The ALP uranium blues season

Issue 

By John Hallam

In what has almost become an annual ritual blood-letting, the ALP is yet again preparing to tear up the "three mine policy".

Everyone agrees that the "three mine policy" is not entirely rational. It can't be, because it is a political compromise between those who want an unlimited number of uranium mines no matter what the market will take and no matter what the environmental damage, and those who, like Friends Of the Earth, Movement Against Uranium Mining, Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, the left and the Democrats, feel that the only rational uranium policy is a "no mines" policy.

Yet the policy does have the merit of at least limiting the number of holes in the ground, with associated emissions of radon and seepages of contaminated water, that can be made in areas like Kakadu, to those that already exist at Roxby, Ranger and Nabarlek.

While mining proceeds with its associated environmental impacts at Ranger and Roxby, and rehabilitation is pondered at Nabarlek, the latest moves within the ALP Uranium Policy Review Committee would open at least three more mines: at Jabiluka in Kakadu, at Koongarra in the very heart of Kakadu and at Rudall River in the north-west of Western Australia in an area that is designated as a national park and is Aboriginal land.

The UPRC, whose job is to examine ALP uranium policy and produce a report with recommendations by the time of the Labor Party's annual conference in June, is nearing the culmination of its deliberations, and the pro-uranium forces are bringing massive backroom pressure to bear.

The UPRC itself consists of three left members - (Jeanette McHugh, Peter Milton, and Richard Mills), chairperson Ian Henderson (from the right) and right-wingers Senator Bob Collins, Steven Loosley and Erroll Hodder, plus Dennis Bree from the centre-left.

In the most recent developments, CRA, Pancontinental and Denison have lobbied the committee, as has WMC executive Duncan Bell. At the same time, in a disturbing turnaround, minister for primary industry John Kerin, whose department is responsible for uranium mining, has started to argue for a uranium free-for-all.

While all this has been going on, French nuclear giant Cogema, which already owns a substantial slice of Pancontinental and a small slice of Ranger, has bought a share in Pioneer, giving it a stake in the Nabarlek exploration leases. This is especially significant in view of the fact that Kerin's department has argued strongly for the sale of uranium to France.

In a five-page letter circulated to the UPRC, Kerin argued that the existing policy is illogical and is costing Australia money. Strangely, and perhaps significantly, according to Jeanette McHugh, the original submission to the committee had a note appended to it saying that it represented the opinion of Kerin's department, not necessarily his own. So just who does write Kerin's UPRC submissions these days?

The question of just whose opinion Kerin's submission really represents is significant because in previous submissions to the UPRC, Kerin (if it really was him then too) argued that current market conditions don't justify the opening up of more uranium mines.

Kerin's current submission argues that "the evidence points to a the world uranium market from about the middle of the 1990s" because by then "much of the present excess stockpile of uranium will have been run down".

But has the market really improved in the last two years? Has nuclear power suddenly assumed its divinely ordained role as the solution to both the greenhouse effect and our balance of payments problem? It hasn't.

Since Kerin wrote his last UPRC submission in 1988, when uranium spot prices were at the "unprecedentedly low" level of US$14.50/lb, they have dipped to $8.50/lb in December 1990, and rallied slightly to $9.50. They may climb to as much as $10-11/lb, but, again, maybe not.

Costs are in the region of US $15-20/lb for most producers, though Australian producers ERA and Roxby are at the bottom end of the cost scale. While Kerin's, or his department's, letter, said that the spot market isn't significant, a growing proportion of uranium has in fact been sold on spot, and the current state of the spot market indicates that there's lots of "inventory" (spare uranium) sloshing around in the system. Much of this, but by no means all, is Soviet and Chinese uranium that has been "dumped" on the market from scrapped weapons programs.

It is certainly true, as Kerin's, or his department's, letter points out, that things can't stay quite this bad forever. As it is, major uranium producers are actively cutting back on production. Both CAMECO and Canada and Rossing in Namibia have announced major cuts in production, while Canada's Denison Mines and uranium producers in Niger and South Africa have also been hit hard. Denison seems now to be on the verge of bankruptcy.

Kerin's department claims that there is going to be major growth in the nuclear industry, and thus in reactor demand, in the middle to late 1990s.

Reality is a little different, however. A study by FOE last year suggests that, by 2005, nuclear capacity worldwide may actually be declining. As it is, the number of reactors in the order and construction pipeline is shrinking year by year.

Nor is it true, as the letter suggests, that: "the existing pattern of arrangements in the Northern Territory and South Australia demonstrate that, properly managed, uranium mining can be undertaken in ecologically sensitive areas without significant detriment to the traditional Aboriginal occupants or the environment".

According to the Office of the Supervising Scientist (the government's toothless environmental watchdog for the Ranger mine), there has been a "significant deterioration of the water quality of billabongs near the Ranger site".

Ironically, these findings have been paraded by another miner - Pancontinental - to show how horrible the Ranger operation is, and how much nicer and cleaner its own mine at Jabiluka would be.

While Pancon has been trying to persuade the UPRC of the desirability and cleanliness of Jabiluka, it has also teamed up with CRA and Denison to produce a joint submission which claims, among other things, that "Western-style reactors" are safe and operate under the strictest conditions. They argue that if the present restrictions are not removed soon, market opportunities will be lost to other countries.

The moves to change ALP uranium policy have provoked a furious media response from the ALP left and environment groups. ACF's Phillip Toyne has said that the Labor Party is committing "electoral suicide". Minister for immigration and ethnic d that he would feel "utterly betrayed" if the ALP were to change its policy. Even Treasurer Paul Keating has been interpreted as cautiously defended the existing policy.

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Reprinted from Green Left, weekly progressive newspaper. May

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