Uranium mining and export not a piece of yellowcake

Dave Sweeney

Chain Reaction #119, Nov 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/119

Recently the Australian Uranium Association and other nuclear industry hopefuls headed to western Queensland for the Mining the Isa conference. Mt Isa is no stranger to mining but the region − and Queensland − would be well advised to treat the claims of the uranium sector with caution.

Globally the nuclear industry is under intense political, regulatory and community pressure since the Fukushima meltdown, a continuing nuclear crisis directly linked to Australia's contested and contaminating uranium industry.

Recently the Newman Government released an "action plan" that seeks to open the door to uranium mining in Queensland but the LNP's uranium road map is deeply flawed and in conflict with federal policy, global markets and community expectations. A key plank of the LNP's plan is to have "all uranium mining proposals in Queensland assessed and approved by the state government". Currently uranium mining and wider nuclear issues remain the clear responsibility of the federal government and this is as it should be.

Uranium mining is an issue of national interest and importance with extensive risks and long term impacts and is rightly a matter for the active consideration of the national government.

State governments, mining companies and the Australian Uranium Association, have long dreamt of the power to tick off on a new uranium mine being transferred to state governments in the hope that this would removing key checks and balances and speed up approvals.

Currently the LNP's hopes about this facet of the plan appear misplaced, with the Coalition Government assuring the Australian Conservation Foundation that under the "proposed streamlining of approval processes under the EPBC, our intention is for uranium mining to be one area where the Federal Government would retain control and would not implement a bilateral approval process".

Uranium mining remains a high risk-low return game. Since the Fukushima accident began in March 2011 there have been repeated calls from a range of non-government and community-based organisations for an independent review of the costs and consequences of the Australian uranium sector – here and abroad.

The uranium sector and successive Australian governments have ignored these calls – and a similar one from the UN Secretary General for a review of the human and environmental impacts of uranium mining − preferring to base their planning on tired assurances rather than robust analysis.

This trend of industry appeasement rather than assessment, applies not only to the nuclear safety rules and culture but also to the sector's economic performance. A market analysis by economic forecaster Morgan Stanley, ironically released on the same day as the LNP's plan, shows the price of uranium has slumped by nearly 50% since the Fukushima nuclear crisis, where Australian uranium became and remains global radioactive fallout.

Earlier this year an ACF report, 'Yellowcake Fever: Exposing The Uranium Industry's Economic Myths', used official industry data to show the uranium sector is a minor contributor to employment and the economy. Our research shows in the 10 years to 2011, uranium accounted for only 0.29% of Australian export revenue and less than 0.015 per cent of national jobs.

So while the sector's risks are significant its economic contribution is not: in total it provides only around 650 jobs and seven hundred million dollars $700 million in earnings − nationwide.

Yet Premier Campbell Newman did nothing to challenge long-standing gulf between the promise and the performance of Australia's uranium sector when he did his policy U-turn last October. As he broke earlier commitments not to develop the uranium sector in Queensland, Newman spoke of the "billions" of dollars and "thousands" of jobs that would follow.

Such claims are fanciful and – as Newman later admitted – were made without any independent economic analysis or evidence. But on the principle of never let the reality impede the rhetoric the LNP continues to promote the economic and employment contribution of this sector far beyond the bounds of credibility.

The small economic gain from uranium can mean big pain and there is a compelling case that Australia's uranium trade is a major source of domestic and international risks and is overdue for an independent inquiry into its effects on the environment, health, safety and security.

It is time to increase, not reduce, the scrutiny given to uranium mining.

Radioactive waste, legacy mine sites and nuclear risks last far longer than the shelf-life of any politician.

Dave Sweeney is a nuclear free campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation. The ACF report, Yellowcake Fever: Exposing The Uranium Industry's Economic Myths, is posted at tinyurl.com/acf-uranium