Hot debate: Will Australia nuke Dutton’s plan?  

The Australian Liberal Party is going all in on nuclear energy ahead of the 2025 election, but will the country get behind it?

In June, Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton revealed the opposition’s plan to build seven nuclear power plants that would start rolling out in 2035. 

The reactors would be built on the sites of end-of-life coal-fired power stations, including in Gippsland in Victoria, Gladstone in Queensland, Port Augusta in South Australia, Collie in Western Australia, and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.

But currently there is a country-wide ban in place preventing Australia from adopting nuclear energy. 

The Minerals Council of Australia says uranium exploration and mining is also subject to a range of state-based policy and legislation. Currently, uranium mining is only permitted in the Northern Territory and South Australia. 

Western Australia has had a ban on uranium mining in place since 2017.

Just four WA projects received ministerial approval to proceed to production before the ban was implemented. These are Toro Energy’s (ASX:TOE) Wiluna Project, Cameco’s (TSX:CCO) Kintyre and Yeelirrie projects and Deep Yellow’s (ASX:DYL) Mulga Rock Project. 

Andrew Vigar, Chairman of New South Wales-based explorer Terra Uranium (ASX:T92) – which is advancing projects in pro-nuclear Canada, says the nuclear debate in Australia has become too “politicised”.  

“I’m a little disappointed that it’s become politicised because that can distort the facts a little bit,” he tells Mining.com.au in an interview following news of the opposition’s nuclear plan. 

“I’m a scientist obviously and I prefer to deal with facts. We’ve been active in this space … for a long time now because it is one of the primary baseload energy sources available to any country in the world, including Australia, and we’ve been ignoring that for a long time. 

“So I guess I’m pleased that it’s out there a bit more in the public domain and ordinary people out there are taking a bit more attention.”

Political barricade 

There have been several moves over the years that have paved the way for the adoption of nuclear power in Australia, but the one thing still preventing it from becoming a reality is politics, according to Vigar. 

“We’ve seen a huge shift in the carbon debate and the fact that the general community do want zero carbon by 2050, and that’s happened quite quickly in the last few years,” he says. 

“Then also the advent of the small modular reactors and they’re coming onto the market and now becoming a proven technology. That’s happened in the last two or three years.

“As far as political change, which is all we’re talking about as far as a ban on nuclear power or ban on exploration, that’s a political debate and that will be solved by the politicians removing the ban.

“I mean it doesn’t make any sense from a scientific or commercial point of view. If you go to Europe or the US, banks will finance nuclear reactors. It’s not a problem. The money’s out there.

“But we just can’t do it in Australia because we have a political debate. So hopefully that will be resolved.”

As far as putting nuclear reactors on old coal-fired power sites, Vigar says that is a smart idea that will cut the cost of a nuclear power station by about a third. 

“You’re saving a third of your infrastructure because of course the lakes are already there, the power distribution lines are already there, the workforce is already there,” he says.

“A lot of the turbines and the actual switch yards are also reused, so all you’re replacing is the power generation part, which is the boiler, with a nuclear reactor.”

The Minerals Council of Australia has thrown its support behind the Coalition’s nuclear policy.

“Australia’s strong global reputation for non-proliferation and its world-class uranium industry, which includes almost a third of global uranium reserves and supplies around 10% of global uranium used for zero-emissions electricity, positions it well to lead in nuclear energy development,” CEO Tania Constable says. 

“Nuclear energy complements renewables energy generation to deliver industrial heat requirements also for maintaining Australia’s credibility with trading partners to attract the investment needed to unlock the country’s mineral wealth.

“It is time to move beyond outdated anti-nuclear sentiments. Many G20 nations either rely on nuclear energy or are actively developing new reactors.”

Currently, all of Australia’s uranium is exported. The federal government estimates that the country’s uranium exports will earn $1 billion in the 2024 financial year and over $2 billion by the 2029 financial year.

This is due to a rise in export volumes and price, which the government sees advancing to US$119 ($179) a pound by FY2029, from US$51 a pound in FY23.

Interestingly, in the March quarter, while Australian exploration expenditure fell to a two-year low of $1.62 billion, uranium explorers attracted the most interest from investors.

Audit and accounting firm BDO’s analysis of 38 advanced explorers and early-stage producers revealed uranium companies accounted for 27% of the total $1.21 billion raised in the March quarter.

Global and national head of natural resources Sherif Andrawes says the capital raisings were led by Deep Yellow (ASX:DYL), Peninsula Energy (ASX:PEN) and Paladin Energy (ASX:PDN).

Bruce Lane, CEO of US-focused small cap uranium explorer GTI Energy (ASX:GTR), says the sentiment towards uranium is very positive, though it does not necessarily translate into strong equity prices.

“we are in a risk-off environment due to the relatively high cost of money, local cost of living pressures and real instability in global affairs,” he tells Mining.com.au.

“This risk-off mentality hits the small cap sector pretty hard in all commodities, and especially in a small sector like uranium it can be a volatile ride for investors with deep pull backs hurting those that are recent to the trade.

“This causes people to stay on the sidelines until there is more optimism around. Hopefully we see this soon!”

On the global stage 

Geopolitical turmoil and an accelerated tug of war over the world’s uranium resources put a rocket under the price in Q1 of this year, but Q2 has seen it come off the boil a bit.

Jacob White, ETF product manager for Sprott Asset Management, says the uranium spot price has stabilised between US$85 and US$95 per pound after a significant 88.54% increase in 2023.

The new year saw the price of nuclear fuel reach its highest point since November 2007 when it hit US$106 a pound. Although it has pulled back a bit since then, the price has remained steady, buoyed by government battles to shore up supply.

In May, US President Joe Biden enacted the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act, banning the import of Russian uranium and placing greater emphasis on building domestic production.

GTI Energy has projects in Wyoming, one of the major uranium producing states in the US, and Utah.

Lane says the US is the largest user and buyer of uranium globally with annual requirements of almost 50 million pounds, but domestic production last year was less than 1 million pounds at a time when utilities are banned from buying fuel from Russian aligned suppliers.

“all this when the US Department of Energy has put their full weight and money behind a drive to triple their nuclear power,” he explains.

“This means going from just under 100 x gigawatt scale reactors to 300. I’d say that represents the solid foundations of a long-term supercycle for uranium.”

Lane adds that this is a miraculous turnaround for a US industry that has been on its knees since the 20-year long ‘Megatons to Megawatts’ program, which down-blended Russian warheads into US reactor fuel, wiping out the US uranium mining industry over 30 years ago.

“The US has gone from offshoring to re-shoring its nuclear business and looks like it will need up to 150 million pounds of yellowcake a year if it’s to meet its growth targets,” he says.

Meanwhile, Russia is making moves to get its hands on Niger’s uranium following the ejection of the African country’s French-allied president mid-last year, which prompted France to withdraw its military troops from the region. 

The coup crippled France’s hold and could see Russia, which Niger has strengthened ties with, take control of one of the world’s largest uranium deposits. 

Following the coup, French nuclear power company Orano had its operating permit revoked for the Imouraren deposit, which hosts reserves of around 200,000 tonnes of uranium. 

Sprott’s White says the uranium bull market is still well underway, with long-term contract prices continuing to climb, reaching US$77 a pound in May – the highest level in nearly 16 years. 

“Besides being a pause in a longer-term bull market, the uranium spot market has been susceptible to broader factors like broader commodities weakness, seasonal softness and a lack of expected buying activity with the passage of the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act,” he says.

“On the other hand, fundamentals continue to strengthen with nuclear power plant restarts, new builds and a deepening supply deficit. 

“Notably, the spot market may have paused, but the increasingly positive fundamental picture has played out differently for both the term market and uranium miners.”

Write to Angela East at Mining.com.au 

Images: Sprott & Unsplash
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Written By Angela East
Managing Editor Angela East is an experienced business journalist and editor with over 15 years spent covering the resources and construction sectors and more recently working as a communications specialist handling media relations for junior resources companies.