Courtesy BHP
BHP's Olympic Dam uranium mine is the largest uranium-ore extraction operation in Australia.

An Australian Royal Commission has issued a report that almost 50 companies are exploring for uranium deposits throughout the country. After almost a decade of dwindling activity, the uptick has heartened the construction industry, which would build the supporting infrastructure.

More than 230 nuclear reactors worldwide are either under construction or in the planning stages, helping to fuel demand for uranium. Another 200 nuclear powerplants are due for decommissioning and, the industry hopes, replacement during the next 25 years, the commission says.

The new-found optimism follows a depressed market for uranium since its peak in 2007, before the global recession hit.

South Australia is home to about 80% of Australia's known uranium reserves, and the country itself is the world’s biggest exporter. Formerly averse to building domestic nuclear powerplants, Australia in recent years has signaled a change in direction; many Australians now see nuclear power as a means to reduce dependency on coal and help cut carbon emissions. An inquiry into whether the country should expand into nuclear power, uranium enrichment and waste storage is currently underway, lead by Kevin Scarce, a former South Australian governor.

The issue paper gives more specific details about the questions Scarce is attempting to answer on the exploration, extraction and milling of uranium and other radioactive materials in Australia. Three other issue papers will be released over the next few weeks: one on the further processing and manufacture of radioactive fuels, another on electricity generation and the last on the management, storage and disposal of nuclear waste.

BHP Billiton operates the Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine in the north of the state, which hosts the largest known deposit of uranium in the world. There is speculation that BHP’s plans to expand the mine, shelved three years ago, could be resuscitated.

It has not been a good period for Australia's mining companies, which have shed jobs by the thousands, with 50,000 workers losing their jobs in the past 12 months. Australian Bureau of Statistics' figures suggest that, while the overall mining construction boom is past its peak, uranium mining is set for a return. The big construction companies are hopeful.

Australian uranium mining began in 1954. Today, three mines are operating. Australia's known uranium resources are the world's largest, accounting for 31% of the total. In 2014, Australia produced 5,897 tonnes of uranium oxide, all for export. It is the world's third-ranking producer, behind Kazakhstan and Canada.

Uranium producers have fared badly in the past five years, however, as the spot price has declined by 50%.

Nuclear power capacity worldwide is increasing steadily, with more than 60 reactors under construction in 13 countries. Most reactors on order or planned are in the Asia region, though the U.S. has two plants under construction. Significant further capacity is being created by plant upgrading. In addition, plant life-extention programs are maintaining capacity, particularly in the U.S. Russian nuclear power plans are ambitious.

Following the Fukushima accident in Japan in March 2011, the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook scaled back its forecast for nuclear capacity growth, to 60% by 2035, down from about 90% the year before. Yet it stated: "Although the prospects for nuclear power in the New Policies Scenario are weaker in some regions than in [WEO 2010] projections, nuclear power continues to play an important role, providing base-load electricity.” Most non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries and many OECD countries, it said, are expected to press ahead with plans to install additional nuclear powerplants, though there may be short-term delays as the safety standards of existing and new plants are reviewed.

Globally, the IEA projects new nuclear power capacity to rise to 630 GW in 2035 from 393 GW in 2009. In this scenario, the IEA expects the share of coal in total electricity to drop to 33% in 2035 from 41% now. Electricity generation is expected to increase to 36 trillion kWh from 20 trillion kWh.

Five years after the Fukushima meltdown, uranium is enjoying something of a tentative comeback, and Japan approved the restarting of two idled reactors. The spot price reacted quickly. “The uranium price itself just jumped $5 mainly due to Japanese reactor restarts,” says Gennen McDowall, non-executive chairman of Northern Uranium. “Whether or not this will translate to more financing remains to be seen, but at least we are going in the right direction.” There are signs that growth in demand will pick up, and the remaining mines will come under pressure to fill customers’ needs.

Elsewhere, China now has 24 reactors in operation, 25 under construction and more still in the planning stage. India, too, has a flourishing and largely indigenous nuclear-power program and expects to have 14,600 MW of nuclear capacity on line by 2020. It aims to supply 25 percent of electricity from nuclear power by 2050, according to the World Nuclear Association.