Australia's Uranium Production and Exports

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

Geoscience Australia estimates Australia's Reasonably Assured Resources (RAR) of uranium recoverable at costs of less than US$130 per kilogram uranium to be 1 151 000 tonnes uranium1. This represents around 31% of world resources in this category. In addition, Australia has an Inferred Resource (IR) of uranium recoverable at less than US$130/kg U of 704 000 tonnes, giving a combined estimate of Australia's uranium reserves of 1 706 100 tonnes uranium, or 29% of the world's uranium reserves2.

In 2015, the Olympic Dam was the world's fourth largest (5% of world uranium production) uranium producer3. Overall, Australia is the third largest uranium producer after Kazakhstan and Canada4. In the past decade Kazakh uranium production has increased by over 500%, resulting in Kazakhstan being responsible for almost 40% of global uranium production in 20155.

Table 1: UOC Export And Nuclear Electricity Statistics6, 7, 8
Item Data
UOC Exports
Total Australian UOC exports 2015–16 8417 tonnes
Value Australian UOC exports A$926 million
Australian exports as % world uranium requirements6 ~10.7%
No. of reactors (GWe) these exports could power 7 ~41
Power generated by these exports ~257 TWh
Expressed as percentage of total Australian electricity production8 ~103%

Worldwide, uranium mining provided the equivalent of 90% of the 2015 global nuclear power industry's uranium requirements.9 The balance was met by secondary sources, such as recycled uranium and plutonium from used fuel (as mixed oxide fuel – MOX), re-enriched uranium tails, down-blending weapon grade nuclear material, civil stockpiles. While the global installed and operating capacity of nuclear power continues to steadily grow, with a net increase capacity of 9 GWe in the past year, improvements in reactor productivity and higher capacity factors continue to dampen the corresponding demand for uranium as less uranium are required per kWh output. This means that in the future, the global demand of uranium will increase more slowly than the net capacity of the global nuclear power sector. In the longer term, new technologies for recycling nuclear material and the potential use of thorium as a nuclear fuel will probably continue this trend, although all of these processes will require some uranium. Further, as more countries consider nuclear power as a means of addressing their energy deficits in an environmental aware setting, the future demand for uranium will steadily grow.

Figure 1: Quantity And Value Of Australian UOC Exports

igure 1: Quantity And Value Of Australian UOC Exports

Australia's nuclear safeguards policy

The Australian Government's uranium policy limits the export of Australian uranium to countries that are a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT),10 have an Additional Protocol in force and are within Australia's network of bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements. These nuclear cooperation agreements are designed to ensure that IAEA safeguards and appropriate nuclear security are applied, as well as a number of supplementary conditions. Nuclear material subject to the provisions of an Australian nuclear cooperation agreement is known as Australian Obligated Nuclear Material (AONM). The obligations of Australia's agreements apply to uranium as it moves through the different stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, and to nuclear material generated through the use of that uranium.

All Australia's nuclear cooperation agreements contain treaty-level assurances that AONM will be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and will be covered by safeguards arrangements under each country's safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

In the case of non-nuclear-weapon states, it is a minimum requirement that IAEA safeguards apply to all existing and future nuclear material and activities in that country. In the case of nuclear-weapon states, AONM must be covered by safeguards arrangements under that country's safeguards agreement with the IAEA, and is limited to use for civil (i.e. non-military) purposes.

The principal conditions for the use of AONM set out in Australia's nuclear cooperation agreements are:

  • AONM will be used only for peaceful purposes and will not be diverted to military or explosive purposes (here military purpose includes: nuclear weapons; any nuclear explosive device; military nuclear reactors; military propulsion; depleted uranium munitions, and tritium production for nuclear weapons);
  • IAEA safeguards will apply;
  • Australia's prior consent must be sought for transfers to third parties, enrichment to 20 per cent or more in the isotope 235U and reprocessing 11;
  • Fall-back safeguards or contingency arrangements will apply if for any reason NPT or IAEA safeguards cease to apply in the country concerned;
  • internationally agreed standards of physical security will be applied to nuclear material in the country concerned;
  • detailed administrative arrangements are applied between ASNO and its counterpart organisation, setting out the procedures to apply in accounting for AONM;
  • regular consultations on the operation of the agreement are undertaken; and
  • provision is made for the removal of AONM in the event of a breach of the agreement.

Australia currently has 24 nuclear safeguards agreements in force, covering 42 countries plus Taiwan (see Appendix B)12.

Accounting for Australian uranium

Australia's bilateral partners holding AONM are required to maintain detailed records of transactions involving AONM. In addition, counterpart organisations in bilateral partner countries are required to submit regular reports, consent requests, transfer and receipt

documentation to ASNO. ASNO accounts for AONM on the basis of information and knowledge including:

  • reports from each bilateral partner
  • shipping and transfer documentation
  • calculations of process losses and nuclear consumption, and nuclear production
  • knowledge of the fuel cycle in each country
  • regular reconciliation and bilateral visits to counterparts
  • regular liaison with counterpart organisations and with industry
  • IAEA safeguards activities and IAEA conclusions on each country.

Australia's uranium transhipment security policy

For countries with which Australia does not have a bilateral safeguards agreement in force, but through which Australian uranium ore concentrates (UOC) are transhipped, there must be arrangements in place with such states to ensure the security of UOC during transhipment. If the state is:

  • a party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)
  • has adopted the IAEA's Additional Protocol on strengthened safeguards
  • and acts in accordance with these agreements

then arrangements on appropriate security can be set out in an instrument with less than treaty status . Any such arrangement of this kind would be subject to risk assessment of port security.

For states that do not meet the above requirements, treaty-level arrangements on appropriate security may instead be required.

Figure 2: Civil Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Figure 2: Civil Nuclear Fuel Cycle

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.

Footnotes

1 From Geoscience Australia, Australia's Identified Mineral Resources 2015, August 2016, http://www.ga.gov.au/metadata-gateway/metadata/record/gcat_21a2c93c-b691-d570-e053-12a3070a9f90/Australia%27s+Identified+Mineral+Resources+2015

2 From OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency in 'Uranium 2014: Resources, Production and Demand', https://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/pubs/2014/7209-uranium-2014.pdf

3http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/mining-of-uranium/world-uranium-mining-production.aspx

4 As Australia's identified uranium reserves has not changed significantly in the last 40 years, variation in these figures over time is largely due to changes in the cost of mining moving deposits into different cost categories, and exploration and exploitation of uranium reverse internationally.

5http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-g-n/kazakhstan.aspx

6 Based on 2015 world requirements of 78,875 tonnes UOC from the World Nuclear Association's World Nuclear Power Reactors & Uranium Requirements (1 January 2016) - http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Facts-and-Figures/World-Nuclear-Power-Reactors-and-Uranium-Requirements/.

7 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 (1 January 2016) - http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Facts-and-Figures/World-Nuclear-Power-Reactors-and-Uranium-Requirements/.

8 Based on Australia's electricity generation in 2013-14 of 248 TWh from the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, 2015 Australian Energy Update (August 2015) - http://www.industry.gov.au/Office-of-the-Chief-Economist/Publications/Pages/Australian-energy-statistics.aspx.

9 From World Nuclear Association's Uranium Markets (February 2015) - http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Uranium-Resources/Uranium-Markets/.

10 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 which are Parties to the NPT.

11 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.

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