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Australian uranium miner goes bust ‒ so who cleans up its mess in Africa?

By Morgan Somerville and Jim Green - posted Wednesday, 8 November 2017


Perth-based uranium mining company Paladin Energy was put into administration in July and the company is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Critics of the uranium industry won't miss the company if it disappears. Other uranium mining companies won't miss Paladin; in an overcrowded market, they will be pleased to have less competition.

But the looming bankruptcy does pose one major problem. Paladin's Kayelekera uranium mine in Malawi, the 'warm heart of Africa', needs to be rehabilitated and Paladin hasn't set aside nearly enough money for the job.

Under the leadership of founder and CEO John Borshoff, described as the grandfather of Australian uranium, Paladin has operated two uranium mines over the past decade. The Langer Heinrich mine in Namibia was opened in 2007, and Kayelekera in 2009.

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They were heady days ‒ there was an endless talk about a nuclear power 'renaissance' and the uranium price tripled between June 2006 and June 2007. The Australian Financial Review reflected on Paladin's glory days: "John Borshoff was once one of Western Australia's wealthiest businessmen. The founder of Perth-based Paladin Energy developed an enviable portfolio of African uranium mines supposed to satiate booming global demand for yellowcake. When the company's Langer Heinrich mine began shipments in March 2007, as the spot price for uranium eclipsed $US100 per pound, Paladin was worth more than $4 billion."

Paladin was once the best-­performed stock in the world according to The Australian newspaper. The company's share price went from one cent in 2003 to A$10.80 in 2007. Borshoff made his debut on the Business Review Weekly's 'Rich 200' list in 2007 with estimated wealth of A$205 million.

But the good times didn't last. The uranium bubble burst in mid-2007, and the Fukushima disaster in 2011 ensured that there would be no nuclear power renaissance and that the uranium industry would remain depressed for years to come. Borshoff left Paladin in 2015, and in 2016 Paladin's new CEO Alexander Molyneux said that "it has never been a worse time for uranium miners".

The loss-making Kayelekera mine in Malawi was put into care-and-maintenance in July 2014, leaving Paladin with the modest Langer Heinrich mine plus a number of projects the company describesas 'nonproducing assets' (such as uranium projects in jurisdictions that ban uranium mining). Paladin was put into administration in July this year, unable to pay its debts. Even if Paladin sold its 75% stake in Langer Heinrich, its only revenue-raising project, it couldn't repay all its debts.

Administrators from KPMG are attempting to sort out the mess and bondholders are reportedly being asked to fund a recapitalisation of Paladin. Bankruptcy would seem a much more likely option given the weakness of the company and the weakness of the global uranium market.

Paladin has said that a uranium price of about US$75 per pound would be required for Kayelekera to become economically viable ‒ almost four times the current uranium spot price, and well over twice the current long-term contract price. Even if the uranium price did rebound, Kayelekera would operate for only around four years; it isn't a large deposit.

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The likelihood of uranium prices reaching US$75 in the foreseeable future is near-zero. John Borshoff said in 2013 that the uranium industry "is definitely in crisis ... and is showing all the symptoms of a mid-term paralysis". Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd said in May 2014 that the industry is set for "a long period of relatively low prices, in which uranium producers will find it hard to make a living". Nick Carter from Ux Consulting said in April 2016 that he did not anticipate a uranium supply deficit until the late 2020s. Other industry insiders and market analysts have made similar comments about the bleak future for uranium ‒ and the bondholders being asked to recapitalise Paladin would surely know that their money would be better invested in a long-shot at Flemington.

Who cleans up Kayelekera?

Assuming Paladin goes bankrupt, who cleans up the Kayelekera open-pit uranium mine? The company was required to lodge a US$10 million Environmental Performance Bond with Malawian banks, and presumably that money can be tapped to rehabilitate Kayelekera. But US$10 million won't scratch the surface. According to a Malawian NGO, the rehabilitation cost is estimated at US$100 million ‒ ten times the amount set aside by Paladin. The cost of rehabilitating the Ranger uranium in the Northern Territory ‒ also an open-pit uranium mine, albeit larger than Kayelekera ‒ is estimated at just under US$500 million.

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About the Authors

Morgan Somerville is an International Relations student at La Trobe University.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. His PhD thesis dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debate over the replacement of its nuclear research reactor.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Morgan Somerville
All articles by Jim Green

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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