When New South Wales MLC Mark Latham tabled a bill in mid-2019 that sought to lift the state’s ban on uranium mining and nuclear facilities, no one paid too much attention. After all, the One Nation MP makes a habit of trying to grab attention and this throwback to the 1980s seemed more of the same.
The bill was sent to a parliamentary review, chaired by Liberal nuclear zealot Taylor Martin. When its March report recommended backing Latham, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro quickly announced the Nationals would support the proposal.
As debate over the bill looked set to take place late last month, it seemed the Coalition would vote with One Nation. However, on August 24, Cabinet announced it would consider its own legislation, rather than throw its weight behind Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
While this chain of events seems to be rather happenstance, something more coordinated is at play.
As anti-nuclear activists told Green Left, the move towards mining uranium is part of a push by the Minerals Council of Australia, which reaches all the way to the PM’s office. It is no accident that nuclear energy has resurfaced in the public debate as a more widespread public understanding about the necessary transition to renewables takes place.
No economic benefits
Uranium Free NSW spokesperson Natalie Wasley said the ban on uranium mining has been in place since the late 1980s and that lifting it would not bring in much profit or jobs.
“The price of uranium has been depressed since the Fukushima disaster [in Japan], and it’s not likely to recover any time soon,” Wasley said. “We’ve seen the CEO of Cameco — the largest uranium mining company in the world — say that it doesn’t make sense to invest in primary supply.”
Last November, Cameco chief executive Tim Gitzel said that “even the lowest-cost producers are deciding to preserve long-term value by leaving uranium in the ground”. The Canadian company owns uranium deposits in Western Australia, which are much more significant than those in NSW.
“There are no known economic deposits of uranium in NSW,” Friends of the Earth national nuclear campaigner Dr Jim Green said. “The nuclear push in NSW is driven by far-right wing nuts who don’t believe in climate change and are quite happy with coal.”
Green was at pains to point out that uranium as an energy source is suffering a global downturn that could mark its end. He said that the trade in uranium in South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia is negligible.
Prior to the NSW Coalition Cabinet’s meeting in late August, NSW energy minister Matt Kean had indicated that mining uranium is economically unviable. However, since then he has gone silent on the matter and has not responded to Green Left’s request for comment.
Desecrating First Nations
“The people who will be first impacted by uranium extraction in NSW — as has happened across the world — will be First Nations people,” NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge made clear. “Their land will be poisoned. It will be their water that gets poisoned by the radioactive waste.”
Wasley pointed out that areas around Dubbo, the New England region and Broken Hill were raised as potential areas for uranium mining in 2012. At that time, Aboriginal communities voiced strong opposition.
NSW Aboriginal Land Council member Rod Towney told the ABC last month that opening up Western NSW for uranium extraction would be a disaster. The Wiradjuri Elder said: “We don’t like uranium and what it does”. He added that current mining projects for other resources are also not of benefit to his people.
There is also the significant issue of how to safely dispose of nuclear waste. Wasley said that all nuclear facilities around the world have led to some contamination. She pointed to the Ranger mine’s ongoing pollution problem in the middle of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.
“We’ve seen massive contamination spikes in creeks downstream,” Wasley said. “This is in the middle of a World Heritage area, where there are many more layers of scrutiny built into that mining operation than there would be in a remote NSW location.”
According to the Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear free campaigner Dave Sweeney, the lack of any economic sense behind investing in either uranium mining or nuclear energy points to this push being an ideological move by conservative MPs on behalf of a larger player.
“There is a very clear campaign from the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) to remove any current political policy ban, legislative restrictions or prohibitions on uranium and nuclear,” Sweeney said.
The seasoned anti-nuclear activist outlined that the MCA is behind an ongoing Victorian parliamentary inquiry into lifting similar moratoriums on uranium and nuclear energy there. He asserts that the industry body is behind the NSW inquiry into Latham’s bill. “They did the same thing at the federal level, with a push by Minister Keith Pitt.”
The federal government established a parliamentary inquiry last year that ultimately recommended the development of, and investment in, nuclear energy.
Pitt was subsequently appointed federal resources minister in February and, while the nation was still reeling from the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires, the new minister suggested the country needed more investment in coal, gas and uranium to “lift” standards of living.
Knocking out renewables
Renowned United States commentator Professor Noam Chomsky has warned that humanity is facing two great existential threats: uranium-fuelled nuclear war and fossil fuel-driven climate change.
Shoebridge, who is the energy spokesperson for the NSW Greens, pointed out that even if NSW uranium is exported under the proviso that it cannot be used in weaponry, it nevertheless frees up others to provide the metal to build toxic arms.
Sweeney maintains that the ultimate purpose of the conservatives’ push for the economically unviable outdated energy source is ideological: it aims to shift the debate away from the urgent need for a just transition to renewables to an argument over fossil fuels versus uranium.
“It’s a way to further increase and facilitate uncertainty, confusion and delay in developing a genuine and credible energy policy at state and national levels to do what we need to do,” the seasoned nuclear-free campaigner said.
Sweeney said that for those who have an interest in maintaining coal or advancing gas, the “nuclear argument is handy”, as it shifts the debate from the increasingly obvious option of renewables, which are “cheaper, more plentiful, more popular and quicker to deploy”.
“This whole nuclear debate is a dangerous distraction from where we need to be which is ending our reliance on fossil fuels and embracing and supercharging renewables,” Sweeney concluded.