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Mining & Resources

The future of uranium and nuclear energy in Australia

5 Aug 2013, by Informa Insights

Michael AngwinFollowing the Queensland government’s decision to allow uranium mining in the State, the 2013 Exploring & Mining the Isa conference will discuss the potential for uranium mines in the region. In the lead up to the forum, we had the chance to interview our key speaker Michael Angwin about the current status of the uranium industry and the potential market for Australian uranium. Appointed in 2006, Michael Angwin is the inaugural Chief Executive of the Australian Uranium Association. He has been responsible for establishing the Association, its decision-making processes, its agenda and its advocacy approach.

The uranium industry was hit hard by the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011. What were the immediate impacts for the uranium industry?
The issue that concerned us, and concerned everybody else, was the impact of the earthquake and tsunami, and the resulting nuclear damage, on the people of Japan.  Our industry participated in the IAEA’s nuclear safety conference following the events at Fukushima and we contributed where we could to improving nuclear safety; we certainly advocated improvement because we do not want an accident like Fukushima to happen again.

From a market perspective, Japan is an important customer for uranium businesses; while Japanese reactors are offline the utilities that operate them are not buying any more uranium, which creates an oversupply in the market.  This oversupply is creating difficult economic conditions for the uranium industry and is one of the continuing challenges facing the industry following Fukushima.

From your perspective, what is the general Australian public perception about nuclear energy? Why?
The debate about nuclear energy is not something that is on the mind of most Australians day-to-day.  If you ask Australians what they think about nuclear energy, the result will vary from time to time and depending on the context.

Broadly speaking, I’d say that polls show that off-the-top-of-the-head opinion is split pretty evenly between support, opposition and people making up their minds.  However, the more people know about nuclear power, the more likely they are to be supportive.

There was a nuclear debate in Sydney last year with the pre-debate poll showing a three-way even split.  After the debate, the majority voted in favour of nuclear power.

The current uranium price is comparatively low. How does this impact the prospect of a viable uranium industry in Australia?
Australia supplies about 11% to 12% of the world’s uranium for fuelling nuclear reactors; so, the industry is a large part of the global uranium industry.

The price of uranium does not affect the viability of the industry; it affects the extent to which investors are prepared to invest in particular companies.  In the absence of investment, the industry will grow more slowly than if there were more investment.

We expect the price to continue at a low level for some years, until about 2017/18 when the demand for uranium will exceed supply.  We expect those circumstances to give an incentive to the development of new mines.  The most nimble uranium businesses will capture the excess demand; and we think Australian companies are in that category.

In the longer term, say, out to 2035, we expect an increase in nuclear power capability around the world, especially in Asia, and Australian companies are well-placed to meet the supply needs of a bigger nuclear industry.

Where do you see a potential market for Australian uranium? Why?
Australia’s major customers are in North America, Europe and Asia. We expect to retain these customers and potentially serve new customers in China, India, the Middle East and Russia.
Asia will be the main source of growth in the nuclear industry. We see Australia as being a major supplier because the Australian resources industry is a very reliable supplier, we have a large endowment of uranium and we have a strong record of exporting under conditions that ensure uranium is only used for domestic electricity production.  We regard the latter as a competitive advantage.

Nuclear energy is regarded as a viable solution to reduce global CO2 emissions. Yet, one concern is how to manage and store nuclear waste. What are the latest developments in nuclear waste management technologies?
There has been scientific consensus for many years that the most appropriate method for managing nuclear waste is disposal in deep, stable geological formations. The challenge is not a technical one but a political and stakeholder one: to consult genuinely and openly with communities willing to consider being a location for a disposal site. That is how the waste issue is being dealt with successfully in Europe and will be dealt with in the USA.

You have recently participated in a national uranium conference (ATSE). What were the key concerns raised by industry stakeholders on how to advance the uranium industry?
In fact, people were pretty comfortable that the uranium industry was doing well politically even if the economic and commercial challenges are significant just now.

What we were able to contribute to the conference was the learning our industry had made over the last decade about how working hard for a social licence builds trust in the communities in which the industry operates. Genuinely understanding the fears people have about radiation and responding honestly and openly to those fears was a recurring theme; we take that very seriously.

Mining the Isa

You will be speaking at the 8th annual Mining & Exploring the Isa conference. What discussions would you like to have with the wider mining community at the event?
I would very much like to understand the concerns people have about our industry and to talk with them about how we address those issues.

Michael Angwin will be speaking at the upcoming 8th Annual Exploring & Mining the Isa conference on the 2-3 October at the Mount Isa Civic Centre. To find out more, please visit the Conference website.

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