In the shadow of Fukushima: Australia's new uranium debate

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Dave Sweeney

The continuing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex is sending shock waves through the Australian uranium industry. Australia is home to around 40% of the world’s uranium reserves and currently supplies around 20% of the global market from three commercial mines. The sector is dominated by large scale multi-national companies with BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto responsible for over 90% of production. Recent years have seen a strong industry and federal government push to greatly expand the sector with aggressive promotion and exploration programs and a range of political and financial assistance measures.

Despite this support the uranium industry remains fiercely contested with wide spread and sustained opposition from environmental and Indigenous groups and a high level of community concern. In this context images of exploding reactors and technicians dressed in protective suits running radiation counters over bewildered children have damaged the industry’s perception and strengthened the resolve of opponents to uranium mining.

The market has reflected this new sense of concern with steep falls in the share value of particularly the smaller, dedicated or aspirant uranium companies. While industry promoters like the Australian Uranium Association remain upbeat about the sector’s prospects many brokers and market commentators are cautious or sceptical about the sector’s opportunities for growth. Economics Professor John Quiggan from the University of Queensland colourfully captured this mood describing the sector as reflecting “zombie economics” – unhealthy but refusing to die.

The political response to the new landscape has been disappointing with the avidly pro-nuclear federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson describing uranium mining as “a fact of life” and pledging further support to the sector while Prime Minister Julia Gillard has spoken of “business as usual” and actively promoted the Australian resource sector on post Fukushima visits to Japan, China and Korea.

The renewed attention is coming at a pivotal time for the Australian industry. Despite strong opposition the industry is pushing hard to expand both existing and new operations. Despite the Rio Tinto owned Energy Resources of Australia’s Ranger uranium mine in the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park region having to suspend mining and processing operations following severe contamination threats posed by heavy rainfall ERA is continuing to push for an expansion of the troubled mine, including through the use of a controversial acid leaching technology.

The world’s biggest mining company BHP Billiton is also pushing ahead with their plan to open a massive new open cut operation at its Olympic Dam/Roxby Downs site in northern South Australia. The mine plan would see Olympic Dam become the world’s largest uranium project and is linked with extensive and adverse impacts on water quality and consumption and the generation of enormous volumes of perpetual pollution in the form of mine tailings.

In the shadow of Fukushima Australian opponents to uranium mining have been active on the streets, the airwaves and cyberspace pushing for a renewed national debate on the costs and consequences of the nation’s involvement in the nuclear trade and a halt on the export of the material that leads to leaking tailings dams at home and fuels radioactive waste and leaking reactors internationally. They are gaining increasing support for their call that our global energy future needs to be renewable not radioactive but Australian resource politics is a game with high stakes and hard players and the struggle remains an active work in progress.

Source and contact: Dave Sweeney, Nuclear Free Campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation
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