Nuclear opportunity: Is it time to unlock uranium in WA?

The Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC) says Western Australia is in a unique position to capitalise on a burgeoning nuclear energy opportunity.

AMEC welcomes a commitment from Western Australia Liberal Party Leader Libby Mettam to lift the current ban on uranium mining.

Warren Pearce, AMEC’s Chief Executive Officer, says nuclear energy may not be part of Western Australia’s energy pathway but very much is for other countries where it plays an important role in helping their economies to decarbonise.

“There is no good reason why WA shouldn’t support these countries and utilise our unique position to capitalise on this opportunity.”

Pearce notes that recent scoping studies of the top 4 uranium projects in WA including Cauldron Energy (ASX:CXU), Toro Energy (ASX:TOE), Cameco (TSX:CCO), and Deep Yellow (ASX:DYL) show significant development potential in WA, even from a stage one operation perspective.

“The days of fear mongering over uranium are over. We have multiple member companies exploring for uranium and one already in development. This would be a positive step for the industry, one that could potentially unlock a new growth sector for WA.”

The Minerals Council of Australia agrees and says a government led by Mettam would allow the state’s uranium miners to proceed through environmental approvals, aligning the treatment of uranium with other minerals.

The MCA’s Chief Executive Officer Tania Constable adds this policy shift promises to lift the current unwarranted moratorium on uranium mining, which has hindered Western Australia’s economic and environmental potential.

“The existing de facto ban on uranium mining lacks justification in both science and economics, stifling the development of Western Australia’s world class uranium reserves. These reserves have the capability to bolster the state’s economic status while assisting our trading partners in achieving their net-zero ambitions.”

Nuclear power is part of the energy mix for 19 out of the top 20 OECD countries.

In January, Mining.com.au reported how the uranium bull market had already begun. The report outlines how just 12 days into 2024, the uranium spot price surged just over US$100/lb, reaching a high that had not seen for some 16 years. 

In a speech delivered at AMEC’s ‘WA Breaking Ground’ forum, Mettam detailed how Western Australia is primed to take advantage of the positive price environment given it is endowed with substantial uranium reserves with the potential to create jobs, stimulate economic growth, and diversify the economy.

Amid this backdrop of soaring demand for uranium across the globe, Mettam said the time there should be a healthy debate about reversing the ban on uranium mining.

“Embracing uranium mining in Western Australia is a strategic move that not only addresses our economic needs but also positions us as pioneers in the global transition towards sustainable energy”

“Embracing uranium mining in Western Australia is a strategic move that not only addresses our economic needs but also positions us as pioneers in the global transition towards sustainable energy.”

WA saw four companies receive approval from the previous Barnett government, before the ban was enacted. However, only one was able to progress before the approvals expired. This has led to under-investment in the industry, while uranium prices have soared, with no sign of slowing down anytime soon.”

The MCA’s Constable says uranium mining represents a new opportunity for Western Australia, creating more new jobs for highly skilled, well-paid workers. It would position the state as a key player in global decarbonisation efforts, supplying critical materials for clean, zero-emission energy generation.

It’s notable that uranium explorers have so far invested over $1 billion in Western Australia without realising a return on their investment due to these restrictive policies. Western Australia’s lack of progress on uranium mining lags significantly behind its neighbour, South Australia, where the Malinauskas Government’s supportive policies have facilitated production at a third uranium mine.

Toro Energy is one such company investing and is aiming to deliver potential ore to its pilot plant that is currently in design as a drill planning at its Wiluna Uranium-Vanadium Project in Western Australia is now underway.

Executive Chairman Richard Homsany says Wiluna is set to play a key role in the global transition to cleaner energy by supplying economies committed to decarbonisation with the necessary strategic resources.

“The outcome of our pilot plant program will significantly inform Toro’s objective to identify and develop the most economically feasible version of the Wiluna Uranium Project.” 

Deep Yellow recently secured binding commitments to raise $220 million through a placement to develop its flagship Tumas Project in Namibia, with some to be utilised to progress its Mulga Rock Project in Western Australia.

Cauldron Energy in May 2023 received approval from the Western Australian Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS) for a Program of Works (PoW) at the Yanrey Uranium Project in Western Australia. 

The approved PoW was designed to target extensions to the uranium mineralisation at the Bennet Well deposit and assess the potential for vanadium mineralisation. 

Cameco’s President and CEO Tim Gitzel is a uranium bull and is clear about his views on nuclear energy: “The world has put a priority on achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the decades to come and it’s become clear that there is no net-zero without nuclear.”

Cameco has operated in Western Australia for some time particularly in the Bresnahan Basin, one of the state’s known uranium provinces containing the Angelo River deposit which it previously explored.

Australia’s leading science institution, the CSIRO, says renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are the most affordable sources of new energy production in the country, with nuclear power being most expensive.

The GenCost report is published each year by the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator.

A draft report soon to be released is poised to show variable renewables such as solar PV and wind technologies reportedly have the lowest cost range of any new-build technology in Australia, both now and in 2030.

However, the most expensive power is from a theoretical small modular nuclear reactor (SMR), and the second-most expensive would come from a peaking plant run on hydrogen.

The CSIRO says any potential cost of using nuclear energy in Australia has to date remained theoretical and that a lack of data from completed commercial projects is hindering any attempt to make worthwhile calculations.

Images: Toro Energy
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Written By Adam Orlando
Mining.com.au Editor-in-Chief Adam Orlando has more than 20 years’ experience in the media having held senior roles at various publications, including as Asia-Pacific Sector Head (Mining) at global newswire Acuris (formerly Mergermarket). Orlando has worked in newsrooms around the world including Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and Sydney.