Public fallout

Australia has always been famously shy of nuclear power and construction of plants is prohibited to this day.

However, we’ve never been afraid to extol its benefits to others as the world’s third-largest uranium exporter after Canada and Kazakhstan.

Australia has five uranium mines (three operational); four of these, Four Mile, Olympic Dam, Beverley and Honeymoon, are located in South Australia and the other, Ranger, in the Northern Territory.

Following a period of depression the local uranium mining industry has received some good news of late. In December last year, Boss Resources bought out Wattle Mining, attributing 100 per cent ownership of the dormant Honeymoon project with the intent of a restart following construction of an ion exchange plant.

“The culmination of these staged development steps can ensure Honeymoon can operate in the lowest cost quartile of competitive global producers,” said Boss Resources’ managing director Duncan Craib of the acquisition.

“Consolidating our ownership of the Honeymoon uranium project is a significant milestone for the company as it advances the project with the aim of becoming Australia’s next uranium producer in excess of 3.2 million pounds (Mlb) U3O8 per annum.”

The company achieved record high field test leaching from the once-abandoned site, previously in operation from 2011-14.

Likewise, Kazakhstan’s leading uranium miner Kazatomprom also recently announced its intention to lower mining output by 20 per cent over the next three years, with Canadian producer Cameco following suit at its McArthur River mine and Key Lake mill in Saskatchewan, two major industry events that while bad news on one level, is encouraging from the perspective of creating a new Australian bull market. And yet despite this resurgence, a moratorium remains in place.

This curious dichotomy has been a long point of debate, or even contention for some. Late last year at the International Mines and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne, American nuclear power advocate Michael Shellenberger delivered a speech detailing the potential benefits of nuclear energy, telling the audience that Australians needed to get over their hang ups about nuclear power.

Schellenberger, president of clean power research and policy organisation Environmental Progress, defended nuclear power during his presentation as a safe energy option with minimal waste production.

Schellenberger cited nuclear power as a viable energy solution to combat climate change, but that the industry was at risk of becoming a niche technology.

“Whenever I get an invitation to come to Australia I like to come, because it’s such a rich and intelligent country,” he explained, “but it’s just got this one little hang-up about nuclear. So I like to come and talk a little bit about why I think the country needs to get over it a little bit.

“It should be going in the other direction. We should be rapidly expanding our nuclear base in order to combat climate change, but we aren’t.”

Additional high-profile support has come from the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), which, despite recent criticism from some members and industry bodies for a perceived coal push often deemed excessive, has also voiced support for dropping the nuclear power ban.

In its pre-budget 2018–19 federal budget submission, it stated that “nuclear power has the advantage of being able to generate base load electricity with very low CO2 emissions over its life cycle” and that the government should “standardise uranium legislation and regulation across the country, including rules governing the transport and export of uranium”.

Undoubtedly, the shadow of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 resulted in a bad image for nuclear power across the globe, ensuring that fallout didn’t stop at an ecological and geographical level, but on a cultural one as well.

But when it works, it really works. The current poster boy of nuclear energy is undoubtedly France, where over 72 per cent of the country’s energy is generated by nuclear power, though the United States has the largest amount of reactors (99 operational and two more under construction as of October 2017) and energy generation overall, in part on account of its size and population.

South Korea too is a major user of nuclear power, to a greater extent than its confidence-shaken neighbour Japan, though the government is attempting to cut nuclear reliance to 29 per cent by­ 2035.

Nuclear power plants can also be found in many European countries (including the UK), South Africa, Brazil, Taiwan, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia (another huge producer) and Mexico.

In the face of overwhelming developed- and developing-world support for nuclear power it does make Australia look unusually behind the curve in this regard, particularly in left-leaning Victoria, where the government has banned not just nuclear power, but uranium mining entirely, despite the fact the state reaps yellowcake profits from the aforementioned South Australian and Northern Territory mining­ operations.

Nuclear reactors are among the most reliable electricity generators in the world, cheap to operate (though expensive to produce) and arguably the most eco-friendly energy solution available, emitting zero greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, newer plants are less prone to failure than the older plants that led to incidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima, swapping outmoded external electricity systems for pressurised water tanks, natural convection heat exchangers and a bevy of other such passive safety­ systems.

When the local coal industry eventually wanes — and wane it will, though no time soon — it may come time for Aussies to get on board with nuclear power. The first step, after all, is always the scariest.

This article also appears in the March edition of Australian Mining.