM is mixed with other nuclear material and is then processed or irradiated, a corresponding proportion of the resulting material will be regarded as AONM.

5 Based on 2017 world requirements of 65,014 tonnes UOC from the World Nuclear Association’s World Nuclear Power Reactors & Uranium Requirements (July 2018) – http://world-nuclear.org/information-library/facts-and-figures/world-nuclear-power-reactors-and-urani um-requireme.aspx

6 Based on a comparison of GWe of nuclear electricity capacity and uranium required, for countries eligible to use AONM from the World Nuclear Association’s World Nuclear Power Reactors & Uranium Requirements (July 2018) – http://world-nuclear.org/information-library/facts-and-figures/world-nuclear-power-reactors-and-uranium-requireme.aspx

7 Based on Australia’s electricity generation in 2015-16 of 257 TWh from the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, 2017 Australian Energy Update (September 2017) – https://www.energy.gov.au/publications/australian-energy-update-2017

8 From Geoscience Australia, Australia’s Identified Mineral Resources 2017, http://www.ga.gov.au/data-pubs/data-and-publications-search/publications/australian-minerals-resource-assessment/uranium

9 From OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency in ‘Uranium 2016: Resources, Production and Demand’, http://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/pubs/2017/7388-uranium-2016-es.pdf

10 World Nuclear Association’s World Uranium Mining Production (July 2017) – http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/mining-of-uranium/world-uranium-mining-production.aspx

11 World Nuclear Association – Uranium and Nuclear Power in Kazakhstan (June 2018) – http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-g-n/kazakhstan.aspx

12 World Nuclear Association’s World Uranium Mining Production (June 2017) – http://world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/mining-of-uranium/world-uranium-mining-production.aspx

13 IAEA PRIS: ‘Nuclear Power Reactors in the World’ 2018 Edition: https://www-pub.iaea.org/books/IAEABooks/13379/Nuclear-Power-Reactors-in-the-World

14 On 17 October 2012, the Australian Government announced that it would exempt India from its policy allowing supply of Australian uranium only to those States that are Parties to the NPT.

15 Australia has given reprocessing consent on a programmatic basis to EURATOM and Japan. Separated Australian-obligated plutonium is intended for blending with uranium into mixed oxide fuel (MOX) for further use for nuclear power generation.

16 Twenty-eight of the countries making up this total are European Union member states.

17 See page 26 of ASNO’s 2008-09 Annual Report for more details on the establishment of this policy.