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Sickness Country: Selling Nuclear to the Neighbours

Earlier this month, Tony Abbott travelled to India to seal the deal on a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement which will allow the sale of uranium to the subcontinent. Australia had previously banned the sale of uranium to India, due to its status as a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Australia has the largest known uranium deposits in the world and is the third largest exporter, behind Kazakhstan and Canada. There are currently only three operational mines in Australia – Ranger (NT), Olympic Dam (SA) and Beverley (SA).

Newman brings back uranium mining in QLD

In October 2012, newly elected Queensland Premier Campbell Newman announced that the long-standing ban on uranium mining in the state would be lifted. The backflip on his pre-election promise not to pursue uranium mining came shortly after PM Julia Gillard pushed to reopen uranium negotiations with India in 2011.

Although not officially banned until 1989, uranium hasn’t been mined in Queensland since 1982 when the Mary Kathleen mine in the state’s north west was closed for rehabilitation. This is the first mine to be reopened, with the government opening up submissions for its development last July.

The reopening of other closed mine sites in the state is expected to follow. According to the State Government, there are more than 80 known sites containing valuable amounts of uranium, the majority in the state’s north west.

Townsville declares itself nuclear free

One of the largest deposits is just 50km south of Townsville at Ben Lomond. Last mined over 30 years ago, it’s being eyed up by mining companies and the Queensland government is ready and waiting for submissions to redevelop the site.

In response, residents of Townsville declared the city nuclear free earlier this year and have been actively campaigning against the reopening of the mine since the ban was lifted.

“It’s hazardous, it’s very high risk, it’s at the top of a water catchment that’s our backup drinking supply. The risks associated with opening Ben Lomond are simply not acceptable.”  – Deputy Mayor and LNP member Vern Veitch.

Despite being located in a cyclone and flood prone area, State Resources and Mines Minister Andrew Cripps sees no grounds for objection against the Ben Lomond mine arguing that “The EIS process will take into account the prevailing environment and weather patterns of the area and they will have to have contingency plans in place to accommodate that environment.”

Global collapse in uranium price

The global uranium price has plunged since its peak in 2007, now sitting at one quarter of the 2007 price. The Fukushima disaster in 2011 and a huge oversupply in the market are cited as the factors behind the slump. Many find Minister Cripps’ claims of the potential for uranium exports to earn billions of dollars for Queensland extraordinary.

“Australian uranium exports make less than two billion a year. The uranium price has been in free fall since 2007, and with governments around the world shutting down nuclear power stations; 150 nuclear power stations in Europe alone are scheduled for closure with no plans to replace them.”  – Greens nuclear policy spokesman Senator Scott Ludlam.

Uranium mining just doesn’t make economic sense for Queensland. As with the rest of the mining sector, we continue to hear the same rhetoric about job creation and economic opportunities. But the reality is that mining employs far less people than the industry and the government would have us believe.

Environmental impacts

Given the Newman government’s poor track record, there is also scepticism about the so-called “robust framework” in place to protect the environment.

Local graziers of the land surrounding Mary Kathleen mine are deeply concerned about the reopening of the mine, fearing contaminated dust will be blown onto their land and groundwater will be impacted. Third generation grazier Ian Campbell said that the mine’s recovery was mismanaged, leaving behind dead, contaminated land.

“They talk about strict standards but that’s a joke – there are none.” – Grazier Ian Campbell

Though the tailings dam was mostly drained and capped with rock, thirty years on the rate of seepage is much faster than predicted. Metal-rich, radioactive waters have made their way into the local drainage system, contaminating the land and killing vegetation next to the mine.

Since the ban was lifted in 2012, many have questioned whether Queensland ports will be used to export the material, potentially through the Great Barrier Reef.

As it stands, there are no licensed ports in Queensland for the export of uranium. Uranium mined in SA and NT is currently exported through the existing licensed ports in Darwin and South Australia, although if Queensland is to resume mining then it’s a safe bet that it will be exported through Queensland ports.

In 2012, the Port of Townsville applied for uranium to be exported through its ports, due to its proximity to Mary Kathleen and Ben Lomond. It described Townsville as a readily equipped gateway to facilitate the transport of yellowcake.

This has been downplayed, although not ruled out by Cripps, saying the option exists but is unlikely as “the process for establishing a licensed port is quite complex and quite costly.”

QLD passes bill to block mining objections

In light of recent environmental victories against mining companies, the Newman government recently passed a bill to remove public objection rights on mining lease applications.

The Mineral and Energy Resources Bill was opposed by an unlikely team – Labor and Katter’s Australia Party – who feel the bill supports large mining companies at the expense of landholders.

“For example, if Ben Lomond Uranium Mine has a development application, landowners downstream, or the Charters Towers community, have no right to object even if uranium leaks into their water supply.” – Katter MP Shane Knuth

Indigenous Australians disproportionately impacted

It is estimated that 70% of the world’s uranium lies on indigenous lands, a situation that is reflected in Australia. Indigenous communities in Australia are disproportionately affected by the social and environmental impacts of uranium mining.

This occurs in a number of ways – bullying tactics used by mining companies, failure to consult Traditional Owners in a meaningful way, destruction of cultural sites and rock art.

The adverse health impacts from exposure to uranium continue to be downplayed by the Australian mining industry who have a history of non-compliance with environmental regulations. In December of last year, 1 million litres of uranium slurry burst its containment tank at Ranger mine in World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park. The same mine has experienced more than 200 spills, leaks and breaches since opening 35 years ago but still continues to operate.

Uranium Pusher of the Pacific

As the so-called ‘Pusher in the Pacific’, does Australia have any ethical obligations when it comes to the export of uranium?

The Japanese PM at the time of the Fukushima disaster recently toured Australia warning politicians and Traditional Owners about the risks of uranium mining. As he reminded us, Australian uranium was powering Fukushima at the time of the meltdown.

Despite not having conducted a nuclear weapons test since 1998, India remains a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is actively expanding its nuclear weapons program. There is no way we can ensure that Australian uranium is only used for peaceful means.

Abbott would have you believe that Australia is saving India by exporting our coal and uranium to their power hungry masses. But is it really ok to export uranium to developing nations, while we don’t pursue nuclear energy ourselves?

You can follow Kate on Twitter @kateokate

16 comments

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  1. Brett Stokes

    It is not “okay” to be a part of the radioactive poisons business.

    Nuclear power and nuclear weapons are both wrong in many ways, risking so much for so little.

    Radioactive poisons target children and the unborn.

    The only rational choice is to leave uranium in the ground.

    Uranium mining is essentially the manufacture of radioactive poisons which cause cancer and many other afflictions.

    In my view, the mining of uranium is a crime against humanity and will be so recognised under existing law.

  2. stephentardrew

    My ex Partners three uncles were opal miners however when things were slow they would work in the Uranium mines. They were all fists class dozer drivers and, as luck had it, all died of cancer. I suppose they were just statistical outliers. Nah not interested you know the mining lobby and all that!

  3. IRMGARD KOVAC

    It’s best to leave it, where it is. The only way i would agree to use it would be for medicinal use.

  4. Natasha

    Wasn’t that Julia Gillard who signed the uranium contract with India back in 2012?

    Labor supporters are really confused. Please remember that Labor party has changed its platform on this issue.

    Besides, uranium powered electricity generator is carbon free, a true clean energy.

  5. corvus boreus

    Natasha,
    Gillard re-opened negotiations. I think that was bad.
    Abbott has signed a deal. I think this is worse.
    I am not confused on this, but then, I am not a Labor supporter.
    Uranium based power generation can be (sort of [relatively]) clean, but for the little matter of the radioactivity.
    Apparently, things sometimes go badly wrong with nuclear reactors, with disastrous consequences, and, to make a politically incorrect cultural generalisation, the Indians have a tendency to be as lax as phuq about safety matters.

  6. Shevill Mathers

    Leave it in the ground where it is harmless. Once it is exported to others countries, we have lost control of what it is used for. India can go solar at no risks to either people or the environment. There is no guarantee that one day we may get our Uranium back in the form of a bomb.

  7. Kaye Lee

    Tony Abbott said “India has an absolutely impeccable record when it comes to nuclear non-proliferation,”

    The promise not to divert nuclear material, such as uranium, from peaceful purposes to the development of nuclear weapons is a key plank of both the NPT and Australia’s uranium export policy yet India’s program began by explicitly breaking a similar legal commitment to Canada by exploding the ‘Smiling Buddha’ nuclear bomb in 1974 using plutonium from a nuclear reactor supplied by Canada.

    While cuts in US and Russian stockpiles have been significant, nuclear arsenals are growing in India, China and Pakistan. India is also known to have highly enriched uranium and weapon-grade plutonium, both ‘fissile’ materials that are used for nuclear explosions.

    The NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index assesses the security of nuclear materials around the world. India scores below Pakistan on the index, and is ranked above only North Korea and Iran.

    While testing nuclear weapons isn’t prohibited by the NPT, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), opened for signature in 1996, but not yet in force, aims to ban “nuclear explosions by everyone, everywhere”.

    India conducted its second set of nuclear tests in 1998. Worldwide condemnation followed, including from the UN Security Council, calling on India and Pakistan to de-escalate tensions between them and to join the NPT.

  8. stephentardrew

    For a start I do have an aversion to nuclear energy however I will remain open minded. Maybe our technology is too limited and surely waste is a big headache. Fusion reactors may well be the answer seeing they will burn nearly all the waste, especially plutonium. The only waste will be contaminated plants that are decommissioned. One would hope that renewable energy can do it on its own which is looking promising. It is an engineering, statistical and logical problem weighing energy production against need and the right of the underprivileged and third world to live in some sort of comfort and security. I have no doubt that renewables will eventually win the day however the lead time between scientific discoveries, planning, regulation, pilot plants, full introduction and production of new technologies is still ten to twenty years. As for nuclear proliferation of weapons it simply gets down to human stupidity.

    There are many ways to destroy our world including global warming so it is the motivation to prevent these catastrophes not the technologies themselves that are a problem. Too many fear driven haters who, if you take away one toy, will surely develop another. Chemical weapons, genetic engineering and so on. The point is nuclear weapons ore only one of diverse ways to destroy our biosphere. Our problem is our reactive violent dick thrusting competitiveness which is soundly based in biochemistry and the autonomic foundations of fear. New destructive technologies are inevitable, for example the Artificial Intelligence doom sayers, however, AI might lead us out of our reactive biochemical habituation to power and domination.

    We have fear, power and greed problems and they are the critical issues at hand.

  9. kerrilmail

    The thing that seems long overlooked by greedy governments is the fact that nuclear energy lasts for centuries. Financially there is no great rush to dig it up and flog it off. Once a plant is set up it can function for a long time without needing top up radioactive materials. As an ongoing source of income it doesn’t make much sense to export it. But I guess long term thinking doesn’t stand a chance when it comes to greed. Or the environment. Fukushima will keep spewing out carcinogenic radioactivity for centuries to come until the Japanese come up with a way to stop it and we all know their track record in terms of technology far outweighs India’s potential to clean up a nuclear accident???

  10. Kate O'Callaghan

    Hi Natasha, firstly I’m not a Labor supporter. It amuses me how writing about environmental concerns always prompts these thoughtless Liberal vs Labor responses.

    I do outline in the article that Julia Gillard started the negotiations with India in 2011, which Campbell Newman said prompted his decision to rethink the state’s ban on uranium mining. Abbott closed the deal that was initiated by Gillard.

    “The backflip on his pre-election promise not to pursue uranium mining came shortly after PM Julia Gillard pushed to reopen uranium negotiations with India in 2011.”

  11. John Turner

    It is a pity those who comment haven’t kept abreast of the science.
    The problem with Fukushima was the choice by the builder of the plant, and authorities, to leave out an explosion preventing catalyst in the reactor vessel and to build the reactors behind an inadequate bund wall.No individual nuclear plant worker received a radiation dose likely to affect the length of their life to any great degree but elsewhere 20,000 people were washed to their deaths.
    Modern nuclear reactors, even the Uranium fuelled Westinghouse AP1000 design, can operate for seven days without cooling water or an external supply of power.
    China had only 14 reactors in 2012. In the decade for 2020 they intend to add nuclear power capacity each year at about the equivalent of the Three Gorges Hydro system. By 2030 they plan to have nuclear power generation equivalent to about 75 of the largest coal fired plants in NSW.
    At present they are commissioning two nuclear plants per year and are employing at least three hundred highly qualified scientists developing new designs some of which may be capable of mass production and aimed to to lift poor people out of poverty by providing cheap electric power derived from thorium. Thorium reserves are sufficient to supply electricity to all the world population for 20,000 years or more.
    Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, said in a government report published on March 5, 2012, that China will accelerate the use of new-energy sources such as nuclear energy and put an end to blind expansion in industries such as solar energy and wind power.
    That statement was in Thorium, Energy Cheaper than Coal, a book by physicist/mathematician Robert Hargraves.

  12. Brett Stokes

    For those like John Turner (above) who advocate the radioactive poisons business, I say that you are telling lies that are intended to be used as alibis to sacrifice our children’s lives.

    There have been many lies told by Nuclear Advocacy Fraudsters – the reality is that nuclear energy is too expensive to meter.

    Radioactive Poisons have ruined the real estate values in the Fukushima evacuation zone.

    As much as one thousand billion dollars worth of homes shops factories farms and roads, became suddenly worthless following the March 2011 start of the ongoing disaster at the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

    The citizens of Japan will no longer be fooled that “Nuclear Is Safe” – imagine still paying the bank mortgage payments for a house that you can no longer visit because of radioactive poison contamination.

    Meanwhile the children are suffering a plague of nose bleeds and thyroid cancers.

    The citizens of Fremantle in Western Australia have declared that there will be no transportation of uranium through their suburb, along their roads and past their children’s schools.

    Meanwhile the citizens of Port Adelaide are regularly exposed to the risk of proximity to radioactive poisons carried on trucks and/or trains, being lifted on cranes, being placed in ships for export to countries like China, Russia and India.

    What would happen if there was a major incident involving Radioactive Poisons in Port Adelaide?

    How big would be the required Evacuation Area?

  13. corvus boreus

    Belated thanks for the article and links, Kate O’Callaghan.
    I do not think we should sell fuel for nuclear fission to the government of India, especially when they are still a nation riddled with entrenched corruption and fanatical sectarianism, currently engaged in a prolonged and escalating sword-waving exchange(un-diplomatic hostility/low level conflict) with their Pakistani neighbors.
    Kaye Lee, 07:23,
    That Abbott quote(“India has an absolutely impeccable record when it comes to nuclear non-proliferation”), a patent falsehood, is (for me) further evidence that Tony is either deluded, disturbingly ignorant, or a pathological liar.
    I presume this gem was spoken at a press conference in India whilst he was wheeling and dealing in radio-active substances.
    ‘We are open for business, with red-tape slashed and one-stop shopping for approvals!’ 😉 (wink & leer)

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