This information has not been updated since 2010 and is provided for general reference purposes. For more detailed information and for the latest data, please see the Australia’s Identified Mineral Resources uranium chapter .
Australia has the world’s largest Reasonably Assured Resources (RAR) of uranium and currently is the world’s third largest producer of uranium after Kazakhstan and Canada. There are three operating uranium mines, at Olympic Dam and Beverley in South Australia and Ranger in the Northern Territory, and three additional operations are scheduled to begin production in the near future. Australia’s uranium production is forecast to more than double by 2030.
Uranium Properties and Uses
Uranium is a mildly radioactive element which averages one to four parts per million in the Earth’s crust. Concentrations of uranium minerals such as uraninite, carnotite and brannerite form commercial deposits. Natural uranium contains about 0.7 per cent of the U235 isotope and 99.3 per cent of the U238 isotope.
Major uses for uranium are as fuel in nuclear power reactors for electricity generation, in the manufacture of radioisotopes for medical applications and in nuclear science research using neutron fluxes.
Electricity generation from nuclear power reactors is an internationally proven technology. At June 2010 there were 439 commercial nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries, most of which are light water type reactors. The total installed nuclear generating capacity is 375,000 Megawatt which provides about 14 per cent of the world’s electricity generation. Nuclear reactors produce base load electricity.
Further information on uranium is available in the Australian Mines Atlas .
Uranium Production and Exports
Australia’s three uranium mines have differing mining methods with Ranger, Northern Territory an open pit operation, Olympic Dam, South Australia an underground mine, and Beverley, South Australia an in situ recovery mine. Three new in situ recovery projects in South Australia at Honeymoon, Beverley North and Four Mile have government approvals and are expected to commence production in the near future.
Australia produces around 16 per cent of annual world uranium production. Major producing countries are Kazakhstan (About 30 percent of annual world production) and Canada (about 20 percent).
Uranium ores from Ranger and Olympic Dam are processed into uranium oxide concentrates (U3O8) while Beverley produces uranium hydroxide concentrates (UO4.2H2O).
All of Australia’s production, which has an annual value of around $1070 million, is exported as concentrates in 200 litre drum within shipping containers and is controlled by stringent safeguard agreements. These safeguards ensure it is used for peaceful purposes only and does not enhance, or contribute to, any military applications. In addition, exports are permitted only to countries which are a party to and comply with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, have a bilateral safeguards agreement with Australia and, in the case of non-nuclear weapon States, have an Additional Protocol that ensures the International Atomic Energy Agency has access to and inspection rights in the recipient country.
Information on Australia’s mineral production and exports is given in Australia’s Mineral Statistics produced quarterly and Australian Commodities produced twice yearly by Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) .
Australia has the world’s largest RAR of uranium recoverable at costs of less than US$80 a kilogram, with more than 40 per cent of world resources in this category. Other countries with large resources include Canada with 13 per cent, Kazakhstan with nine per cent, South Africa eight per cent and the Russian Federation with four per cent.
Olympic Dam is the world’s largest uranium deposit and it is estimated to contain approximately one third of the world’s total RAR.
Australia’s uranium resources and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) International Atomic Energy Agency/Nuclear Energy Agency (IAEA/NEA) uranium resource categories are summarised in Australia’s Identified Mineral Resources.
Geoscience Australia produces maps of Australia’s operating mines, mineral deposits, mineral endowment and processing centres in the Australian Mines Atlas .
Uranium Exploration and Discovery
Of the 90 uranium deposits in Australia, the majority were discovered between 1969 and 1975. From 1976 to 2003, only four new deposits were discovered, mainly as a consequence of low levels of exploration expenditures and low uranium market prices during this period. Despite increases in uranium prices and exploration expenditures since 2003, only three significant discoveries have been made, the Four Mile and Pepegoona deposits in South Australia and Thunderball in the Northern Territory. Australia’s uranium resources have increased progressively in recent decades, mainly as a result of ongoing drilling and evaluation of known deposits, particularly Olympic Dam.
Uranium exploration in Australia rose to record levels of expenditure in recent years. The majority of this expenditure was in South Australia, Western Australia, and Northern territory. State government legislation in New South Wales and Victoria prohibits uranium exploration and mining.
Companies have explored over a wide range of geological settings, however the main geological regions for uranium exploration in recent years have been the Gawler Craton/Stuart Shelf region and Frome Embayment region in South Australia, the Pine Creek Orogen in the Northern Territory, the Paterson Province and Yilgarn Caton in Western Australia and the Mount Isa in Queensland.