Uranium

Uranium (U) is a radioactive element that averages one to four parts per million in the Earth's crust. Natural uranium contains about 0.7% of the U235 isotope (the fissile isotope) and 99.2%of the U238 isotope. Concentrations of uranium minerals such as uraninite, carnotite and brannerite can form commercial deposits. Major uses for uranium are as a fuel for nuclear power reactors for electricity generation, in the manufacture of radioisotopes for medical applications and in nuclear science research using neutron fluxes.

Uranium resources are categorised using the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency classification scheme for Reasonably Assured Resources (RAR). In this scheme, uranium resource estimates are for recoverable uranium, which deducts losses due to mining and milling. RAR recoverable at costs of

In Australia, uranium is recovered using both conventional (open-cut or underground) and in situ recovery (ISR) mining techniques. ISR can be used where geologically suitable and recovers uranium without excavating the ground. Uranium is extracted by means of an acid or alkaline solution which is pumped down injection wells into the permeable mineralised zone to remobilise uranium from the ore body. Then the uranium-bearing solution is pumped to the surface and recovered in a processing plant. ISR mining is used extensively in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the United States of America. In Australia, there are currently two ISR mines and a satellite ISR operation in South Australia at Honeymoon and Beverley/Beverley North, and another South Australian ISR operation at Four Mile is expected to begin production in 2013. The conventional uranium mines in Australia are Olympic Dam in South Australia, which is an underground operation, and Ranger in the Northern Territory where open-cut mining ended in November 2012 and the company is investigating the possibility of an underground mine.

There have been a number of legal developments in the Australian uranium industry over the past decade. The industry has been bolstered by bipartisan Commonwealth support for uranium mining, the lifting of bans on uranium mining in Western Australia and Queensland and the New South Wales Government's repeal of the ban on uranium exploration.

Australia's identified uranium resources occur in the Northern Territory and all states except Victoria and Tasmania (Figure 3.24 and Figure 3.25). Olympic Dam in South Australia is a hematite breccia complex and is the world's largest uranium deposit. Geoscience Australia estimates that it contains 77% of Australia's RAR recoverable at less than US$130/kg U. Unconformity-type deposits such as Ranger, Jabiluka, Koongarra in the Northern Territory and Kintyre in Western Australia account for 13% of Australia's resources. Sandstone-hosted deposits account for 3% of Australia's uranium resources and are more widespread occurring at Beverley, Honeymoon and Four Mile in South Australia, Junnagunna, Red Tree and Huarabagoo in Queensland, Angela in the Northern Territory and Manyingee, Mulga Rock and Oobagooma in Western Australia. Calcrete deposits also account for 3% of Australia's resources with Yeelirrie in Western Australia the largest of this type. Others include Lake Way and Centipede (both part of the Wiluna Project) and Lake Maitland, all in Western Australia. Other types of uranium deposits hosting significant resources in Australia include the metasomatic deposits of Valhalla and Skal in Queensland, the volcanic-hosted Ben Lomond and Maureen deposits in Queensland and the alkaline intrusion that hosts Toongi in New South Wales.

According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), in July 2013 there were 432 commercial nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries, most of which are light water type reactors. This number is lower than the peak of 442 at December 2010 due to the closures of nuclear plants in several countries following the damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan caused by a tsunami in March 2011. The total installed nuclear generating capacity is 371 870 megawatts, which provides about 11% of the world's electricity generation (source: WNA). The total uranium required to fuel these reactors is approximately 66 500 tonnes in 2013 of which primary uranium supplies 84% and secondary sources the remainder. Secondary sources arise from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, blended down highly-enriched uranium from nuclear weapons, or mixed oxide fuels.

Australia does not have any nuclear power reactors and there are currently no plans for Australia to have a domestic nuclear power industry. Australia exports all of its uranium to countries within its network of bilateral safeguards agreements, which ensure that it is used only for peaceful purposes and does not enhance or contribute to any military applications. Australian mining companies supply uranium under long-term contracts to electricity utilities in the United States of America, Japan, China, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan and Canada as well as members of the European Union including the France, Germany, Sweden and Belgium. Since 2007, Australia has negotiated bilateral safeguards agreements for the export of uranium to China, Russia and the United Arab Emirates and, in December 2011, negotiations commenced with India on a bilateral safeguards agreement.

Figure 3.24 is a map of Australia showing the names, locations and size of major uranium deposits. The map also shows the state boundaries and capital cities as well as the major geological provinces of the country. Uranium deposits are displayed as filled yellow circles split into six sizes according to the total in situ resources of uranium. The six sizes are labelled 'less than 5000 tonnes', '5000 to 10 000 tonnes', '10 000 to 50 000 tonnes', '50 000 to 100 000 tonnes', '100 000 to 1 000 000 tonnes' and 'greater than 1 000 000 tonnes'. In addition, some circles are drawn with a heavy black line indicating that these deposits are operating mines. The map shows small to mid-sized uranium deposits scattered over Western Australia, central Australia and Queensland, mostly hosted by Archean and Proterozoic rocks. A large concentration of uranium deposits from small to mega occur in South Australia at Olympic Dam and the Frome Embayment. Another large concentration of uranium deposits occur in the Kakadu region of the Northern Territory. A single uranium deposit is located in the Ordovician of New South Wales at the Toongi Rare Earths Deposit.

Figure 3.24 Australia's major uranium deposits based on total Identified Resources.
Source: Geoscience Australia.

Resources and Reserves

Table 3.32 Australia's resources of uranium with world figures as at December 2012.
Units JORC Reserves (% of EDR) Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) Paramarginal Demonstrated Resources Submarginal Demonstrated Resources Inferred Resources Accessible EDR Mine Production in 2012 World Economic Resources World Mine Production in 2012
Source: Geoscience Australia, the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development/Nuclear Energy Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency, World Nuclear Association; Paramarginal and submarginal demonstrated resources are subeconomic at this time; kt = kilotonnes.
kt 373 (34%) 1174 34 0 590 1104 7.009 3472 58.394

Figure 3.25 comprises two pie charts side by side. The one on the left shows the percentage of Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) of uranium (equivalent to Reasonably Assured Resources recoverable at a cost of less than 130 United States dollars per kilogram) held by each state and territory in Australia as at December 2012. The chart on the right shows the percentage of total uranium resources held by each state and territory in Australia as at December 2012. South Australia dominates uranium EDR with 81%, followed by the Northern Territory with 10%, Western Australia with 6% and Queensland with 3%. The total uranium resources are almost identically proportioned with the addition of a small percentage of known resources occurring in New South Wales.

Figure 3.25 Percentages of Economic Demonstrated Resources (RAR recoverable at costs Source: Geoscience Australia.

World Ranking

Table 3.33 World economic resources for uranium.
Rank Country Uranium (t) (RAR Percentage of world total
Source: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development/Nuclear Energy Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency and Geoscience Australia; Figures are rounded to the nearest hundred tonnes. Percentages are rounded so might not add up to 100% exactly; t = tonnes; kg = kilograms; RAR = Reasonably Assured Resources at costs
1 Australia 1 174 000 34%
2 Niger 339 000 10%
3 Kazakhstan 319 900 9%
4 Canada 319 700 9%
5 Namibia 234 900 7%
6 United States of America 207 400 6%
7 Russia 172 900 5%
8 Brazil 155 700 4%
9 South Africa 144 600 4%
10 China 109 500 3%
  Others 293 900 8%
  Total 3 471 500  
Table 3.34 World production for uranium
Rank Country Uranium (t) Percentage of world total
Source: World Nuclear Association and the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics; Percentages are rounded so might not add up to 100% exactly; t = tonnes; (a) Estimate.
1 Kazakhstan 21 317 37%
2 Canada 8999 15%
3 Australia 7009 12%
4 Niger 4667 8%
5 Namibia 4495 8%
6 Russia 2872 5%
7 Uzbekistan 2400 4%
8 United States of America 1596 3%
9 China (a) 1500 3%
10 Malawi 1101 2%
  Others 2438 4%
  Total 58 394  

Trends

The majority of Australia's uranium deposits were discovered between 1969 and 1975 when approximately 50 deposits, including 15 with significant resource estimates, were discovered. Since 1975, only another five deposits have been discovered and, of these, only three deposits (Kintyre in the Paterson Province of Western Australia, Junnagunna in Queensland and Four Mile in South Australia have Reasonably Assured Resources recoverable at less than US$130/kg U (equates with EDR). As a result, the progressive increases in Australia's RAR for uranium from 1975 to the present were largely because of the ongoing delineation of resources at known deposits.

From 1983 onwards, the Olympic Dam deposit in South Australia has been the major contributor to increases in Australia's RAR. The large increases shown in Figure 3.26 occurred:

  • in 1983, when initial resource estimates for Olympic Dam and Ranger No. 3 Orebody (Northern Territory) were made by the former Australian Atomic Energy Commission ('a' in Figure 3.26)
  • in 1993, when further increases in RAR for Olympic Dam and first assessment of resources for the Kintyre deposit were made by Geoscience Australia's predecessor, the Bureau of Mineral Resources ('b'in Figure 3.26)
  • in 2000, when increases were due to continuing additions to the Olympic Dam resources
  • from 2007 to 2009, when a major increase in RAR for Olympic Dam was made after drilling outlined major extensions to the southeast part of the deposit.

Economic resources decreased in 2010 because of higher costs of mining and milling uranium ores. Resources in some deposits were reassigned to higher cost categories than in previous years. In previous years, resources in the cost category of less than US$80/kg uranium were considered to be economic. As a result of increases in costs and uranium market prices, economic resources from 2010 onwards were extended to include resources within the cost category of less than US$130/kg uranium.

Figure 3.26 shows the Reasonably Assured Resources (RAR) of uranium recoverable at certain costs from 2009 to 2012. There are three lines on the graph, a blue line representing 'uranium recoverable at costs of less than 130 United States dollars per kilogram, a yellow line labelled 'uranium recoverable at costs of less than 80 United States dollars per kilogram' and a red line labelled 'uranium recoverable at costs of less than 40 United States dollars per kilogram'. The vertical axis is labelled in thousands of tonnes beginning at 0 and in increments of 200 thousand. The horizontal axis is labelled with the year starting with 1975 and ending with 2012. In the graph, the line representing the RAR of uranium recoverable at costs of less than 80 United States dollars per kilogram starts at 243 000 tonnes in 1975 and rises in a series of steps to a peak of 1 224 000 tonnes in 2009. This line ends in 2009 and the line representing the RAR of uranium recoverable at costs of less than 130 United States dollars per kilogram begins at this point. The new line dips to 1158 thousand tonnes in 2010, rises again to 1196 thousand tonnes in 2011 and fall again in 2012 to 1174 thousand tonnes. In the graph, the line representing the RAR of uranium recoverable at costs of less than 40 United States dollars per kilogram starts at 654 000 tonnes in 2000. This line for this low-cost uranium peaks at 716 000 tonnes in 2005 and ends at 709 000 tonnes in 2006.

Figure 3.26 Trends in Reasonably Assured Resources for uranium since 1975.
Source: Geoscience Australia.

Resource to Production Ratio

Table 3.35 Indicative years of uranium resources (rounded to the nearest 5 years) as a ratio of Accessible Economic Demonstrated Resources divided by the production rate for each year.
Year 1998 2003 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Source: Geoscience Australia.
AEDR/Production 105 80 125 140 175 180 160