Uranium mining in Australia

Australia has the world’s largest resources of uranium with an estimated 1.158 million Mt in reasonably assured resources (RAR) recoverable at costs of less than US$ 70/kg. This represents approximately 33% of world resources in this category. Other countries with large resources in RAR of uranium recoverable at costs of less than US $70/kg are Canada 10%, Kazakhstan 10%, Niger 7% and the United States 6%.

Although there are more than 35 deposits with RAR of uranium at these costs, the vast majority of these resources lie within the following five deposits:

  • Olympic Dam in South Australia, the world’s largest uranium deposit;
  • Ranger and Jabiluka, in the Alligator Rivers region of the Northern Territory;
  • Kintyre and Yeelirrie in Western Australia.     

Uranium in Australia is currently produced by three mines: Ranger, Olympic Dam and Beverley in South Australia. Three additional operations in South Australia at Honeymoon, Beverley North and Four Mile have government approvals and are scheduled to begin production in the near future. Australia is currently responsible for around 16% of uranium world production and most of the Australian product is exported because there is no significant domestic demand.

Australia has applied nuclear safeguard conditions to the export of uranium since 1977. These conditions are intended to ensure that Australian uranium is not used for, or diverted to, nuclear weapons programs. In practical terms, this means that the buyer of Australian uranium must be a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and have signed a bilateral agreement with Australia which will guarantee, among other conditions, that the uranium is covered by International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards throughout its life and cannot be transferred to third parties without Australian consent.

Australia’s uranium production is forecast to more than double by 2030, with a growing demand for uranium coming from overseas countries, despite the Fukushima incident in 2011. Uranium exploration in Australia has risen to record levels of expenditure in recent years, with the majority of the expenditure being in South Australia, Western Australia, and Northern Territory. Uranium exploration is permitted, although uranium mining is still banned, in New South Wales. Exploration and mining is prohibited in Victoria and Tasmania.

History of uranium mining in Australia

Exploration for uranium in Australia started in 1944 at the request of the British Government. The Australian Government offered financial rewards and in 1949 the Rum Jungle deposit was discovered. Subsequently, the Mary Kathleen deposit in Queensland and a number of smaller deposits in the South Alligator Valley of the Northern Territory were discovered. Uranium exploration declined during the late 1950s but increased again in the late 1960s, stimulated by the easing of the government's export embargo and predictions of increased world demand for uranium in the early 1970s for generating electricity in nuclear power stations. At that time, important deposits were discovered at Nabarlek, Ranger, Koongarra and Jabiluka in the Alligator Rivers area of the Northern Territory, at Beverley and Honeymoon in the Lake Frome area of South Australia at Yeelirrie and Lake Way in Western Australia. The Olympic Dam deposit in South Australia and the Kintyre deposit in Western Australia were discovered in 1975 and 1985 respectively. 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.