Reports in late August that the New South Wales Coalition government had cemented a deal with the Pauline Hanson One Nation party to overturn a 33-year-old ban on uranium mining led to a flurry of online opposition, including from environmental groups and unions.
The Nature Conservation Council urged people to oppose the push by Pauline Hanson's One Nation MLC Mark Latham and Nationals leader John Barilaro, who want the ban overturned. The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) said on August 21 that uranium mining is not in the public interest.
The Coalition cabinet decided on August 24 not to support Latham’s push. However, it is looking into its own, with Barilaro to report back at a future date.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Barilaro had declared the Nationals’ support to “lift the ban on nuclear energy”, despite the party not having discussed it.
It is unlikely that uranium mining in NSW would lead to the construction of nuclear reactors. A more likely prospect is that it would be exported.
In March, as the pandemic lockdown began, a NSW parliamentary inquiry, instigated by Latham, recommended that the prohibitions on the exploration and use of nuclear energy in NSW be lifted. RenewEconomy said the inquiry was stacked pro-nuclear members of the Legislative Council.
A dissenting report by Labor members of the committee said the party would continue to oppose the push to develop nuclear industries.
Another dissenter seems to be NSW energy minister Matt Kean. He told the SMH on August 24 that uranium does not stack up financially.
“Right now the uranium price is about $30 per pound, that is well below the price needed to extract this from the ground. I think this is more about headlines than actually going to see anything result from digging it out of the ground.”
In 2012, the NSW Liberals removed the ban on prospecting and exploration for uranium. The NSW Minerals Council argues that it is absurd to not therefore allow mining. It is backing Barilaro for his “strong interest” in nuclear power, saying that it must be a part of the low emissions energy mix.
ETU national secretary Allen Hicks criticised the Nationals, saying the party should “stand up for its constituents and uphold the ban on uranium mining.
“Are National Party members seriously going to allow radioactive, carcinogenic uranium mines in their very own backyard?” he asked.
The union opposes the mining of uranium because it creates major health and safety risks for local communities and workers which far outweigh any perceived economic benefits.
Hicks said mining uranium is “the first step” down a dangerous path towards nuclear weapons. “If these politicians had any sense, they would take a step in the opposite direction.”
The Greens energy spokesperson David Shoebridge said in March that, apart from the environmental considerations, the development of a nuclear industry would take too long and cost too much. “Every megawatt of new nuclear power costs at least three times new fossil-fuelled power and at least six times that of solar or wind power,” Shoebridge said.
“Those costs are based only on the construction and operation of nuclear power plants and entirely ignore the billions more required to decommission and manage the radiation from a nuclear power plant for hundreds of years after it closes.”
Uranium mining in other parts of Australia has left a toxic legacy of radioactive pollution, including in the Northern Territory where a $1 billion clean-up is underway at the Ranger mine in the middle of Kakadu National Park.
Australian Conservation Foundation nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney said people should have little confidence in the concept of “small” nuclear reactors that “do not exist in the real world of civilian electricity production.
“Small nuclear reactors exist on paper, in corporate funding pitches and on military submarines — they are not a credible response to the climate crisis,” he said.
The ETU said that nuclear is “part of the old, dirty and dangerous way of producing energy” and that “in the age of cheap, reliable, clean energy, we just don’t need it”.
Australia is well placed to lead a clean energy revolution, if not for federal and state governments’ recalcitrance.
Investing in renewable energy as part of the COVID-19 recovery would provide many thousands of safe and renewable jobs, unlike the dangerous and unviable nuclear industry.
[This article was updated on September 3.]