Did rivals try to scupper BHP's uranium sale to Cameco?

The West Australian reports rumours have been circulating in the state's mining community that Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO) and Paladin Energy (TSX:PDN) attempted to sabotage BHP Billiton's (LON:BHP) $448 million sale of uranium property Yeelirrie to Canada's Cameco (TSX:CCO).

Unconfirmed reports have Rio and Paladin make separate submissions to the Foreign Investment Review Board, a federal government agency, to block the August 2012 transaction which let WA's largest uranium deposit fall into foreign hands.

Cameco is the world's number one producer of the nuclear fuel. This kind of transaction is interdicted in Canada which decrees uranium mines must be majority owned by local firms and BHP's rivals had good reasons not to want the sale:

"Rio and Paladin both have assets in Canada. Under BHP’s ownership, Yeelirrie was all but mothballed. But Cameco is expected to push ahead with Yeelirrie’s development, which could have an impact on other producers because of the already weak uranium market."

The paper said Rio denied the rumours while none of the other parties commented, and that the deal is likely to be OK'd in any event.

Spot uranium prices have been drifting towards the $40 per pound level this year – well below the $66.50 prior to Fukushima disaster in Japan and down from historic high levels above $130 in 2007.

Last year nuclear power consumption declined 4.3%, the largest drop-off on record, said BP in its annual study of global energy use. Japan cut back nuclear power by 44.3%, and Germany reduced nuclear consumption by 23.2%.

Image of unidentified sailors on HMAS Perth from the Australian War Memorial's collection