Industry leaders claim uranium mining held back by fear

Addressing the fear of the uranium industry was the central theme of a uranium conference held in Adelaide last month, with industry leaders speaking out against campaigns that they say have choked the development of industry.

The annual conference was attended by industry professionals, investors and stakeholders who heard from a wide range of speakers about the condition of the sector in Australia.

South Australia is a leader in the extraction of the mineral, with three uranium mines operating in the state. But with community angst still surrounding the development of the uranium in Australia, many say that continued investment in the resource could be strangled.

While Australia is uranium rich, with over 40% of the world’s recoverable uranium, we currently only export 19% of this to the world market.

The Australian Uranium Association (AUA)  predicts that if the uranium industry was able to reach its full potential, exports would increase from 10,000 tonnes a year to 28, 500 tonnes a year. This would equate to between a $14.2 billion to $17.4 billion net value to the Australian GDP. 

Currently the mining of uranium is only allowed in the Northern Territory, South Australia and more recently in Western Australia.

It is estimated that $887 million is made from the export of uranium from these projects, and this will increase if urnaium mining was able to ramp up across the country.

AUA chief executive Michael Angwin said the local industry has been politically choked by fear.

"I think there has been a political fear there will be a public backlash party if there is any support for the uranium industry," Angwin said.

"A lot of this fear has been sparked by non-government organisations running scare campaigns in the media.

"The good thing is the fear is starting to subside and political support has increased, highlighted by our last three prime ministers.

"Politicians have, for the most part, done a pretty good job supporting the industry, and now it’s time to treat uranium as any other commodity, because the safety standards in Australia are among the best in the world."

The South Australian Government has previously made it clear that it openly and actively supports exploration for uranium in the state.

They said they have streamlined project approval processes, improved transparency, and boosted industry and community confidence in regulatory process.

Angwin said that while there have been positive steps made in the industry, more needed to be done.

“There is no point signing international treaties if domestic uranium policies hamper Australia actually fulfilling its treaty obligations,” Angwin said.

“And while we need to align these policies, we should use that impetus to also reform the overweight regulation of and the approvals process for new uranium mines in Australia.”

Angwin said Australians were becoming less fearful as the industry better told its story, adding that best practice regulatory framework meant the industry had proved its ability to satisfy the most rigorous environmental assessments.

“Australian opinion on uranium mining shows a halving in opposition to it  in the past six years with only a small impact from Fukushima but new support coming from the realisation of its jobs, export, and clean energy credentials,” Angwin said.

“In that time we have also seen the Federal Government say “yes” four times for uranium projects – the Beverley expansion, Four Mile, the Olympic Dam expansion and Toro’s new Wiluna mine in Western Australia – so that is telling in how uranium has met and is meeting rigours politically backed environmental assessment.”

Angwin also pointed out public misperceptions regarding radiation incidents – saying that over 2009, 2010 and 2011, there had not been a singular reportable radiation incident at any Australian uranium mine yet there had been more than 100 such incidents each year in the areas of diagnostic radiology, nuclear medicine and radiotherapy.

“Thirty years of monitoring at Roxby Downs and the Olympic Dam village has also demonstrated convincingly that fears of excessive radiation are not borne out by credible data now which shows effective radiation doses to the public at those two sites are below detection limits for all of those two decades," he said.

Angwin said more than 11,000 containers of uranium concentrate have been transported in Australia with no incidents affecting public health and said that uranium needed to be considered like any other commodity.

“We have a track record now in the Australian uranium industry which justifies uranium being treated the same as other mining projects,” Angwin said.

“There is a case for better ports access, a removal of duplication between State and Federal Governments in the assessment processes and some reform is needed for the EPBC act.

“In short, we have entered the political end-game for uranium and any remnant political fears about the industry cannot be justified against the sector’s 40 year track record.”

With uranium supply struggling to meet overseas demands, analysts say uranium’s ‘low-cost emission profile and its ability to produce low-cost power’ will ensure nuclear power generation ‘will continue to play a key role in future global power supply’.

Analysts are also tipping the resurgence of the industry and say demand from India is set to grow.

According to a former Australian Deputy High Commissioner to India, Rakesh Ahuja, the country’s most critical crisis is energy insecurity.

“Australia has two things India needs to allow nuclear energy to fuel its emerging modern day economy and that is secure uranium supply and uranium at far better grades than its own poor quality uranium ore,” Ahuja said

“India’s reserves of uranium are very very modest and its ore quality ranges between 0.03% and 0.06% whereas it needs to be above 0.2% so India does not have uranium options.

“That is why half of its reactors are working at less than 60% optimum capacity simply due to a lack of suitable uranium. The Australian uranium industry has to prepare the ground to be ready to compete with other suppliers, particularly Canada, once the Safeguards Agreement  with India is in place.”

The sale of uranium to India dominated talks when Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited the country last year.

Although India is not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, talks centred around the 22 safe guard agreements around the sale of uranium.

Gillard said the International Atomic Energy Agency would be involved and India would have a protocol with the IAEA in any agreement.

Gillard also pointed out that Australia had negotiated agreements in the past under the proviso "that Australian uranium is only used for peaceful purposes".

Any safeguard agreement is expected to take years to negotiate meaning a final export deal is not expected any time soon.

However the negotiations do not come without controversy. Greens nuclear policy spokesman Scott Ludlam said selling uranium to India would be ‘mistake’.

"I'm extremely concerned that Australian uranium will find itself one way or another fuelling a sub-continental arms race," he said at the time.

Ahuja said Australia needed to value the fact that the international nuclear sanctions imposed on India since 1974 had provided a catalyst for a concerted indigenous development of nuclear power stations and industrial facilities to service military and civilian nuclear establishments..

“As a result, India has one of the world’s most advanced nuclear energy sectors, has a large well trained workforce in the nuclear industry, has mature technological infrastructure and is providing nuclear related services to foreign entities.

“But Australia’s decision to open up uranium sales to India is a game changer and Australia is in the driving seat to harvest millions of dollars in sales.”

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