Issue 2, 2006 | Sally Thompson

Uranium: The West Australian Connection

Uranium mining in Australia is an emotive issue, throwing the States into conflict with the Commonwealth, environmentalists into conflict with each other, and sounding the clarion of hyperbole wherever discussed. Western Australia, for largely political reasons, has never brought a uranium mine into full production, despite a number of promising reserves.  For the past two decades uranium has been in the dog box and savvy politicians have acted in line with public pressures to prevent the expansion of mining.  As the global and national climate is shifting however, uranium is regaining credibility as a desirable energy source, and interest in uranium exploration in WA is climbing.  New nuclear power technologies, the increasing cost of key fossil fuels and an ever more urgent cry to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions have changed the imperatives in the nuclear debate.  Amidst this climate of speculation and investment, Western Australia will undoubtedly be called upon to defend its current "no uranium" policy.  In examining the issues around uranium mining, however, it seems that the implications for WA in answering the "to mine or not to mine" question come down to economics and to the question of how we wish to view ourselves in relation to the world of nuclear nations. The bigger questions - about exportation safeguards, environment and energy - operate on scales that are either beyond the control of or largely impervious to local policy.  WA is therefore faced with the contrast between policies of disengagement to no great effect, against an acceptance of uranium mining: an acceptance that forces us to face difficult questions to which the answers are not yet clear. 

Uranium: the Western Australian Connection

The majority of the world's proven uranium reserves, some 2 million tonnes, are located in Australia.  Other uranium reserves are located in Canada, Kazakhstan, Namibia, Niger, South Africa, Uzbekistan, the USA and Russia.  While Australia has the largest reserves, Canada is the largest uranium producer. 

Most Australian uranium is located in South Australia with the Olympic Dam mine in Roxby Downs South Australia, being the largest single reserve (containing 392,000 tonnes of uranium).(1) Other operational mines in Australia are Ranger in the Northern Territory, and Beverley in South Australia.  A third South Australian mine, Honeymoon, is currently entering production.

There are five known major uranium prospects in Western Australia: the Kintyre Ore Deposit in the Rudall Region in the Pilbara (35,000 tonnes), the Yeelirrie Deposit located between Wiluna and Leinster - Australia's third largest reserve (52,000 tonnes); Manyingee 85km south of Onslow (9500 tonnes); Oobagooma, a resource 75km northeast of Derby (8-12,000 tonnes) and the Lake Way and Centipede deposits near Wiluna, (4000 and 4960 tonnes respectively).  Together these deposits comprise about 25% of Australia's uranium resources, or 5-10% of known world reserves.

The larger deposits at Kintyre and Yeelirrie underwent extensive site investigations and preparation for mining in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Both sites were placed on hold when the "three mines" policy was introduced in 1983, effectively suspending uranium exports.  Following a worldwide drop in uranium prices during the 1990s the Kintyre site was largely rehabilitated.  The announcement of a state ban on uranium mining in 2002 resulted in the closure of the Yeelirrie deposit, which is now also undergoing rehabilitation.  Other Western Australian sites have undergone preliminary development and are now also on hold.(2)

There are multiple dimensions to consider in deciding whether the Western Australian stance is sensible or ethical, but relatively few of the relevant issues relate to areas where the State exercises any policy control.  Key issues relating to uranium exports include:

  • Ensuring that the end uses of uranium are acceptable;
  • Environmental issues, including the contribution of nuclear power in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the management of nuclear wastes;
  • Safety of reactors and the nuclear life cycle; and
  • The local environmental and occupational health and safety issues associated with uranium mining.

Of these, Western Australia only has direct control over the regulation and control of uranium mines in the state. All issues, however, bear on the validity of Western Australia's continued reluctance to export uranium and are worth investigating.

Mining uranium has ethical implications that are not paralleled by other minerals, including the end material's potential use as fissile material in nuclear weaponry or deployment as a "dirty bomb", its inherent toxicity to humans and the environment, and the generation of wastes from industrial use which constitute a long term and at this stage insoluble problem.  As a result, exports of uranium are controlled strictly by Commonwealth Government policy to an extent unparalleled for any other mineral export.  Australian policy is:

To only sell uranium to signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

  • To require purchasers of Australian Uranium to submit to IAEA audits to manage the security of uranium;
  • To require purchasers to abide by safeguard agreements which proscribe any military uses, including indirect uses such as the manufacture of tritium or depleted uranium.

The nuclear safeguards agreement recently signed with China reflects these policies.(3)  No safeguard agreement however, can guard against fallibility in enforcement.  A parallel could be drawn to the Australian Wheat Board managing to subvert the UN's oil for food process for its own ends despite the apparently high level of Government scrutiny.  Security of uranium sales is not entirely dependent on Australia acting as a watchdog.  If uranium sales are confined to acknowledged and mature nuclear powers then there is a minimal likelihood that uranium imports would be subverted into a nuclear weapons program.  Even should this occur, a state with 4000 weapons is hardly a more significant nuclear threat than a state with 400.(4) Another obvious measure is to avoid sales in nations where there are known doubts about the security of nuclear installations.  This would, for example, suggest that Australia should not sell uranium to Russia.(5)

Trading uranium will liberate the mineral into the world market, and no safeguard agreement can fully remove the risks associated with that mobilisation.  The dilemma relates to our degree of comfort with these risks.  This question is one that Western Australians can only comment on during Federal elections, because all such policy is made and implemented at the Commonwealth level.

Environmentally, the debate over uranium mining and nuclear power is also increasingly waged in shades of grey. Many now label nuclear power as a "clean" fuel, a statement in which "clean" now approximates the term "emissions free", specifically carbon dioxide emissions free, for the issue of nuclear waste has not been resolved.   This issue is a dualism between viewing nuclear power as clean emissions free power with potentially enough capacity to be an immediate panacea to fossil fuel use, or as a dirty technology generating an intractable waste problem. Both points of view have some validity, but the arguments merit closer examination.

It is difficult to determine if uranium is truly in a position to alleviate global dependence upon fossil fuel combustion.  There does not appear to be an international consensus on size of the nuclear resource weighed against global power demands.(6) Critics of nuclear power claim that there is only sufficient uranium available worldwide to supply global energy demands until 2016,(7) others see uranium as a resource capable of buying us a few hundred years of grace before a transition to truly renewable technologies is needed.(8) The devil of detail lies in estimating the net energy available in uranium once the energy costs of mining, refining, disposing of waste and capital costs of plants and mines are factored in.

On face value however, the uranium resource appears sufficiently large to confirm hopes of it being a viable alternative energy source.  But will it be sufficient to "save" us from the greenhouse effect?  Bearing in mind that a reduction in carbon emissions are needed immediately, the following considerations are relevant:

  • The current nuclear power infrastructure in place worldwide provided 16% of global energy production in 2002.(9)  To increase this percentage to 19% by 2050 would require that nuclear capacity be trebled, or up to 1500 large power stations built.(10)  This seemingly disproportionate increase in nuclear power generating capacity against its proportional representation of all power generation results from a predicted 75% growth in global electricity demand over the same period.  In addition to the required increase in infrastructure, the skilled workforce is aging and not being effectively replaced, and there are perhaps only six engineering firms worldwide with sufficient experience to construct a nuclear power facility.(11)
  • Nuclear power is not cost-competitive with coal and gas generation.  A carbon emissions trading scheme would go some way towards improving this situation, however further cost savings including reducing the time of power plant construction, reducing the costs of construction and reducing the operating and maintenance costs of the plants would also be required (Table 1).  These cost reductions, however, must be achieved without compromising the safety of power plants.
Table one - Comparative Power Costs
Table 1: Comparative power cost for nuclear power against coal and gas options over the life of a power plant.  Reproduced from MIT, 2002.  Prices are in $US.

  • Although internal economic measures count against nuclear power, it may sit comfortably with renewable energy options when externalities are considered.  An European Union analysis concluded that when external costs are taken into account, the price per kW-hour of energy was cheaper for wind power than for nuclear, that nuclear power and hydro-power were equivalent but that nuclear power performs significantly better than natural gas, and better again than coal or oil fired technologies (note that this analysis was performed in 1995, and that more recent technologies have not been subsequently evaluated).(12)

The role of nuclear power as a replacement for fossil fuels is problematic. Unless cost incentives for adopting nuclear rather than coal or gas technologies are put in place (i.e. a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme), and unless infrastructure investment can be markedly increased, finding investors may be impossible.  In the long term, it seems unlikely that nuclear power alone will be sufficient to supply global energy demand, for public acceptability and availability of suitable plant sites may constrain the extent to which nuclear power options can be implemented.  The value of nuclear power in addressing global warming may be real, and indeed it may not be possible to address global warming without using nuclear power, but it is insufficient without the development of other non-carbon emissions and renewable energy resources.    

The flip side of the environmental coin is the issue of nuclear waste.  Nuclear waste does present a real concern for the safety and sustainability of nuclear power, and the question has not been resolved.  However, while nuclear waste is nasty stuff, with potential for use as in dirty bombs, the real safety risks associated with it are poorly understood.(13) This is partly because the need for long term disposal options has not yet become critical because nuclear waste requires temporary storage for 30-50 years during which time its heat dissipates and radioactivity decreases to a point that permits safer handling.(14)

One argument commonly forwarded by the anti-nuclear lobby is that by mining uranium WA would be forced to take responsibility for the wastes generated.  Such assumptions, while emotionally effective, are questionable on several levels.  The currently accepted international position is that countries generating nuclear waste are responsible for that waste, on the basis that the majority of nuclear waste is not generated by mining of uranium, but by refining of fuel and use of the fuel in reactors.(15) To claim that miners have responsibility for uranium wastes would be to cast a level of responsibility on to the primary producer that is unparalleled in considering any other mined resource.  We don't blame global warming on Saudi Arabia because of its fossil fuel production.  Further, arguments that Australia's link to the nuclear fuel cycle may strengthen international pressure for a nuclear waste dump to be placed here are solipsistic.  International interest in a nuclear waste disposal facility in Australia arises because it is geologically stable, politically stable, sparsely populated and an economically favourable location for a disposal site.  Locating a nuclear waste dump in Australia is not punishment for exporting uranium - it is a result of an international effort to locate the most suitable location for such a facility.

Questions over the intrinsic safety of nuclear power have largely faded out of the contemporary debate despite the widespread public interest in the question.  To briefly canvas the reasons for this: although incidents at nuclear power plants are highly publicised, the history of the industry is good by comparison to other power generating facilities.  In fact, the safety record of nuclear power (measured as the number of incidents per kWhr produced) is better than that of most other available power sources.

Comparison of accident statistics in primary energy production.

(Electricity generation accounts for about 40% of total primary energy).

Fuel

Immediate fatalities 1970-92

Who?

Normalised to deaths per TWy* electricity

Coal

6400

workers

342

Natural gas

1200

workers & public

85

Hydro

4000

public

883

Nuclear

31

workers

8

*Basis: per million MWe operating for one year, not including plant construction, based on historic data which is unlikely to represent current safety levels in any of the industries concerned.
Source: Ball, Roberts & Simpson, Research Report #20.(16) Hirschberg et al, Paul Scherrer Institute, 1996.(17)

In addition to a good track record, it is believed that new generation reactor technology will alleviate the most extreme risks associated with nuclear power generation.  The so called "pebble bed" reactors prevent the risk of the core of the power plant overheating, removing the dependence upon plant operators to manage the core temperature so as to prevent a meltdown.  Closed cycle plants allow the reprocessing of spent fuel to recover plutonium, thorium and uranium, greatly reducing the quantities of nuclear waste generated (although, at present, these technologies are expensive to implement and the lack of operating experience may mean that in the short term they are not the safest or most environmentally appropriate options).(18)

Of more local relevance is the question of whether Western Australia, which has never brought a uranium mine into operation, has the regulatory and policy capacity to manage the issues associated with uranium mining. Uranium mining as it would probably be practiced in WA is similar to mining other minerals, and by and large the environment, health and safety issues are also similar.(19)  Environmental issues needing particular management are mine tailings, which can contain 80% of the radioactivity of the original ore, all of the radium in the original ore,(20)and radioactive by-products with half lives of hundreds of thousands of years. Leachates and dusts from these tailings require long-term management to prevent their mobilisation.(21) Health issues relevant to uranium mining include the potential for radiation exposure through inhalation of dust or radon (alpha radiation) or from ambient levels in the mine (gamma radiation).  Despite the seemingly high stakes of uranium mining, in practice we would expect Western Australian regulations and policy to be able to address the relevant issues well.

The management of tailings and mine wastes is a critical and long term issue for many extractive mineral industries.  While few tailings have the radioactive hazards associated with uranium tailings, the tailings currently managed in Western Australia include:

  • Cyanide residues from gold processing;
  • The high pH leachates associated with bauxite mining;
  • Thorium contamination in mineral sands wastes;
  • Vanadium tailings; and
  • Acid leachate from coal mines

Most of these tailings dams are likely to pose potential environmental and health threats for thousands of years.  Western Australian policy now dictates that mines must factor the costs of rehabilitation and long-term stabilisation of these tails into their upfront planning, must develop and demonstrate the efficacy of these closure plans as part of their environmental approvals, and must implement these plans upon mine closure.  Uranium tailings could be managed effectively through the same process.  Other environmental issues such as water management and dust suppression are likewise common to all extractive mineral industries and can be managed accordingly.

Similarly the occupational health and safety (OHS) issues associated with uranium mining are common to other mining industries with the key concerns being exposure to radon in underground mines (common to almost all underground mines), dust inhalation (the primary exposure pathway for alpha radiation, and again an issue that needs to be managed in almost all mining industries) and exposure to gamma radiation underground.  The dust and radon issues can be managed through use of air sampling for radon and dust levels and the use of extensive ventilation and breathing apparatus where necessary.  Radiation exposure is managed through wearing thermoluminescent devices which can be correlated to radiation exposure.  Such devices are already required in laboratory and industrial settings where there is a risk of radiation exposure. 

The policy and regulatory frameworks already in place in Western Australia would be sufficient to manage the environmental and health aspects of uranium mining.  There is no reason to suppose that any negative health, safety or environmental impacts would occur in Western Australia as a result of uranium mining that are not already risked in Western Australia through other mining activities or through working with radiation in other settings.

So why should Western Australians be concerned about uranium mining taking place in their state?  Uranium mining is unlikely to unleash an environmental, health or safety disaster.  It is unlikely to markedly affect the international or national pressure on the state to host a nuclear waste dump.  Given the magnitude of production by other global uranium producers it is unlikely that through not mining WA can create a supply shortage that would be sufficient to prevent the establishment or operation of nuclear power facilities.  And considering that the major hot spots for diversion of nuclear material are in former Soviet states with existing uranium stores Western Australia's refusal to export uranium is unlikely to have a significant impact in improving the security of the nuclear fuel cycle.

So, as it is, it seems that Western Australians can afford to choose.  The moral ins and outs of the uranium debate are becoming more evenly matched than they were 10 years ago.  If we believe the externalities analysis put forward by the EU in 1995, then nuclear technology is amongst the safest, greenest and most acceptable fuel options available.  On the other hand, as cautioned by the MIT 2002 study, the risks associated with much of the fuel cycle are poorly understood, and the issues surrounding waste management have not been resolved.  The debate is real, and perhaps the ideal scenario would be to wait and see just how respectable and necessary uranium turns out to be.

There is a possibility however, that Western Australians may not be able to exercise this choice, as the Federal Government seems to have WA's uranium in its sights.  A proponent of Australian uranium mining, the Commonwealth seems frustrated by WA's self-imposed restrictions (see for example Mark Vaile's recent words on the subject: "Lift the Uranium ban, Dr. Gallop"(22)).  The pitch of this frustration has tallied closely with the value of uranium in the market which, after falling to AUD25/kg in 1992(23) is now trading at AUD126/kg(24) not far off the record price high in 1979 at AUD135/kg, and there are indications that the price may rise further.  The rhetoric from Canberra now inclines towards endorsements of the environmental and the economic benefits of exporting uranium.(25)  Federal MP Geoff Prosser, who is heading a federal inquiry into Australia's uranium stated in April 2006 that: "The Western Australian state government and Alan Carpenter is not encouraging the emerging economies of China to use clean energy. If we are going to reduce greenhouse emission targets, nuclear energy is the only way to do it... I would have thought it would have been the right thing to do, the responsible thing to do."(26)

The rhetoric should not be dismissed as hot air.  The Howard Government has been active in testing the extent of its constitutional powers and has not been afraid to trespass into areas that have traditionally been considered the domain of the States.  The 2005 industrial relations reforms are a key example.  These reforms used the constitutional "Corporations Powers" to impose national legislation, overriding existing State law.  The Corporations Powers, contained in Section 51(xx) of the Australian Constitution give the Commonwealth Parliament the right to legislate with respect to "foreign corporations and trading or financial corporations formed within the limits of the Commonwealth."(27)

The validity of using the Corporations Powers in this way will be tested in the High Court in a case commencing May 8.  Should approach be declared constitutional, the Federal Government could use the Powers to legislate on any issue involving corporations, whether that be industrial relations, labour laws, environmental laws,(28) or the permissibility of uranium mining. 

To talk of a Western Australian connection for Uranium mining assumes that the decision about uranium mining is in any respect held in Western Australian hands.  In the current political climate, it seems that any connection to the substantive issues in the uranium debate may be as uncertain and as controversial as the future of uranium itself.

 

Sally Thompson is an Australian PhD student studying environmental engineering at Duke University.


  1. Uranium Information Centre, 2006 "Australia's Uranium". Online Source, available from:  http://www.uic.com.au/ozuran.htm
  2. Uranium Information Centre, 2005. " Australia's Uranium Deposits and Prospective Mines".  Online Source, available from: http://www.uic.com.au/pmine.htm
  3.  Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2006.  Agreement Between the Government of Australia and The Government of the People's Republic of China on the Transfer of Nuclear Material.  Online Source, available from: http://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/china/treaties/nuclear_material.html.
  4.  Dwyer, Gwyn.  2005. "War, the lethal custom." Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York.
  5. Union of Concerned Scientists, 2006.  Global Security: Nuclear Terrorism.  Online Source, available from: http://www.ucsusa.org/global_security/nuclear_terrorism/ Mobbs, 2005.  Uranium Supply and the Nuclear Option. Oxford Energy Forum, 61, May 2005.
  6. Giz Watson, 2005.  Quoted in Stateline, "Should the Ban be lifted on uranium mining in WA?".  Online source, transcript available from: http://www.abc.net.au/stateline/wa/content/2005/s1438937.htm
  7. World Nuclear Association, 2005.  Position Statement: Can Global Uranium Supplies Sustain the Nuclear Renaissance?  World Nuclear Association, London, UK.
  8. Nuclear Technology Review 2004, (International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna).
  9. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002.  "The Future of Nuclear Power".  An interdisciplinary MIT study.  
  10.  Brooks, M, 2006.  Is it all over for Nuclear Power?  New Scientist, 22 April 2006.
  11. ExternE Results, 1995.  Available from: http://www.externe.info/
  12. MIT,2002
  13. Hore-Lacy, 2003 Nuclear Electricity.  7th Edition, 2003.  Chapter 5: the Black End of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle
  14. Uranium Information Centre, 2005.  International Nuclear Waste Disposal Concepts.  Briefing Paper 49.  Online Source, available from: http://www.uic.com.au/nip49.htm
  15. Ball, Roberts & Simpson, Research Report #20, Centre for Environmental & Risk Management, University of East Anglia, 1994;
  16.  Hirschberg et al, Paul Scherrer Institute, 1996; in: IAEA, Sustainable Development and Nuclear Power, 1997; Severe Accidents in the Energy Sector, Paul Scherrer Institute, 2001.
  17.  MIT,2002
  18.  Leigh, J. 1997. "Occupational Health and Safety in Uranium Mining and Milling."  Prepared for the Senate Committee on Uranium Mining and Milling by WorkSafe.  Online source, available from: http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/uranium_ctte/report/c10.htm
  19. Uranium Information Centre, 2006. Environmental aspects of Uranium Mining.  Online source, available from: http://www.uic.com.au/nip10.htm
  20.  Senate Committee on Uranium Mining and Milling, 1997. "Tailings: a critical but unresolved matter."  Online source, available from: http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/uranium_ctte/report/c02-5.htm
  21.  Vaile, Mark, 2005. LIFT THE URANIUM BAN, DR GALLOP, Wednesday, 23 November 2005.  Online source, available from: http://www.markvaile.com.au/news/default.asp?action=article&ID=340.)
  22.  Van Eeden, P. 2004. "This week". Online source, available from: http://www.kitco.com/weekly/paulvaneeden/sept242004.html
  23.  The Sunday Times, Uk, 22 April 2006. "Special Report: Australia soars on uranium bonanza".  Online source, available from: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2095-2147556,00.html
  24.  Vaile, Mark.  2005. "LIFT THE URANIUM BAN, DR GALLOP". Reproduced online, available from: http://www.markvaile.com.au/news/default.asp?action=article&ID=340
  25. Stateline, 2006.  "The looming showdown over uranium mining in WA."  Transcript available from: http://www.abc.net.au/stateline/wa/content/2006/s1612644.htm. April 4 2006.
  26.  Constitution of Australia, Section 51 (xx).
  27. Abbot Tout Lawyers, 2006.  Local Government Work Choices.