Monday, August 15, 2005

The uranium minefield

The uranium minefield - Education News -

August 15, 2005 - 2:44PM

Australia has the world's largest uranium deposits. With nuclear power growing, should we open more mines? Ben Haywood reports.

1. What happened?
Earlier this month, the Federal Government took control of uranium mining in the Northern Territory and increased pressure on Queensland and Western Australia to lift their ban on the industry.

Until now, the number of mines in Australia has been limited to three - one in the Northern Territory and two in South Australia - because of a Labor Party policy maintained by the states and territory.

NT Chief Minister Clare Martin went to her June election vowing to ban new mines, but during a 15-minute meeting between federal and territory resource ministers in Darwin two weeks ago, the Territory Government walked away from any responsibility for the mines.

Shortly afterwards, the Federal Resources Minister Ian Macfarlane declared the Northern Territory open for business on uranium mining.

Australia has the largest uranium deposits in the world, with about 40 per cent of the planet's recoverable uranium resources. Deposits in the NT alone are thought be worth $12 billion.

The Federal Government is now accepting proposals from companies that want to build new mines in the territory, with some predicting the first new mine could open within five years.

2. Why does the Federal Government want more mines?
Growing concerns about global warming and a need to find alternatives to fossil fuels have resulted in renewed world interest in nuclear power. Uranium is the chemical element that fuels nuclear power.

The Federal Government is keen to exploit Australia's rich uranium supplies to satisfy this growing demand and reap billions in export earnings.

Uranium is used to generate 16 per cent of the world's electricity, but the figure is expected to rise with countries including China, India and the US looking to increase nuclear power production.

China, the world's largest energy producer after the US, has plans to spend $US24 billion (A$32 billion) building 18 new nuclear reactors to meet increasing demand for power.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has confirmed that negotiations on a nuclear co-operation agreement with China will begin soon. He promised any new agreement would ensure that the uranium sold to China was used for solely peaceful purposes. (China is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.) He also suggested that a deal could help Australian efforts to lock Australia into a free trade deal with China.

Much of Australia's uranium is untapped, with Canada the world's largest exporter of uranium, despite having smaller reserves.

3. What is the opposition to new mines?
There is strong opposition to new uranium mines from the state and territory governments. Uranium mining has long been controversial in the Northern Territory, with many proposed mines located on culturally and environmentally significant land, including inside the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park. There are concerns about the damage that mining can cause to such pristine environments.

On economic grounds, the Queensland Government has vowed to maintain its ban on uranium mining, saying it would undermine the coal industry - Queensland's biggest export earner.

Others have concerns about the possible wider repercussions of supplying more uranium and supporting the nuclear industry. The Greens and Democrats have expressed fear that selling more uranium risks the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Plutonium 239 is one of the elements made in nuclear power plants (and is so toxic that one-millionth of a gram is carcinogenic). According to anti-nuclear campaigner Dr Helen Caldicott, more than 200 kg of the element is made annually in each 1000-megawatt nuclear power plant. In an article in The Australian she wrote: "Plutonium is also the fuel for nuclear weapons - only 5 kg is necessary to make a bomb and each reactor makes more than 200 kg per year. Therefore any country with a nuclear power plant can theoretically manufacture 40 bombs a year."

The Democrats, therefore, believe the Government's plan to increase uranium exports is "a risky and misguided path to take in the current context of ongoing terrorism".

Others have ideological concerns about supplying fuel for a form of power that produces deadly radioactive waste. This waste must be safely stored - a problem that has not been adequately addressed - for tens of thousands of years. They fear something could go wrong.

Federal Government plans to build a dump for radioactive waste in central Australia have been widely criticised.

4. Recent headlines
"Canberra presses states on uranium"
The Age, August 6

"New mines predicted within five years"
The Age, August 6

"Feds seize NT uranium mines control"
Northern Territory News, August 5

5. What the Australian Financial Review says
"The three-mines policy is either dead or on its way out, and the sooner the Government explicitly kills if off the better. The 1984 Labor Party limitation on uranium mining was always a cop-out. It didn't stop exports, but by pushing the issue off the front page, it meant Australia never properly addressed many of the complex issues around the subject. While nuclear energy use has been expanding around the globe, Australia has had its head in the sand."
- Editorial Opinion
Australian Financial Review, August 8

6. What people say
"It makes no sense to have good uranium and bad uranium. If it's all right to have three mines, which the Labor Party says is OK, then it ought to be all right to have four or five or six."
- Prime Minister John Howard

Insiders, ABC TV, August 7
"The Northern Territory is open for business on uranium mining. We were (reluctant) to go down this road, even as late as this morning I was asking the Territory Government to co-operate. But if they're not prepared to do that . . . the Commonwealth will act to accept that responsibility."

"The Federal Government bulldozed us and said, tough, we are going to have uranium mines in the territory, as simple as that."

"Because nuclear power leaves a toxic legacy to all future generations, because it produces global warming gases, because it is far more expensive than any other form of electricity generation, and because it can trigger proliferation of nuclear weapons, these topics need urgently to be introduced into the tertiary educational system of Australia, which is host to 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the world's richest uranium."
- Dr Helen Caldicott,
The Australian, April 13


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