These are interesting times in the uranium sector. The mining companies have had a few wins in the 14 months since the Fukushima disaster, but they've had more losses.
Bill Repard, organiser of the Paydirt Uranium Conference held in Adelaide in February, put on a brave face with this claim: The sector's hiccups in the wake of Fukushima are now over with, the global development of new nuclear power stations continues unabated, and the Australian sector has literally commenced a U-turn in every sense.
Yet for all the hype, uranium accounts for a lousy 0.3% of Australian export revenue and a negligible 0.02% of Australian jobs. The industry's future depends on the nuclear power “renaissance”, but global nuclear power capacity has been stagnant for the past 20 years. If there is any growth at all in the next 20 years, it will be modest.
The uranium price tanked after the Fukushima disaster and so far there is no sign of a bounce. Current prices are too low to allow the smaller uranium wannabes to proceed with any confidence.
In South Australia, BHP Billiton's plan for a massive expansion of the Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine has yet to be approved by the company board, with recent rumblings that the project may be put on the slow-track.
Japanese company Mitsui recently pulled out of the Honeymoon uranium mine because it "could not foresee sufficient economic return from the project". Marathon Resources' plan to mine uranium has been terminated by a South Australian government decision to protect the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary — a decision made all the easier by the company's licence breaches during exploration.
The industry also has problems in the Northern Territory. A traditional owner veto has put an end to plans to mine Koongarra, and plans are in train to incorporate the mining lease into Kakadu National Park.
Energy Resources of Australia has abandoned plans to use heap leach mining at the Ranger mine, though an exploratory drilling program has recently started. Water management problems continue to plague the mining and milling of uranium at Ranger.
At various times in recent years, both the NT Country Liberal Party and the Labor Party have opposed plans to build a mine at Angela Pamela, a short distance from Alice Springs and an even shorter distance from the town's water supply.
In Queensland, the new Liberal National Party government has so far stuck to its pre-election promise to prohibit uranium mining. That may change, but in any case Queensland is home to only about 3% of Australia's uranium reserves. The NSW Liberal Party government has recently passed legislation to permit uranium exploration, but exploration in earlier decades yielded little of interest.
Western Australia is now the key uranium battleground. The Liberal state government supports uranium mining. Labor's state policy is to oppose uranium mining, but party leader Mark McGowan says any mines that have received state government approvals would not be stopped by an incoming Labor government.
As elsewhere, it has been a miserable year for the uranium mining wannabes in WA. At least two projects have been put on hold. The only company with any chance of receiving government approvals before the 2013 state election is Toro Energy, which is pursuing plans to mine about 12,000 tonnes of uranium at Wiluna in the Goldfields.
The Wiluna mine proposal received WA Environment Protection Authority approval on May 21, but an appeal will be launched and further approvals are required; it is a long way from a dodgy EPA decision to a dangerous mine.
You'd think Toro Energy might keep a low profile given the political sensitivities. Not so. The company has been loudly defending TEPCO, the notorious operator of the crippled Fukushima plant — even in the face of overwhelming evidence of TEPCO's record of safety breaches and cover-ups.
Still more controversially, Toro Energy has paid for a number of speaking tours by fringe scientists who claim that exposure to low-level radiation is harmless or even beneficial to human health.
Forty-five Australian medical doctors recently signed a statement calling on Toro Energy to stop promoting junk science and noting that recent scientific research has heightened concern about exposure to radon, the main source of radiation exposure to uranium miners.
The WA Conservation Council is leading the battle to stop Toro Energy opening up the state's first uranium mine, and has established a website to challenge the company's claims. The Conservation Council has also produced a detailed “Alternative Annual Report”, raising a host of concerns about Toro Energy and its plan to mine at Wiluna.
The history of uranium exploration in the Goldfields is one of the obstacles facing Toro Energy. Uranium exploration in the 1980s left a legacy of pollution and contamination. Radiation levels more than 100 times normal background readings have been recorded despite the area being “cleaned” a decade ago. Even after the “clean-up”, the Wiluna exploration site was left with rusting drums containing uranium ore. A sign reading “Danger — low-level radiation ore exposed” was found lying face down in bushes.
In August 2000, Steve Syred, coordinator of the Wiluna-based Marruwayura Aboriginal Corporation, said that until about 1993, 100-150 people were living at an old mission three kilometres from the spot where high radiation levels were recorded.
Syred told the Kalgoorlie Miner the Aboriginal community had unsuccessfully resisted uranium exploration in the area in the early 1980s. Since then, many people had lived in the area while the Ngangganawili Aboriginal Corporation was based near the site. Elders still hunted in the area.
More than 5000 tonnes of radioactive tailings from the Yeelirrie uranium deposit, near Wiluna, were buried just north of Kalgoorlie after BHP stopped processing ore there in the 1980s. Earlier this year, damage to a security gate allowed children to enter the site on dirt bikes. BHP Billiton said it would improve security.
There is also concern in Kalgoorlie about plans to establish a uranium transport hub in the suburb of Parkeston, a few hundred metres from the Ninga Mia Aboriginal community. That concern may be premature — it remains to be seen if there will be any uranium to transport.
[Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia. Visit Foe.org.au/anti-nuclear.]