WA Should Leave Its Uranium In The Ground


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.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.