Uranium is the preferred fuel for nuclear reactors. Australia has the world's largest reasonably assured resources (RAR) and is the world's third-largest producer of uranium.
Australia has three producing uranium mines: Olympic Dam (South Australia), Ranger (Northern Territory) and Four Mile (South Australia). A number of proposed projects are working through investment and environmental approval processes in anticipation of improved international uranium market conditions. In South Australia, new mining is proposed at the Four Mile project, and expanded mining is proposed at Olympic Dam. In Western Australia, the Cameco Kintyre project has received environmental approval, while Cameco's Yeelirrie, Toro's Lake Way and Vimy's Mulga Rock projects are working through the environmental approval process. However, development of all these projects is contingent on market conditions. World demand for uranium is projected to increase strongly over the next 20 years, as new nuclear capacity is commissioned. Australia's uranium production is forecast to more than double by 2030.
Commercial technologies to use thorium as a nuclear reactor fuel are still some decades away. Thorium is three to five times more abundant than uranium, is considered less conducive to nuclear weapons proliferation and, as a result of its greater energy-producing efficiency, generates substantially less radioactive waste.
Because there are no current commercial applications for thorium, world production and consumption rates are negligible.
Australia currently has no plans to have a domestic nuclear power industry by 2030. However, interest in the industry increased with the establishment of the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission in March 2015 and its report in May 2016 (NFCRC 2016).
Australia has the world's largest RAR of uranium recoverable at less than US$130/kg of uranium (US$130/kg U), with 1287 thousand tonnes (kt) in this category at December 2015. The estimated RAR for 2015 will last more than 200 years at current Australian uranium production levels.
The majority of Australia's uranium occurs in four main types of deposit: iron oxide breccia complexes, unconformity-related resources, sandstone resources and paleochannel/calcrete-style resources.
Seventy per cent of Australia's thorium resources are contained in the monazite component of heavy mineral sand deposits; the remaining 30 per cent are in rare earth element deposits.
On average, monazite contains around 6 per cent thorium and 60 per cent rare earth elements. Because there is currently no market for thorium, monazite is dispersed back into the original mined sand in Australian heavy mineral sand-mining operations.
There are no published thorium resources in heavy mineral sand deposits in Australia. Geoscience Australia estimates Australia's monazite resources in the heavy mineral sand deposits to be around 7.4 million tonnes and inferred thorium resources in the heavy mineral sands to be around 386.8 kt Th. Australia's total indicated and inferred in situ resources, including those in predominantly rare earth element deposits, amount to 595.2 kt Th. Because no information is available on recovery rates, it is not known what percentage of these resources is recoverable.
Thorium is not produced in Australia, and production on a large scale is unlikely in the next few decades.
Australia has substantial potential for the discovery of new uranium resources, with new pre-competitive data and economic assessment tools released by Geoscience Australia providing further stimulus to uranium exploration and discovery. Building on the Explorer and Whirlwind software tools, Geoscience Australia has been developing a unique Economic Fairways system that will help mineral explorers and developers to focus on areas with the highest economic potential, and fine-tune economic models for mineral development.
Australia has 532 kt of uranium in inferred resources recoverable at less than US$130/kg U. A further 34 kt of uranium in RAR and 58 kt in inferred resources are recoverable at a cost range of US$130-260/kg U (Geoscience Australia & BREE 2014).
Successful exploration and development of uranium deposits depend on several factors, including state and territory government policy, prices, production costs, ability to demonstrate best-practice environmental and safety standards, and community acceptance of uranium production projects.
Limited options for commercially viable transport and restricted access to the two approved ports of Adelaide and Darwin may affect the expansion of Australian uranium exports. A reduced number of shipping firms and routes that accept uranium may result in further delays and costs to project proponents.
Australia has around 10 per cent of the world's identified thorium resources.
Total world RAR of in situ uranium recoverable at less than US$130/kg U are estimated at around 4.6 million tonnes (Mt), equivalent to about 50 years of current reactor consumption.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency describe 16 uranium deposit types. The largest tonnages are attributed to the sandstone, iron oxide breccia complex and unconformity deposit groups (OECD NEA & IAEA 2014).
Mine production is focused in a small number of countries, with Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Namibia and Niger accounting for the majority of production.
Proterozoic unconformity-related deposits found in Canada dominate the categories of lowest production cost; the sandstone resources of Kazakhstan, Niger and the United States comprise the next cost level; and the Olympic Dam breccia complex deposit is dominant in the key cost category of less than US$130/kg U.
Total world resources of in situ thorium are estimated to be around 6.4 Mt.
The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency group thorium resources into four main types of deposits: placer (sand deposits), carbonatite-type (carbonate mineral-rich intrusives), vein-type and alkaline rock (OECD NEA & IAEA 2014).
Placer-type deposits (accounting for 35 per cent of world thorium resources) occur as paleo-quartz pebble conglomerates in South Africa, and heavy minerals sand deposits in Australia, Brazil, India, Mozambique, South Africa and the United States.
Carbonatite-type deposits (29 per cent) are found in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Russian Federation, Scandinavia, South Africa and the United States.
Vein-type (25 per cent) and alkaline-rock (9 per cent) deposits are similarly widespread around the world.