Uranium exports to countries like China will underpin a planned expansion at BHP Billiton Ltd/Plc's (BHP.AX: Quote) (BLT.L: Quote) giant Olympic Dam mine in Australia, the world's largest known uranium deposit, the miner said on Friday.
Presenting the environmental impact statement for its plans to expand the mine, BHP said the expansion could lift uranium oxide output to up to 19,000 tonnes a year from 4,500.
Exporting uranium to new customers like China will be an integral part of creating value from the Olympic Dam ore body, said Dean Dalla Valle, chief operating officer for the company's Uranium Australia unit.
We can do this with confidence because China is subject to the same strict safeguards arrangements as all of our other customers, he said.
Australia's uranium industry has been hamstrung since the early 1980s by political hostility to the nuclear fuel, but long-standing bans on new mines by various state governments are gradually being lifted in the face of economic crisis.
The national government is also encouraging more uranium mining and courting new export business in China.
BHP, facing downturns in its major markets as the crisis bites, has cut 200 jobs at Olympic Dam as part of some 6,000 cuts worldwide as it battles falling commodities prices and demand.
It did not give any details on Friday on the timing of the planned expansion of Olympic Dam, or the cost.
We still have a lot of work to do before we can tell you when this project may start and how much it may cost, Dalla Valle said.
Some analysts have suggested the expansion could cost as much as $20 billion.
With no nuclear power industry of its own but sitting on the world's single largest source, Australia sells all its uranium overseas, making Australia the world's second-largest supplier behind Canada.
Russia and India have also expressed strong interest in buying Australian uranium to fuel nuclear power plants.
There will be 14 weeks allowed for public comment on the environmental impact statement, after which a revised statement will be produced. (Writing by Jonathan Standing; editing by Mark Bendeich)
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