It is not the first time in Australia’s economic history that a prevalent sector reaches its peak and gives way to a rapidly developing new one. However, while the mining and education sectors have apparently hit their peaks and manufacturing continues its decline (as seen by the planned withdrawal of Ford in 2016), there seems to be no replacement underway.
There is another possibility – albeit a controversial one. Could – and should – Australia embrace the manufacture of nuclear fuel?
More specifically, could the fabrication of nuclear fuel elements or fuel rods used in nuclear power generation plants, replace our current export of uranium oxide concentrate – so-called “yellowcake”?
Australia exports nuclear fuel anyway. It is just the matter of doing it smarter and safer, adding more value to Australia’s product before it leaves our shores, while creating more jobs for Australians and making the world more secure.
What is the reason Australia has not done this so far? Firstly, the countries capable of exporting fuel elements, such as France, historically started their fuel element fabrication industries intending to generate nuclear-based energy for themselves.
Having abundant and easy to mine coal deposits, Australia did not have to bother about the nuclear industry. Secondly and more importantly, the nuclear industry is strictly (and rightfully) regulated. Even mining uranium ore is a very controversial and politically charged matter.
To start producing fuel elements, a company must lobby federal and state governments; while for governments a huge task would be to face hostile anti-nuclear public opinion. Therefore, a vision and leadership is needed from the governments' side to support any commercial interest in this industry.
Potential market capacity
Most of the yellowcake used for power generation worldwide is produced by 17 nations. Australia is the third largest producer after Kazakhstan and Canada and meets about 20% of the world demand.
Of the producers – Canada, the United States, Germany and France – Australia is the only developed nation producing yellowcake that does not fabricate fuel rods. However, Germany and France produce only miniscule amounts of yellowcake and import considerable amounts of it for their domestic production of rods.
Among growing energy markets, the largest – in absolute terms – potential growth of nuclear energy sectors is expected in India and China.