2 May 2013

Uranium Industry Dreams Of Paydirt

By Jim Green

Uranium industry boosters converged in Adelaide this week. They claim uranium is a good investment - but the fact is, milk and cream deliver more export dollars, writes Jim Green

On Monday, uranium industry boosters gathered in Adelaide for the annual Paydirt Uranium Conference. It's a set piece — the boosters trot out ridiculous claims, sections of the media regurgitate them. Then there are the big nuggets of straight-up industry propaganda, like the Australian Uranium Association's Executive Director Michael Angwin's claim that Australia "has enough reserves to be to uranium what Saudi Arabia is to oil".

Never mind that Australia's uranium export revenue in 2011 was 466 times lower than Saudi oil revenue in the same year. Australia would need to supply global uranium demand 31 times over to match Saudi oil revenue! Others who draw ludicrous comparisons between Australian uranium and Saudi oil include former politicians Mike Rann and Kevin Foley, academics Ian Plimer and Haydon Manning, Access Economics, and Paul Howes from the Australian Workers Union.

A new report released by the Australian Conservation Foundation: Yellowcake Fever: Exposing the Uranium Industry's Economic Myths, shows that uranium accounted for just 0.29 per cent of Australia's export revenue in the 10 years from 2002−2011. In the last financial year, uranium revenue of $607 million was 103 times lower than the biggest earner, iron ore. Milk and cream generate twice as much export revenue as uranium — and can't be turned into Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Uranium export revenue is still more underwhelming given that the four companies mining uranium in Australia are all either majority foreign owned or 100 per cent foreign owned; in other words, a sizeable proportion of that export revenue never leaves the Northern Hemisphere and never comes anywhere near Australia.

By the highest estimate, uranium mining and exploration accounts for 1,760 jobs in Australia — just 0.015 per cent of all jobs. The Australian Uranium Association claims the industry is a "significant employer of First Australians" but in fact it provides just one job for every 3,000 Indigenous Australians.

Uranium mania reached its zenith in the mid-2000s due to a spectacular price bubble which saw the spot price peak at US$138 per pound in June 2007. Since the bubble burst, the uranium industry has been battered as a result of falling prices, the Global Financial Crisis, the failure of the nuclear power "renaissance" to materialise, and serious problems and production shortfalls at Australia's operating uranium mines.

Since March 2011 the fallout from the Fukushima disaster in Japan (a disaster that was directly fuelled by Australian uranium) has compounded the industry's problems. In 2006, The Bulletin magazine spoke of a "radioactive heaven" but by late 2011 The Australian described the sector as passing through Death Valley.

A major constraint is the modest size of the global market for uranium. The value of global uranium demand is around $9.6 billion annually. Even if Australia were the world's sole uranium supplier, uranium revenue would fall short of that from iron ore by a factor of 6.5.

With nine countries producing over 1000 tonnes of uranium annually and 10 countries producing smaller quantities, uranium accounts for a significant fraction of export revenue in just one country — Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan accounted for 36 per cent of global production in 2011, and thus uranium was a significant contributor to the country's modest national economy and export revenue.

Australia has around 31 per cent of the world's known recoverable uranium resources (to US$130/kg). However a majority of that uranium is in one location — BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam mine. Last year the Olympic Dam expansion was cancelled, BHP disbanded its uranium division and sold the Yeelirrie uranium lease in Western Australia for about 11 per cent of the nominal value of the resource.

Also indicative of the state of the industry was Cameco's announcement in February of a $162.5 million write-down on the Kintyre project in Western Australia. Just months after first production at the Honeymoon mine in north-east SA in September 2011, project partner Mitsui announced its decision to withdraw as it "could not foresee sufficient economic return from the project".

In addition to industry propaganda, governments routinely inflate the significance and potential of the uranium industry, as do industry "analysts" (some of them market traders), some business journalists and some academics. There are real-world consequences to uranium mania — many "mum and dad" retail investors have been burned, especially during the speculative price bubble in the mid-2000s.

An independent inquiry is long overdue to objectively weigh the uranium industry's economic benefits against its effects on environmental and public health, safety and security, particularly in the shadow of Fukushima.

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This user is a New Matilda supporter. GeoffRussell
Posted Thursday, May 2, 2013 - 15:42

Do you have a point Jim? Other than to continue ensuring that coal reigns supreme in the absence of any real competition. 

We could use our uranium to provide 100% of our electricity and stop ALL our domestic coal production. We should have done it 20 years ago like France and Sweden. But the anti-nuclear movement prevented this so instead of producing electricity for < 80 gm-co2/kwh like France has been doing for 20 years, we produce ours with coal generating 850 gms-co2/kwh.  No matter, at least somebody else gets to produce clean electricity with our uranium ... even if it isn't us.



This user is a New Matilda supporter. rparker
Posted Thursday, May 2, 2013 - 19:32


Your article makes the case for nuclear power quite brilliantly.

With a total of 1000 tonnes of uranium produced globaly per year we have an industry that still manages to put out around 13% of the worlds power. Australia as you say produces 31% or circa 300 tonnnes and so we account for say 4% of the worlds power. And its environmental footprint is miniscule.

You tell is that this tiny industry has such a massive world benefit in power production and by all accounts its abundance means we won't get stitched up by the big miners.

No wonder your mates in the coal industry and CFMEU hate uranium so much - with nuclear power in Australia they'd have to make an honest living for a change.

Posted Friday, May 3, 2013 - 01:58

I had a niece who died from cancer and she had worked at a uranium mine taking samples to laboratory for testing among other things.  Dr. Helen Caldicott gave a lecture at UWA in which she said the only way to tell if uranium has been active in causing cancer is from a post-mortum - not a diagnosis that one would choose. 

Apart from personal risk to workers and other consequences of uranium mining, it uses and contaminates giga-litres of water every day.  How does this contaminated water then get disposed of? Returned to ground and thereby increasing contamination?   Water is a non-renewable resource if we do not get rain, both above ground and from artesian sources - it is more precious than uranium.  Roxby Downs uses water from the Great Australian Artesian Basin, to my knowledge so as a consequence the water holes used by Aborogines in the Nullabor have already dried up or are in process of drying up.


This user is a New Matilda supporter. rparker
Posted Friday, May 3, 2013 - 12:58


It is no doubt sad for you that your niece has died but on a statistical basis it is most unlikely that her job at a uranium mine was linked to her death.

In this day and age the radiation levels are just too low to make such a case unless of course you have dosimetric measurements that establish elevated radiation levels.

Helen Caldicott's statement regarding a post mortum is a big call and needs to be viewed in the context of the work place dosimetric readings. There is nothing magical in any of this. We all encounter more aggressive carcinogens every day than those found at a uranium mine. For example, the benzine when we fill our car with petrol or the steak we eat or the exotic plasticisers in our lunch wrap.

I question your comment regarding giga litres of water per day - Where did you get this number from - that's millions of cubic metres each day. What for? The ore processing does produce a slurry that discharges to evaporative tailings ponds while the rest of the cycle is a closed circuit. Numbers published by Diesendorf and Mudd indicate values in the millions of litres per day and not giga litres as you suggest. This water evaporates and posses little risk of external contamination and your number is out by three orders of magnitude

This water is a renewable resource and Autralian uranium benefits the world with around 4% of its power so I suggest the water is doing a great job in benefitting mankind with the lowest carbon footprint power source available.

We can't afford to leave uranium in the ground when our earth is crying out for clean low carbon energy so please think a bit about your somewhat angry stance.

Posted Friday, May 3, 2013 - 22:18

Australia has apparently got just as big a load of Thorium as it has Uranium, 

Thorium is said to have a 50 year half life.

Thorium is said to have a comparable energy yeild per nominal mass.

So why aren't we using Thorium?

Thorium is apparently no good for nuclear weapons

Aren't we promoting Nuclear non-proliferation?

So why aren't we using Thorium?

Ken Fabos
Posted Saturday, May 4, 2013 - 08:04

Yes, pre-Fukushima there was a softening of community opposition to nuclear in response to the climate problem - but conservative politics in Australia and elsewhere - didn't strike whilst the iron was hot and  failed to get behind nuclear, preferring to put their efforts towards defending the long term viability of fossil fuels via a broad policy of doubt, denial delay and obstruction of the very policies that would most encourage nuclear. Like steep carbon pricing.

They did not do this because of the perceived unpopularity of nuclear, even if political populism has been a contributing factor; if they believe the problem is truly serious and they really believe nuclear is the only viable solution then anti-nuclear activism would not stop them. Pro-nukers would do better to make a fuss about that conviction within conservative politics that there is no need for nuclear in a nation with abundant fossil fuels than becoming, by default, a bit voice in an anti-environmentalist agenda that has obstruction of real emissions reductions at the top.

The idea that, in the absence of green opposition to nuclear they would drop their obstructionism to climate action and the climate problem would be fixed is nonsense and presumes that conservative politics embracing climate science denial is somehow a consequence of green politics pushing renewables and opposing nuclear. But lots of pro-nukers bought this spin, hook, line and sinker. The reality is they are making their own choices for their own short-sighted reasons and should not be absolved of responsibility by their "look, irrational greenies" diversion when their own position on climate and emissions is far more irrational and irresponsible.

 Climate science denial has contributed more than green politics to keeping nuclear in a hole - because it has become thoroughly entrenched in mainstream conservative politics and prevents it from actually pushing for any genuine emissions reduction solution, nuclear or renewable. It keeps them obstructing solutions, including the nuclear option.

So perhaps we should thank conservative politics for giving renewables a window of opportunity to develop and grow into a genuine option - except that the problem is too important and the harm their obstructionism has done, by hobbling those who seek to act early and decisively, is likely to be immeasurable.

Posted Sunday, May 5, 2013 - 00:09

Here is a link to some interesting up to date arguements for and against thorium, apperently there is concern that uranium 232 which is weapon grade could be covertly produced in the process.

China is already going full steam ahead. 

I also found several links that debate the half life it seems that the debate is raging and there is a lot of debatable "FACTS"

It seems that nothing changes and the NON Proliferation Treaty needs reinforcing big time.


Ben Heard
Posted Tuesday, May 7, 2013 - 11:57

Well, uranium is nothing if not versitile.

When necessary, they are massive corporate bullies, hugely cashed up, with the Government in their pocket, getting a smooth ride through approvals.

Then, they are insignificant economic bit players when that line of argument is a little more fruitful at a given moment.

Or maybe it's just that intractable opponents with no shame and no accountability will say anythying, anytime, against this industry, while the fossil fuel dealers laugh their way to the bank.

Seriously, what a silly piece this is.