|Even after the Fukushima disaster, uranium rich countries are still searching for new export markets [Reuters]
Many countries view nuclear energy as a way to meet growing electricity demands without releasing large amounts of greenhouse gasses. And as a major uranium exporter, Australia is keen to capitalise on future opportunities despite the ongoing nuclear emergency at Japan’s Fukushima reactors.
Along with Kazakhstan and Canada, Australia is one of the world's largest suppliers of uranium, which fuels electricity-generation at nuclear power stations.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s nuclear watchdog, says that there are 442 nuclear reactors in operation in 30 countries, including Taiwan. A further 65 are currently under construction across 16 nations, with 27 being built in China alone.
Prior to the Japanese radiation emergency, the IAEA anticipated that up to 25 countries that do not have a nuclear power station at present would have access to the technology by 2030.
"There are probably 11 or 12 countries that are actively developing the infrastructure for a nuclear power programme," said the IAEA’s Anne Starz in February.
"The region where we see the largest number of active countries is in Southeast Asia," added Starz. "There is also interest in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America."
The cause of this growing interest in nuclear power is two-fold. The current level of global energy demand is expected to double over the next two decades, with nuclear energy seen as one way of meeting the world’s needs. Also, nuclear power plants emit negligible levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere - unlike coal-fired power stations. Nuclear energy’s lack of emissions is regarded as a means to combat global warming and avoid dangerous climate change.
Some 9,000 to 10,000 tonnes of uranium oxide concentrate - the form in which the partly processed uranium is exported - is shipped from here in an average year, according to the local industry’s representative body, the Australian Uranium Association (AUA).
This equates to about one-fifth of global demand. All of the uranium mined in Australia is sent overseas for use in civil power stations in countries that have signed up to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) as well as to a bilateral safeguards agreement with Australia.
Roughly 15 to 17 per cent of annual Australian uranium exports go to Japan - one-fifth of that country’s requirements. Among other destinations for Australian uranium are the US, United Kingdom, France, Finland, South Korea and Taiwan.
According to figures from the trade department, these exports generated some $679 million Australian dollars in revenue in 2009 - just 0.7 per cent of the total earned by Australia's booming minerals and fuels export sector.
But uranium's small contribution - relative to coal and iron ore - of export earnings could grow if global interest in nuclear power continues along the prevalent trend prior to the Japan crisis.
The IAEA expects that 70 per cent of the growth in global energy requirements by 2030 will come from developing nations - with China and India at the forefront.
Australia signed a safeguards agreement with China in 2006 and began sending uranium there in 2009. An AUA spokesperson said that export levels to China are "very much" expected to grow.
There remains debate here over whether to supply India, a non-signatory to the NPT, with uranium for its nuclear power stations. A deal to do so was struck by the conservative government of John Howard in 2007 but was reversed when the Australian Labour Party, which remains in office, came to power later that year.
Despite the crisis in Japan, Australia remains keen to capitalise on its resource, although considerable opposition exists from environmentalists and others concerned about the dangers of nuclear energy.
Besides the revenue generated, the AUA argues that billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided if the industry was allowed to expand to its full potential.
Around 40 per cent of the globe's recoverable uranium is in Australia, with the single biggest deposit in the world contained at the Olympic Dam site in South Australia state. BHP Billiton, which fully owns Olympic Dam and which sent a 1 million dollar donation to the Red Cross to assist with disaster relief in Japan, is currently exploring expansion opportunities at the mine.
But exploration and mining of uranium is currently only permitted in three of Australia’s eight states and territories. The Uranium Industry Framework, a joint industry-government partnership, was established in 2005 to help develop the industry and take advantage of increasing global demand.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has made clear that her government’s position regarding the export of uranium has not been altered by radiation escaping from Japan’s stricken power station.
"What is happening in Japan doesn’t have any impact on my thinking about uranium exports from this country," said Gillard, "We do export uranium and we will continue to export uranium."
Uranium industry officials have also expressed similar sentiments. Speaking at a uranium conference held in the southern city of Adelaide last week, Michael Angwin, chief executive officer of the AUA, said that the factors which motivate countries to use nuclear power remain unaffected by events in Japan. "Countries turn to nuclear energy because they wish to improve their energy security and expand their electricity generating capacity in a way that does not increase their carbon emissions. That remains the case today."
A version of this story first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.