Enriching the uranium debate

The uranium industry has exploded with debate and controversy about the enrichment, export and safety of nuclear energy and whether it is economically and politically viable as an export or a power source for Australia.

Penny Wong recently warned South Australia against becoming involved in nuclear enrichment.

The senior federal South Australian Minister and former climate change minister told ABC radio that enriching uranium or having power stations is “not the sort of vision I want for South Australia.”

The comments came after Mines Minister Tom Koutsantonis and former Treasurer Kevin Foley called for the expansion of Australia’s nuclear industry.

The massive, BHP-owned Olympic Dam is located in South Australia, and Koutsantonis said he would be in favour of the government supporting the uranium sector and will argue for a greater emphasis on nuclear power in Australia.

“We’re going to have to start enriching uranium in South Australia, whether that’s in the next 10 years, the next 20 years or the next 50 years, I don’t know,” he said.

“The old adage of digging something out of the ground and sending it offshore has got to change.

BHP would not comment on the uranium market when contacted by Australian Mining, but did provide some details on the expansion of its Olympic Dam project.

BHP expects production of uranium oxide from the upgrade to increase by 14 500 tonnes per annum to 19 000.

The site also produces copper, gold and silver which would all increase dramatically in production under the proposed expansion.

A BHP spokesperson told Australian Mining the community concerns over the changes have been taken into consideration by the company.

“In December 2010 BHP submitted for government review the final draft of the Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the expansion of Olympic Dam.

“An adequacy test will now be completed by the Commonwealth, South Australian and Northern Territory Governments to ensure the SEIS meets their stringent requirements,” the spokesperson said.

“The SEIS addresses the environmental, social, cultural and economic issues raised by the individuals, groups and organisations who contributed more than 4 000 submissions on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

“The DEIS was open to the public for feedback for a 14 week period from 1 May 2009 to 7 August 2009.

When could uranium be enriched in Australia?

Experts and lobbyists have said it could be some time, if ever, before a uranium enrichment industry is a possibility in Australia.

South Australian Premier Mike Rann has been consistently opposed to nuclear power stations and any nuclear enrichment industry.

Wong said while she disagrees with Koutsantonis’ views on uranium enrichment, she does believe he is asking the right questions about South Australia, in terms of its future and the standard of living.
"But nuclear enrichment is not the way to go," she said.

"We don’t need nuclear power in this country where we have an abundance of renewable energy resources,” she said.

"This is not the sort of vision we need for this state."

Wong said the federal government has made its position on the nuclear industry clear and it was also clear in opposing any expansion of the nuclear industry.

She said solar and wind powered energy should be considered, as should the potential for geothermal energy.

“We do have these resources and we should use them,” she said.
“We have an underinvestment in the energy sector.”

Wong said the government is continually looking at ways to progress with the resource industry.

“The transition of the energy sector is one of the policy areas that the government and Climate Change and Energy Minister Greg Combet will work through,” she said.

Mines Minister Koutsantonis would not advocate using nuclear power in Australia, but has called for a uranium enrichment plant in South Australia.

He said the community should “passionately support the uranium industry”, while Foley believes “Australia should embrace nuclear power.”

Both ministers said the government should welcome debate on the issue, rather than being scared by it, but South Australian Premier Mike Rann says he will not be drawn on the issues.

Should politicians decide?

Professor Stephen Grano, director of the Institute for Mining and Energy Resources at the University of Adelaide told Australian Mining the debate about nuclear energy is not one exclusively for politicians, but rather should be determined by the industry, importers and investors.

“Why should there be a political debate and not a debate on the benefits?” he asked.

“It’s not only political, it’s economic.

“If a company can see value in enriching uranium at the source through value adding, it will be under our conditions of energy supply costs, our conditions of capital and human costs, our conditions of transport, relative to their enrichment plants already operating overseas.”

Grano sees a future for the Australian uranium market in export, but says enriching uranium for local consumption would not make sense because more energy could be exported in uranium than would be used locally.

Breaking down uranium

“Basically, uranium occurs naturally as Uranium 235 and Uranium 238, and they’re both uranium but they have different amounts of neutrons,” he told Australian Mining.

“They’re both radioactive to a degree but not dangerous with normal exposure.

“In yellowcake, which is what we export, there is less that one per cent Uranium 235 which is the uranium you want for nuclear reactions so they have to enrich it overseas.”

He explained that through conversion and enrichment the value of the product is more than doubled but it is a complex chemical and physical process involving a number of stages.

“There’s lots of energy involved and it takes many stages and steps, but if you’ve got the facilities it is very easy to convert it to weapon grade and I believe that is the biggest concern,” Grano said.

Uranium enrichment in Australia is opposed by both the ALP’s national platform, federal government policies and the Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has played down possibilities of the ALP altering its stance on the issues.

In its April/May journal South Australia Mines and Energy chief executive Jason Kuchel supported the suggestion of a nuclear debate and said nuclear energy is “an important part of meeting our power requirements into the future.”

Fukushima’s effects

In the wake of the earthquake in Japan, nuclear energy is at the forefront of most people’s minds right now as the world is looking for ways to generate baseload electricity with minimal greenhouse gas emissions.

A report by Resource Capital Research (RCR) states that of the 13 reactors on Japan’s northern coast impacted by the quake and tsunami, those that completely failed were the oldest, which were constructed before 1980.

Of the four that were impacted, at least three will remain closed permanently, the report says, and restarting the other reactors which shut down automatically when the quake hit will be delayed due to damage to related facilities and infrastructure.

It goes on to say that Japan has 55 nuclear reactors with annual uranium consumption of between 12 and 13 per cent of the global uranium demand, at 21.3mlbs.

Following the decision to shut down the older reactors due to the risk associated with further weather incidents, Germany has indicated it will temporarily shut down its reactors that were commissioned prior to 1980 to undertake a safety review.

This will mean a temporary shut down of seven of its reactors, a fair chunk of its total of 17.

Germany will not be the only country to impose such measures, with nuclear fleets around the world expected to undertake reviews, which will most likely lead to closure – some temporary and some permanent – if safety upgrades, or backfits are needed.

At this stage, Germany is the only country expected to experience extended shut down delays, but with a quarter of the world’s reactors over 30 years old, others may face the same situation.

The RCR report cites a former US NRC Commissioner, Victor Glinsky, who stated that older reactors have been built to lower safety standards than required in the modern world and that the fundamental approach of regulators to nuclear safety will need to be examined, “with a view to taking a stricter approach to enforcement.

Where older plans in the US are concerned, Glinksy said the NRC “must enforce up-to-date safety standards more forcefully” reflecting his view that the nuclear regulators have been “overly accommodating to the industry they supervise.”

Nuclear fears

Grano told Australian Mining while he understands the concerns of people about nuclear energy, there are regulations in place to prevent it being used for destruction.

“There is the potential for people to use it for weapons and terrorist activities, if you have the know how and equipment, so it is highly regulated for that reason.

The issue with uranium is not only focused on its potential for weapons of mass destruction, but also with the possible contamination of surrounding areas where it is mined.

Energy Resources Australia’s (ERA) Ranger mine, partly in the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory has halted operations since January and is under pressure from the Aboriginal community to remain closed..

ERA currently produces about 10 per cent of the world’s uranium, but the Mirrar people who own the section of the Kakadu National Park that includes the company’s Ranger mine wants to stop mining.
The mining company suspended operations due to the wet weather, with the mine’s tailings dam near capacity.

It has operated on a lease inside Kakadu for 30 years, and joins other companies fighting battles over land rights.

The ABC reported that just days prior to ERA’s annual general meeting, a scientist previously employed by the company revealed contaminated water leaking from the mine into nearby waterways is a possibility.

During a public forum in Darwin, Mirarr woman Yvonne Margarula, the senior traditional owner of the mine site said the Indigenous community remains opposed to mining, and pointed towards the risk of unsatisfactory water management and possible downstream environmental damage as part of the reason they are against ERA continuing at Ranger.

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