Australia’s uneconomic uranium industry in decline

Fukushima five years on, and the lessons we failed to learn, Guardian, Dave Sweeney, 11 Mar 16 “…….As home to around 35% of the world’s uranium reserves, Australia has long been a significant player in the global nuclear trade.

Since the 1980s Australian uranium mining has been dominated by two major operations – Ranger in Kakadu and Olympic Dam in northern South Australia. Both operations and their heavyweight owners have been voting with their feet and their finances since 2011. Processing of stockpiled ore continues at Ranger but mining has ended and parent company Rio Tinto is now preparing to commence costly and complex rehabilitation work.

At Olympic Dam the world’s biggest mining company BHP Billiton stunned the South Australian government in 2012 when it shelved an approved and long planned multi-billion dollar mine expansion.

Smaller mines like Honeymoon in South Australia have been placed on extended care and maintenance, junior companies have abandoned the field and the sectors prevailing business model is to get the paperwork in order and wait in hope for better times.

Historically the sector has been constrained by political uncertainty, restrictions on the number of mines, a consistent lack of social license and strong Aboriginal and community resistance.

Recent years have seen fewer political constraints but a dramatic decline in the price of uranium and popularity of nuclear power following Fukushima.

Australia now accounts for approximately 11% of global uranium production, down from over 18% a decade earlier. Australia’s uranium production of 5,000 tonnes in 2014 was the lowest for 16 years.The industry generates less than 0.2% of national export revenue and accounts for less than 0.02% of jobs in Australia. Less than one thousand people are employed in Australia’s uranium industry.

In an attempt to jump start the flat-lining uranium trade, successive federal governments have preferred enthusiasm to evidence. They have failed to conduct the requested industry review and instead fast-tracked increasingly irresponsible uranium sales deals, most recently with India.

Approvals are fast-tracked, regulators are complacent, community concerns are air-brushed away and all for a sector that never really made sense and now doesn’t even make dollars.

In short, Australia’s uranium sector is high risk and low return. It leaves polluted mine sites and home and drives nuclear risk and insecurity abroad. And it fuelled Fukushima – a profound environmental, economic and human disaster that continues to negatively impact lives in Japan and far beyond.

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