June 2006

The Nation Reviewed

A nuclear El Dorado

By James Kirby

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Silex Systems: it sounds like the name of a computer-chip maker, or perhaps a manufacturer of silicon breast implants, but it’s actually a stock-market company in the high-stakes business of uranium enrichment. Silex is one of the few stocks in Australia’s racy uranium sector that might end up producing something of real value. The company is working on a new form of uranium-enrichment technology that could greatly reduce the price of nuclear materials.

Many Australian uranium explorers will never find anything, and even if they do, they might never be allowed to mine it: the federal government still runs a ‘three mines’ policy. But Silex is not an explorer; it’s a tech company, which explains why its stock price has more than doubled since the end of last year. It’s not yet clear whether the Silex technology really works, but earlier this year the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, signed off on the company becoming an approved supplier to the US nuclear sector.

Australian uranium stocks are high because the country has 40% of the world’s known uranium reserves; 30% of the world’s reserves are held by one Australian company, BHP. In other words, we’re sitting on the nuclear-age equivalent of El Dorado. And with uranium commodity prices increasing fourfold in the last three years, the sector is starting to show strong parallels with the late phase of the dotcom boom. Toro Energy, a uranium company, began life on the stock market in March at 25 cents a share. Its share price shot to $1.41 soon afterwards. Uranium-linked floats are the most common of all categories of new listings on the stock market – though history suggests most of these companies are unlikely ever to mine anything – and in mid-May we finally saw my favourite signal of a raging-bull market, the academics jumping in: the Australian National University is developing a master’s degree in nuclear science.

Uranium prices are rising fast because nuclear power is being chosen more often as an industrial-strength alternative to coal and oil. The US, Japan and France – the world’s three great consumers of nuclear power – are set to be joined by China, which is planning to build 30 new nuclear power stations by 2020. Moreover, resistance to nuclear energy is softening. Alarmed by the prospect of climate change, leading scientific figures are changing their line, notably James Lovelock, the legendary British radical scientist, and Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace, who both now say nuclear power is an acceptable alternative energy.

Twenty years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, my local Friends of the Earth bookshop keeps up its supply of anti-uranium leaflets, but the protesters are no longer on the streets. My free copy of the Chernobyl Times says the UN has reported that three million children in the former Soviet Union still require medical treatment because of Chernobyl; then again, pro-nuclear economists can quote the UN’s suggestion that there is “no evidence of a major public health impact” in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident. Everyone exaggerates. But it’s the shift in attitudes towards nuclear power among people such as Lovelock and Moore that has dramatically altered the uranium debate. Despairing of wind power, wave power and all the other alternatives, Lovelock says nuclear power is “our last spark of hope”. Nuclear power is emission-free: provided power stations do not blow up, collapse, or get damaged by a bomb or an earthquake, they offer the cleanest substantial source of alternative energy.

While pro-nuclear environmentalists have been gaining credibility, ethical-investment committees have made the pragmatic and profitable decision to reclassify uranium mining as ‘pro-green’, investing money in uranium-mining companies such as BHP Billiton. In fact, BHP is the single biggest holding for Australia’s two largest ethical-investment funds, BT and AMP. Fund managers – and ethical-fund managers especially – like BHP because, in contrast to the speculative minnows that may never succeed, the world’s leading miner already has the game wrapped up. BHP’s uranium operations are centred on the enormous Olympic Dam mine in South Australia, one of the federal government’s three mines (the other two are Beverley, also in South Australia, and Ranger, in the Northern Territory, both of which are controlled by multinationals).

Here we are in mid-2006, a non-nuclear nation that mines uranium, enriches uranium, invests in uranium – Silex got a START grant from the federal government – and exports uranium to 26 countries, including China. It’s no wonder that John Howard and Kim Beazley are both suggesting that it is time to review the three mines policy. But BHP, sitting pretty on the inside, is not waiting around for a change in the rules. On 4 May, the company’s base metals division offered fresh confirmation that it is planning to double production at the Olympic Dam site. Meanwhile, uranium prices continue to rise.

It’s a terrible choice: overheat the world with fossil fuels like coal and oil, or rescue it with nuclear power, which is emission-free but comes with the risk of another Chernobyl. Sometime, far in the future, the other alternative energies may attract widespread interest, but for now, the global uranium industry will reap the benefits of increasingly powerful support for nuclear power. Earlier this year, just as tension was growing about Iran’s nuclear capabilities, Massoumeh Ebtekar, the former head of the Iranian department of environment, picked up a Champion of the Earth award from the UN. Ebtekar told reporters that the Iranian government, which has been working on nuclear energy programs since the ’60s, is convinced that nuclear power is a clean alternative to fossil fuels. Maybe she should buy some Silex shares.

James Kirby
James Kirby is a financial journalist. He is the author of the book series Business Secrets, and the managing editor of the online Business Spectator and the Eureka Report.

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