Uranium surge leaves Oz with diplomatic dilemma

Soaring oil costs combined with a growing Asian nuclear love affair have combined to push uranium prices through the roof.

Uranium ore and yellowcake could fuel a diplomatic incident as well as Asian power plants

Uranium ore and yellowcake could fuel a diplomatic incident as well as Asian power plants

Australia, home to close to half the world's uranium yet without its own nuclear industry, is well placed to supply the surging markets for the radioactive metal in Indian and China.

Yet the potential political backlash and rock-bottom prices has not always made such a sale an attractive prospect Down Under.

But, according to The Australian national newspaper prices have tripled recently as surplus stocks become depleted and demand continues to rise.

The new rush for yellowcake has industries champing at the bit, calling for the opening up of resource-rich land.

The Australian uranium industry is currently controlled by three major players, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, and General Atomics, each of which operates a single mine in South Australia.

But extensive exploratory work has been carried out in Queensland and the Northern Territories by several other companies, with industrialists pushing government questioning why it is alright to mine in one uranium-rich state, but not in others.

Australian environmentalists opposed to nuclear energy have warned against eyeing up the Indian and Chinese markets.

The point to international agreements that prevent the sale of uranium to those who have not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty or signalled they would be happy to allow independent inspectors to view their reactors.

India refuses to sign the treaty, believing it has the right to be a fully-fledged nuclear power, while China has indicated international inspectors would not be welcome at its sites.

Nevertheless, the potential for profit looks likely to be very tempting and Australia has already held exploratory talks with China and is looking to formalise negotiations in coming months.

Those pushing the plans stress that China adheres to strict guidelines in accounting for its uranium, allowing every ounce to be tracked and ensuring it would be used for non-military purposes.

Selling to China would be no different than trading with any of Australia's 20 or more other customers, they say.

By Sam Bond




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