A country divided: the complexities of Australia’s uranium mining industry
While Queensland recently took the decision to reinstate a ban on the mining of uranium, Western Australia has done the opposite by repealing a long-standing ban in a move to kick-start the industry. But why such different approaches? We speak to industry representatives and experts to find out more about Australia’s contradictory approach to uranium mining.
Australia has been mining uranium since 1954 and despite having the biggest share of known uranium reserves in the world - 31 % -frequent moratoriums and differing views of state government have created uncertainty for years.
For example, in April this year Western Australia's (WA) state government approved the first new uranium mine since it lifted a six-year, Labour-imposed uranium mining ban in 2008. However, across to the east of the country Queensland's state government announced a reinstatement of a uranium mining ban that had stood in place from 1982 until it was dropped in 2012 by the previous government.
South Australia's state government is taking a different approach altogether and in February announced a Royal Commission review into uranium mining to study the state's possible role in the production of nuclear power in Australia, which currently has none. In New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria uranium mining remains illegal.
Proponents of uranium mining say it can provide jobs, taxes and help build a strong nuclear industry for Australia, while those against it say it is detrimental to the local environment by creating lasting pollution. In particular some indigenous Aboriginal groups have been against uranium mining which they say has degraded scared sites.
A political pawn
Senior lecturer on environmental engineering at Monash University, Victoria, Gavin Mudd, says the different states' approaches to uranium mining - or U mining as it is referred to in Australia - are entirely political.
"State government bans on U mining are political and not based on the reality of the energy debate or the level of environmental risks or impacts associated with renewables or coal or nuclear," Mudd says.
South Australia's economy has lagged behind the rest of the country, but the state's burgeoning mining sector is a cause for optimism.
Queensland, Mudd says, is more influenced by the left side of the Labour movement, which is more environmentally conscious. Similarly, in New South Wales it would be very politically unpopular to remove legislation banning U mining, he adds.
Rob Ryan, a mining consultant who has worked in mineral exploration for many years and led the team that discovered the Ranger One uranium deposit near Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory, agrees that politics, above anything else, determines a state's stance on uranium mining.
For example, Ryan says, the change to a coalition government was the driver of lifting the ban in WA.
"In Queensland," he adds, "The Newman coalition government lifted the ban, lost power after one election...and the Australia Labour Party (ALP), presumably in a bid to keep green votes, put it back."
He adds that, due to the fly-in fly-out model of work, most voters are concentrated in the bigger towns, therefore the country or rural vote counts for little in comparison.
The inconsistent political position of various governments, which "reduce[s] investment confidence and thereby threaten[s] potential jobs and growth", according to the Mineral Council of Australia (MCA), has created a massive divide of opinion in Australia.
Those states that rely more heavily on mining tend to be more accepting of controversial uranium mining, which has been criticised as being very damaging to the environment.
"NSW has very little prospect of uranium discoveries, and Victoria and Tasmania less, so it is not a major issue for them," says Ryan.
"The other states rely more on mining and have more of an acceptance of nuclear matters, and have serious uranium resources."
However, these so-called 'mining states' have shown some opposition to uranium mines, too. The Cameco mine, which has just received environmental approval in WA, has faced opposition from local communities. The Australian Conservation Foundation said more than 2500 people emailed federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt over two days, calling on him not to approve the mine.
Uranium projects in the Northern Territory have also faced opposition. There has been a long campaign to put an end to uranium mining in the unique Kakadu region - Australia's largest national park.
Mudd says that no uranium mine has ever been successfully rehabilitated, with all sites experiencing ongoing issues, ranging from modest problems such as weeds to severe ongoing pollution. For example at Rum Jungle, a former uranium-copper project in the Northern Territories, acid and metals polluted the East Branch of the Finniss River.
Queenland, which holds only around 3% of Australia's uranium reserves, remains divided on the issue, too. Daniel Zavattiero, executive director for uranium at the Minerals Council of Australia, says the main uranium deposits are located in the north-west area of the state and therefore, despite environmental concerns from some, the government should not have banned uranium mining in the whole state.
"This area, around Mount Isa, has long seen the benefits of developing the industry and opposed the reintroduction of the ban on uranium mining," Zavattiero says.
A trade body for miners in New South Wales, Australia, has called for reform to ‘anti-investment’ legislation.
"By banning uranium mining for the whole state, it prevents greater investment in the industry and could send a negative signal to investors in other sectors of the mining industry."
The Queensland Resources Council said in March that "re-imposition of a blanket ban on uranium mining will come as a particular disappointment to the people of north-west Queensland who rightly see uranium mining as a valuable new jobs generator for the region."
However, Mudd doesn't believe that Queensland's moratorium on uranium mining is disappointing or will negatively affect mining investors.
"Any such company knows the politics involved and cannot cry poor - there is always strong community opposition to U mining and nuclear power in Australia... it is simply at a company's risk to get involved or not," says Mudd.
"I don't see any negative impacts of Queensland's ban."
How much real opposition is there?
There also seems to be a lack of agreement over whether there is substantial opposition to uranium mining or not.
In 2014 WA Minister Bill Marmion said opposition to uranium mining and nuclear energy was dwindling. "An increasing number of rational people across the world are seeing nuclear energy, with its low carbon emissions ... as a fundamental part of the response to climate change," he said, adding that he received fewer emails protesting against uranium mining than he used to.
Zavattiero believes that opposition is, in fact, minimal.
"Progress in South Australia, where a Royal Commission is looking at what further potential there is in the nuclear fuel cycle industries, suggests the public accepts uranium mining as a normal part of the industrial landscape," he says.
"This is especially the case once uranium mines are opened up, start employing people, and are operating safely and responsibly in exporting uranium for peaceful use to customers abroad."
The real potential for Australia's mining industry is also up for debate.
Mudd thinks the benefits are, in fact, minimal.
"A very small number of jobs and minor export revenue [are some of the benefits]. But we have earned more export revenue on average over the past decade from cheese exports compared to uranium," he says.
However, Zavattiero disagrees: "Uranium mines generate jobs, mostly in remote areas, and valuable export revenue. Abroad, Australian uranium facilitates much needed low-emissions energy production.
Australia has a legacy of abandoned mines which, due to fragmented initiatives and a lack of funds, are not being rehabilitated.
"In 2013-14, Australia exported over 6700 tonnes valued at over $620m. The Office of the Chief Economist forecasts this to grow to over 9000 tonnes and over $1.2bn by the end of the decade."
Then Minister for Natural Resources and Mines Andrew Cripps, who overturned the Queensland ban in 2012, said the uranium deposits in the state were worth an estimated $10bn.
No sign of cohesion
Using uranium mining as potential vote winner, as is currently the case in Australia, is no doubt going to hold back the industry in Australia and the country's potential for building a whole other industry around nuclear power generation, as Canada has done.
But with so much investment into coal in Australia and the potential for solar it's debatable there will be a push for nuclear anytime soon. And even if there was economic conditions for uranium mining remain of balance.
Confidence for uranium mining has been at a low since 2010. Reports do suggest it could pick up due to new reactors being built in Europe and China and due to the G7 countries' pledge to stop burning fossil fuels by the end of the century. Nuclear could be a replacement fuel.
But still, under current conditions, and the low price of uranium, few new projects are likely to be invested in yet. Chair of the Australian Uranium Council Mark Chalmer has pointed out that although there is more optimism in the industry price is still an issue.
"Prices have started to recover somewhat, but not to the level they need to for increased production in any substantial way."
Proving there is much more than just politics stalling uranium mining in Australia.