Australia has about a third of the world’s low-cost uranium. Capitalizing on it could give the whole economy a boost, but much depends on how far the country is willing to go. Increasing mining and exports of the radioactive ore are controversial enough, but P.M. Malcolm Turnbull’s idea of possibly storing nuclear waste from elsewhere — permanently — has caused an outpouring of criticism. In a withering op-ed published last week, Dr. Jim Green, the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia, blasted the country’s previous nuclear safety record and economic viability of the storage scheme.
“We have got the uranium, we mine it, why don’t we process it, turn it into the fuel rods, lease it to people overseas, when they are done, we bring them back and we have got stable, very stable geology in remote locations and a stable political environment,” Turnbull proposed in late October. However, one of Green’s arguments against such a scheme was Australia’s “sordid history dealing with long-lived nuclear waste.” He described the appalling engineering details of the “clean-up” the Australian government carried out at the Maralinga nuclear test site in the late 1990s, and quoted nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson, who said “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.”
However, assuming a rebound in the price of uranium to supply nuclear reactors (which fell from $70 prior to the Fukushima disaster to the mid $30s now), the ore could replace coal as a source of employment for miners uncertain about job security. Last month, a study commissioned by the Minerals Council of Australia hit upon exactly this topic. “Realizing Australia’s Uranium Potential” found that under high-growth scenarios for local uranium production and nuclear power in a carbon-constrained world, the economic benefit from the industry could increase tenfold to $9.5 billion. But it noted that the country needed to undertake three priority reforms in order to realize this:
Removing exploration and mining bans in those states where the bans exist; excluding the federal government from the current dual state/federal environmental assessment process; and increasing the number of ports through which uranium can be exported.
All of these steps are controversial, as NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) sentiment runs high when it comes to anything nuclear.
Additionally, the government’s desire to export uranium to India, as per an earlier civilian nuclear power agreement, is even outweighing the recommendations of the nonpartisan committee established to examine the matter. Recommending that shipments not proceed under current circumstances, the committee identified a number of practical steps needed to address safety, security, and legal uncertainty around the deal. However, the official response last week was “the Government does not accept the Committee’s recommendation that exports of uranium to India should be deferred.”
A separate official commission is looking into the future of Australia’s nuclear power industry, although the government has demurred on the question of whether or not it would give any support.
So will Australia become the nuclear waste dump of the world? It looks very doubtful, with too much at stake if things go wrong. Even the more modest steps of increasing uranium mining and exports face major hurdles. Perhaps that’s for the best.