6 Mar 2013

WA Should Leave Its Uranium In The Ground

By Dave Sweeney
The uranium industry promises big and delivers little. So why is the WA Liberal Government set to greenlight the state's first uranium mine? Voters in the upcoming state election should be wary, writes Dave Sweeney
There is a lot of talk about debt in the current WA state election campaign.

Labor talks of the growing level of state debt and the burden on taxpayers while the Coalition maintains that it is necessary to borrow in order to build. Debt is an obligation, a liability, something that is owed — now and into the future.

But neither major party is talking about another form of debt — one that would effectively forever shackle West Australian communities and our unique environment and lifestyle.

In 2012 the state Legislative Council moved to bring WA into line with the regulatory practice required at the controversial Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu and passed a resolution calling for mines wastes from any future West Australian uranium mine to be isolated from people and the wider environment for 10,000 years. The resolution provides industry guidance but is not yet a mandated requirement. Critics of the uranium trade believe that this is essential.

Unsurprisingly the industry's promotional body, the Australian Uranium Association, is lobbying to avoid any effective industry constraints

The 10,000 year standard is no silver bullet for radioactive waste. It is hard to monitor and enforce. After all, who does a community call should things go badly wrong in 200 years? Ten thousand years — over 50 times the period since Perth's foundation. Still the standard is an important acknowledgement of the severity and longevity of the risks posed by radioactive mine waste and sends a clear signal to waste producers.

Toro Energy — a small and unproven uranium company — is seeking to open WA's first uranium mine near Wiluna in the East Murchison region, around 600 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie. Toro has no proven corporate mining experience, and their costly and controversial project and is facing strong community, political and civil society opposition.

Toro Energy's major shareholder, OZ Minerals, has described Toro as "a tiny company" and a "non-core asset" and Toro is facing severe financial constraints.

The proposed Wiluna uranium mine is on the Lake Way arid zone lake system which includes mulga and acacia shrub land and sand dunes and spinifex plains. It is also home to a number of unique and endemic groundwater dependent plants and animals.

Despite attracting over 2000 formal public objections, state government support has seen the mine fast tracked through the state environmental approval process. Even so, Toro's hopes to have the project approved ahead of the state election have now stalled. Federal environment Minister Tony Burke has extended his decision-making time and requested further information on how the mine would impact on precious regional water resources and manage its radioactive mine wastes.

Given the clear policy difference between the two major political parties on whether the uranium trade has any place in the West, this lack of full and final state and federal approval means the Toro project is even more vulnerable and uncertain.

WA Labor opposes uranium mining and has committed not to further approve or advance the Toro project if elected on Saturday. The current strongly pro-uranium Liberal-National Mines Minister Norman Moore made this lack of bi-partisan support for the uranium sector clear in the regional Kalgoorlie Miner newspaper earlier this week stating that the Toro project "would not go ahead under a Labor Government".

The uranium issue has not dominated this election campaign but has remained a constant and important under story. Opponents to the trade have been vocal and active — running a targeted series of regional radio ads from the Kimberley to Kalgoorlie, protestors have followed appearances by key LNG politicians and the U word has been routinely raised in set piece debates and community forums.

Like the rest of Australia's uranium sector WA has been hit hard by the market fallout from Fukushima — a continuing nuclear crisis directly fuelled by Australian uranium.

BHP Billiton — the world's biggest miner — has scrapped long-held plans for a massive expansion of the Olympic Dam mine in SA and disbanded its dedicated uranium division. Canadian based Cameco — the world's biggest uranium miner — has shelved development plans and written down the value of its WA uranium projects at Yeelirrie and Kintyre.

These are not good days or good reasons to give a green light to yellowcake.

There are no compelling economic or environmental arguments in favour of uranium mining and its promotion since the 2008 election has been based more on enthusiasm than evidence. There is a need for increased scrutiny of the claims made by Toro Energy and other uranium proponents in WA in light of the decisions by Cameco and BHP Billiton.

The WA Government should examine the fledgling WA uranium sector with as much rigour as BHP Billiton and Cameco do — unproven enthusiasm and corporate self-interest is no reason to open the door to this controversial and contaminating trade in the West.

The Australian uranium sector has long promised much and delivered little to our nation. The employment and economic benefits are small — according to an IBIS economic analysis of Australia's uranium sector post-Fukushima in 2011 it provides around 650 jobs and less than one fifth of one per cent of export revenue — but the industry's risks and toxic legacy are proven and long-lasting.

If WA opens the door to the uranium industry it opens the door to a very hungry beast.

Industry would push for uranium shipments on roads and through ports and pressure would grow on WA to manage and store radioactive wastes. Currently only two Australian ports — Adelaide and Darwin — are licenced to handle uranium shipments. The Federal Government and the uranium industry are seeking to get more ports licensed but the state government is reluctant because of community concern.

This means Toro Energy plans to truck uranium ore from deep inland WA to Darwin — a journey understood to be the longest road transport of radioactive material in the world — involving thousands of kilometres, scores of communities and lots of risks and variables.

At the other end of uranium's industrial process lies radioactive waste. WA currently has a purpose built state waste facility at Mt Walton around 500 kilometres north-east of Perth. Many critics maintain that should WA mine uranium then domestic and international industry pressure will grow for the state to host growing amounts of radioactive waste. Many West Australians retain clear memories of the 1990s plan by Pangea Resources, a consortium of US, UK and Swiss nuclear interests, to open a burial site for high-level international radioactive waste in regional WA.

WA is and will remain a resource rich state and this can continue without uranium mining. Many years ago WA turned off the toxic tap on asbestos mining as the industry damaged lives and lost its social licence. Uranium is the asbestos of the 21st century — a known carcinogen that poses a direct hazard to people and the environment for thousands of years. On a good day uranium becomes high level radioactive waste, on a bad day it fuels Fukushimas and on a very bad day promotes the spread of nuclear weapons.

This is neither desirable nor necessary, because as well as minerals, WA is blessed with extensive renewable energy resources. Renewable energy is the world's fastest growing energy sector and already generates more global electricity every day than nuclear does.

Leaving uranium where it does least harm — in the ground — and building on the WA's manufacturing skills base to be a renewable energy leader would grow local jobs that last and keep the lights and air-con on, and the Geiger counter off. This is a far better legacy than a glowing and growing radioactive debt.

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This user is a New Matilda supporter. GeoffRussell
Posted Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - 17:41

"The Australian uranium sector has long promised much and delivered little to our nation"

I'm more concerned about climate change than "our nation" in particular and Australian uranium generates about 364 terawatt hours of electricity per year which is 364 TWh/yr of clean electricity ... rather more than our entire electricity output of around 250 TWh/yr.

Australian uranium has done 5 times more to offset carbon emissions than Germany with over 80 million people has only managed to do with its 76 TWh/yr of wind+solar in the past two decades. Germany is still producing its electricity at a cost of 460 gm-co2/kwh and still building new coal stations.

And if we had the reactors here? We could easily produce all our electricity cleanly instead of at our current rate of 847 gm-co2/kwh. Just think how many coal mines we could close! The French have been generating electricity for around 80 gm-co2/kwh for two decades.

So the choice is pretty clear. No-nukes and 100% certainty of buggering the climate still further or nuclear power and a fighting chance of stopping the slide.

Posted Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - 17:58

And the waste, Geoff Russell. What about the waste? It is clear there are two ways to bugger up the planet.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. GeoffRussell
Posted Thursday, March 7, 2013 - 17:15

The nuclear industry had answers to the "waste" problem decades ago but the anti-nuclear movement isn't actually interested in solving its favourite problem. Nuclear waste works perfectly well as fuel in particular kinds of reactors ... the same kind that can also dispose of weapons grade plutonium. And again, the anti-nuclear movement doesn't REALLY want to get rid of this plutonium, it just wants to use it to frighten people. Some nuclear engineers have seriously wanted to get rid of weapons grade plutonium so they tackled it decades ago as a technical problem and solved it.


It is possible to dispose of current waste by using it as fuel in what are called fast neutron reactors. These reactors reduce the waste in size and also make it such that you only need to store it for far less time than many of the cathedrals of Europe have stood. As an engineering problem, this is an easy tutorial exercise.

Posted Friday, March 8, 2013 - 11:37









This user is a New Matilda supporter. GeoffRussell
Posted Sunday, March 10, 2013 - 08:22

Sometimes funny answers contain a little truth. Why not thorium?

There's a joke in the nuclear industry that reactors don't use any uranium during the first year of operation, they just burn all the reports they needed to submit to get regulatory approval. You want to get a new reactor type approved? Try it.

Just consider what happened to the Shoreham nuclear reactor.


After Three Mile Island didn't kill or injure anybody, the anti-nuclear movement wanted to make very sure that there would be no more deathless accidents.

Posted Monday, March 11, 2013 - 14:46

Oh, dear. The Poison Pushers, the Killer Energy Pushers are coming out of the swamps.
On ABC RN yesterday some clown spruiking the wonders of Nuclear Power, how 'clean' it is. The whole thing was a farrago of lies and half-truths.
There is only one way to have sustainable, non-polluting Power, and that is by using totally renewable Solar, Solar Thermal, Tidal, Wind, GeoThermal, which leaves NO totally toxic residue that has to be guarded and stored for thousands of years, and shipped and trucked over thousands of klicks in human-made containers to unwanted burial sites. America said NO to storing in the deeps of Yucca Mountain, after billions had been spent preparing it, because no one could guarantee that it would not/could not leak. Pity about Martin Ferguson's pick as an Australian repository in the NT, Muckady Station, no one wants it either.
People in Japan, still suffering as they will for a very long time, from Fukushima, are telling US NOT to send any more Uranium to Japan.
Germany and other places in Europe are saying NO to Nuclear Power, and closing down plants.
So we send the damned stuff to India, which refuses to sign a Non Proliferation Treaty, and are being urged to send it to just about anywhere that will pay us the dollars, such as Indonesia, which is on our doorstep, and is subject to volcanic activity. This is prostitution. Bit like our massive Coal exports. Bloody dangerous to OUR health!