In October 2012, the Newman government lifted a 30 year ban on uranium mining in Queensland. This announcement came without any community consultation or forewarning, and broke the LNP election promise that they would not lift this ban.
Uranium mining has long been a contentious issue in the community because of the potential for negative environmental and health affects lasting many thousands of years.
Almost half of the world’s uranium reserves are found in Australia, and we are the third largest supplier of uranium to the global market. All of Australia’s uranium is exported, including to countries who continue to produce nuclear weapons.
The majority of Queensland’s uranium deposits are located in the Gulf region, making far north Queensland a significant player in the uranium debate.
So what’s the problem with uranium mining?
Uranium mining results in toxic and radioactive waste, which poses a problem to communities and the environment for many thousands of years. There is no known way to safely dispose of the millions of tonnes of radioactive byproduct from mining operations, or the residual nuclear waste from power stations.
There are four uranium mines commercially operating in Australia:
- Ranger mine in Kakadu (owned by Energy Resources of Australia, which is majority owned by Rio Tinto)
- Olympic Dam (Roxby) mine in northern South Australia (owned by BHP Billiton)
- Beverley mine in South Australia (owned byHeathgate Resources)
- Honeymoon mine in South Australia (owned by the Canadian company Uranium One)
All of these mines have a history of leaks, spills and accidents. In fact, a damning investigation by the Australian Senate in 2003 found the sector was characterised by a pattern of under-performance and non-compliance, an absence of reliable data to measure the extent of contamination or its impact on the environment, and an operational culture that gives greater weight to short term considerations than long-term environmental protection.
The investigation concluded that changes were necessary in order to protect the environment and its inhabitants from ‘serious or irreversible damage.
Does uranium help to tackle climate change?
The argument that nuclear power is the necessary answer to our carbon pollution and climate change problems is fundamentally flawed. The life cycle emissions of uranium are quite high because the mining and milling process is energy intensive. As deposits are depleted and ore quality declines, emissions will continue to increase. The real energy solution is renewable energy.
Does the world need uranium?
The majority of the world’s uranium is used for power generation, some is used for weapons and a very small amount is used for medical science.
The Fukushima nuclear emergency, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, has seen a renewed questioning of nuclear power and national energy strategies around the world. Many nations have since scrapped or are reviewing nuclear projects.
Germany, the world’s fifth largest industrial economy, has declared that the atomic era is over. Chancellor Angela Merkel has committed her government to a renewable energy future. In the corporate world, engineering giant Siemens declared the “nuclear chapter is closed”, promising to no longer fund, construct or operate nuclear power plants.
Here in Australia, despite a cavalier commitment to continued uranium sales on the part of both major federal political parties, the sector has been hit hard by a combination of falling prices and popularity.
To bust that myth that we ‘need’ nuclear power, visit Beyond Zero Emissions for a comprehensive plan for how Australia can meet all of its energy needs from 100% renewable energy.
You can find out more about the impacts and risks or uranium mining and nuclear power by visiting the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Nuclear Free Australia site.