SYDNEY Dec 18 Australia suffered a further
setback on Tuesday in efforts to become a greater supplier of
uranium to the world's nuclear power sector after the government
postponed a decision on development of the country's first new
mine in half a decade.
Toro Energy, which has been seeking approval to
exploit its Wiluna uranium deposit in Western Australia state,
said it was informed only hours before it was anticipating a
final go-ahead from Environment Minister Tony Burke that it
could take another three months before a decision was made.
Australia has no nuclear power plants of its own, but holds
40 percent of the world's known reserves of uranium. It is the
world's third largest exporter of yellowcake for peaceful
purposes behind Kazakhstan and Canada.
The federal government last gave its approval for a new mine
in 2008. That mine, majority-owned by Canada's Uranium One
, is only now being commissioned
Western Australia lifted a ban on uranium mining in 2008 but
to date, no mines are in operation, with all the mining
occurring in neighbouring South Australia state and Northern
This year, BHP Billiton postponed indefinitely its
plans to unearth an additional 15,000 tonnes of uranium oxide
annually from its Olympic Dam site, citing high costs and an
uncertain outlook for commodities.
"Today, on the final day for a decision, Toro has been
advised that the minister does in fact want more information on
some specific aspects of the project and that the time for his
decision has been extended to March 13, 2013," Toro Managing
Director Greg Hall told Reuters by telephone from his
headquarters in Adelaide
"We're surprised and extremely disappointed with this
further delay," he said.
A spokeswomen in the minister's office confirmed it could be
the end of March before a ruling is made but declined to provide
more details on why more time was required.
Australia has been seeking new customers for its uranium,
most of which is sold to nuclear power plant companies in
Europe. It has approved sales to China, but is not believed to
have shipped any material there.
The Australian state of Queensland in October lifted a
23-year ban on mining uranium, following a push by Prime
Minister Julia Gillard to reach an accord to export supplies to
Australia, which mined 7,529 tonnes of uranium in fiscal
2011/12, according to government figures, has until now refused
to sell nuclear material to India because it is not a signatory
of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Uranium prices collapsed after Japan's Fukushima nuclear
disaster in March 2011 led to the shut down of Japan's nuclear
power plants. Uranium sells for less than $45 a pound , compared with the February 2011 average spot
price of $69.63.
Suppliers are counting on Japan switching at least some of
its 50 nuclear reactors back on following last weekend's
election victory for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
The LDP campaigned on a need to return to nuclear power to
combat rising domestic energy costs tied to oil and coal.
Under the LDP, market expectations are for 10 to 15 reactors
to restart by late 2013. They would be the newest reactors in
the most secure locations.
The offline reactors had accounted for roughly 11 percent of
world demand for uranium, equivalent to 164 million pounds.
Hall said Toro has been in talks with potential investors to
help fund about two-thirds of the estimated A$269 million cost
of the Wiluna mine, though any investment decision would not be
made until the government's decision is clear.