Return of the ALP uranium blues

Issue 

By John R. Hallam

In what has almost become a ritual, the ALP is yet again preparing to tear up the "three mine policy" on uranium.

Everyone agrees that the 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, and those who feel that the only rational uranium policy is no mines.

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

While mining proceeds at Ranger and Roxby, and rehabilitation is pondered at Nabarlek, the latest moves within the ALP Uranium Policy Review Committee (UPRC) 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 is supposed to produce recommendations by the time of the ALP's annual conference in June, and the pro-uranium forces are bringing massive backroom pressure to bear.

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

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 has started to argue for a uranium free-for-all. And 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, according to Jeanette McHugh, the original submission had a note appended saying that it represented the opinion of Kerin's department, and not necessarily his own. So just who does write Kerin's submissions these days?

In previous submissions to the UPRC, Kerin had argued that current market conditions didn't justify the opening up of more uranium mines.

The current submission claims: "... the evidence points to a significant upturn in the world uranium market from about the middle of the 1990s. By then, much of the present excess stockpile of uranium will have been run down."

Since Kerin, or someone, 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 US$8.50 in Dec '90, and rallied slightly to US$9.50. 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 letter said that the spot market isn't significant, a growing proportion of uranium has in fact been sold on spot, and there's lots of spare uranium 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.

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 seems to be on the verge of bankruptcy. Uranium producers in Niger and South Africa have also been hit hard.

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

Reality is different from the departmental fantasyland, however. A study done last year by this author for Friends of the Earth 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 claims, that existing mines suggest that "... uranium mining can be undertaken in ecologically sensitive areas without significant detriment to the traditional Aboriginal occupants or the environment".

In a submission to a recent Industry Commission inquiry, the Office of the Supervising Scientist said: "There has been a significant deterioration of the water quality of billabongs near the Ranger site".

According to OSS's 1988-89 annual report, "Seepage from the tailings dam is also affecting the water quality in Coonjimba Billabong ... The sulphate level in Coonjimba Billabong is likely to increase as retention pond No 1 water quality degrades

further due to increased seepage from the tailings dam."

These findings have been paraded by another miner — Pancontinental — to show how horrible the Ranger operation is, and how much nicer and cleaner their own mine at Jabiluka would be. It's a particularly insidious argument that cynically seeks to split the environment movement.

The fact is that if Pancon got the go-ahead for Jabiluka, ERA's Ranger operation would not just disappear, while the combined production would add to the already ludicrous inventories of uranium worldwide — if indeed, Pancon could find customers enough to commence production at all.

Lobbying has now been joined by WMC. In spite of the fact that WMC, as 51% owner of the massive Roxby Downs deposit, has a "privileged" position under the existing policy, and has been unable to sell more than 60% of the uranium produced at Roxby, its chief executive, Duncan Bell, is pacing the halls of parliament to argue for an "open" uranium policy. This seems odd, but conforms to WMC's record of continual overoptimism: since 1988, it has repeatedly forecast rises in the spot price, and every such forecast has been followed by a fall in price.

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