Changing attitudes towards uranium in Australia

This opinion piece was published in The AusIMM Bulletin, August 2015.

The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission highlights an opportunity for new policy and industry developments

In May, a series of community meetings were held in Adelaide’s universities by the South Australian Royal Commission into nuclear fuel cycle potential. By all accounts (and there don’t appear to be many in the media), these meetings were very civil. A straw poll at one suggested that half to two-thirds of the audience supported the consideration of fuel cycle opportunities.

Twenty or thirty years ago, these meetings would have stirred up much controversy and media attention. In those days, uranium debates were characterised by rallies, marches and protests. Today, it is a second or third tier political issue. What’s changed?

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission in South Australia has turbo-charged positive interest in the uranium and nuclear industries. The compelling story of uranium fuel for nuclear power is becoming more understood, and more accepted, especially in South Australia.

View from South Australia

People and the government want to know more. South Australia hosts 80 per cent of Australia’s uranium resources and Australia hosts almost a third of the world’s resources. South Australians know it has been mined and exported safely for a long time now – and they want to know what other opportunities there are in this sector.

The uranium industry is now essentially normalised in the public’s attitude. It is an accepted part of Australia’s mining and industrial landscape. It is a mid-size industry that generates jobs, is safe to work in, and exports a valuable commodity that is used peacefully abroad to make low-emissions electricity.

The South Australian Royal Commission reflects this. There is a real feeling that the tide has changed or at least is changing on attitudes towards uranium mining. Polling released in 2014 in South Australia was especially revealing. When asked to rate their level of support for uranium mining in South Australia, 55 per cent were supportive and 19.4 per cent were neutral. Only a quarter of respondents were opposed. This is a telling result. The uranium debate in South Australia is over.

One would be hard pressed to find a South Australian who doesn’t know that uranium is mined here, has been for several decades, and is exported for use overseas. Many may not know too much more than that. But three out of four either fully support it or don’t care. Most support it.

When asked what they believed the community’s feelings are towards uranium mining, the results were very interesting. Only 15 per cent believed the community was positively disposed towards uranium. The result showed that people heavily overestimated the level of community negativity towards uranium. They heavily overestimated the level of community indifference. And they heavily underestimated the level of community support.

An interesting picture emerges. More individuals today in South Australia are more accepting of uranium than they were decades ago. They just don’t think others necessarily think the same way.

How is it that people can misread the community attitude so dramatically? There are two explanations for this. Firstly, uranium is not that big an issue for most people. It is not in the paper every day. And the fact is, predictions decades ago that the sky would fall if uranium was mined simply have not materialised. Secondly, because of this, there isn’t that much to talk about. And in the absence of more conscious recognition, old stigmas linger and die slowly. So the average punter is growing quietly more comfortable and accepting, but thinks others might be still holding onto old Cold War-era fears.

Consider what happened when the Royal Commission was announced in February this year. As expected, media picked this up as a significant moment. The Advertiser ran an article including an online poll. Although not a scientific poll, over 6000 votes were registered with startling results. With respect to what role South Australia should play in the nuclear fuel cycle, over two-thirds registered the ‘all of the above’ option – the complete cycle.

Clearly, there are more open minds out there than there were decades ago. There are good signs that we can talk about uranium and nuclear power in a less emotive atmosphere than previously.

The environmental perspective

Another key development in recent years is the changing environmentalist perspective towards nuclear power. This change has been underway for some time. In November 2013, four world-renowned scientists issued an open letter calling on environmentalists to advocate for the development of safer nuclear energy systems. Just over 12 months later, another open letter to environmentalists was written by Australian Professors Bradshaw and Brook and co-signed by over 65 conservation scientists. The letter says: ‘We, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation published in Conservation Biology, 2014’.

In April this year, 18 environmental scientists, activists and scholars co-authored ‘An Ecomodernist Manifesto’, a document offering an optimistic vision for the future of our planet and species.

‘Urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species.’

These sentiments are reflected in the output of major forecasters and scientific bodies. The latest International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2014 outlined the Agency’s latest scenario updates for energy production by source through to 2040. The more global policies focus on climate change alleviation, the more nuclear power features in the forward energy projection.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s authority on climate change, concurs. Its latest Summary for Policymakers says:

‘At the global level, scenarios reaching 450 ppm CO2eq are also characterized by more rapid improvements of energy efficiency, a tripling to nearly a quadrupling of the share of zero- and low-carbon energy supply from renewables, nuclear energy and fossil energy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS), or bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) by the year 2050.’

In a world that still has over one billion people without electricity, and is still growing in population, the critical role nuclear power will play in providing low emissions is clear.

Strict regulations

But no-one will take the time to understand the benefits of uranium in jobs and export revenue at home, and low emissions energy production overseas unless the industry is safe, competitive and responsible. And the uranium industry’s performance in Australia is excellent. Uranium mining and milling is generally similar to other forms of mining and metal extraction. The main unique factor is the need to manage radiation exposure. This is a regulated, monitored and managed hazard.

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (or ARPANSA) is the federal regulatory body which sets the occupational and general public exposure limits. It sets these based on the limits established by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). They are 1 mSv/a for the general public and 20 mSv/a for workers averaged over five years or 50 mSv in any one year.

With respect to worker radiation exposure, uranium miners have been very successful in managing exposure to levels well below regulatory limits. ARPANSA collects data via its National Doses Register on all uranium industry workers. Both average and maximum annual effective doses to Australian uranium workers show an overall downward trend. Doses to workers have remained consistently low. The average background radiation dose received by anyone living in Cornwall in the UK is about 7.8 mSv/annum. In recent years, the maximum dose received by an Australian uranium worker is around that level. Averages are miles below at less than 1 mSv/annum.

With respect to competitive supply, current exports are over 6700 tonnes per annum and worth over $600 million. This represents about ten per cent of the world’s requirements. It would power about 31 typical large reactors and generate the equivalent of more than three-quarters of Australia’s own electricity production.

Production is down a little from previous years, reflecting some recent production disruption. But at ten per cent, we are an important and competitive supplier to customers around the world. Very close to a third of production goes to Asia, Europe and North America respectively in what is a truly global market.

Responsible supply

And finally, consider two critical dimensions of Australia’s responsible supply – non-proliferation and sustainable production.

With respect to non-proliferation, the uranium industry supports the Australian government’s well-developed network of bilateral agreements. This network facilitates uranium sales to customer countries that commit to exclusively peaceful use of Australian sourced uranium. It is executed by Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office (ASNO) who report annually on where Australian uranium has gone, and where it is through the fuel cycle. This system is rigorous and works well. Along with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Safeguards Agreements, the world has been very successful at supporting the expansion of civilian nuclear power without unchecked proliferation of nuclear weapons.

With respect to sustainability, uranium mining in Australia in the modern era has developed a strong record of protecting the external environment from the impact of its activities and incidents. Like any industrial activity, there are incidents such as spills. However, the record of environmental impact of such incidents is very much confined to project areas. This is consistently validated by annual reports from the Supervising Scientist Division with respect to Ranger in the Northern Territory, and the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) in South Australia.

Uranium mining in Australia in the modern era has developed a strong record of protecting the external environment from the impact of its activities and incidents.

Uranium transportation and export continues to be conducted safely through South Australia and the Northern Territory and shipped out of Darwin and Port Adelaide. There have been no incidents affecting public health involving a spillage of uranium oxide during transportation in over three decades and over 11 000 exported containers.

Uranium today

All in all, events over the past 12 months, and the trends over the last half decade or so, suggest a political landscape that is evolving to reflect the changing attitudes towards uranium and its context in society today.

Uranium is today at best a second tier political issue. Whereas 20-30 years ago the announcement of a Royal Commission into nuclear fuel cycle opportunities would have led to widespread protests and marches – today, there is a muted response, with civil meetings and mature conversation.

Whereas 20-30 years ago uranium issues were front and centre in the political arena – evidenced by Labor’s difficult process to reach a three-mines policy consensus in the 1980’s – today, uranium is barely mentioned, if at all, in election campaigns.

Steady progress defines the modern era of normalising uranium policy. Bipartisanship is now essentially fully formed in Canberra – in approving new uranium projects, opening new markets under appropriate bilateral agreements, and seeing uranium as an important part of our strategic trading relationships in our region. The bipartisanship consensus achieved on a bilateral civil nuclear agreement with India reflects this evolution. Labor was long opposed to selling uranium to a country which hasn’t signed the NPT.

However, in office it developed policy flexibility to recognise the importance of India as a trading partner, the importance of uranium for the development of low emissions energy in India, and the significant economic return available to Australia in terms of additional export revenue and jobs, many in remote areas.

At the state level, there has been great progress in WA with the overturning of the ban on uranium mining. NSW has removed the ban on uranium exploration. Queensland removed the ban on mining only for Labor to reinstate it – a perplexing change given the groundbreaking initiative in South Australia with the commencement of the Royal Commission.

In the context of the policy evolution of the last half decade or more, the reversal in Queensland is completely at odds with the trend, at odds with the challenges of our age, and at odds with where public attitudes are moving.

Policy reform

In fact, when it comes to uranium issues, a broad question has to be asked. Is policy reform keeping pace with what seems to be an increasingly normalising public attitude towards uranium?

The answer appears to be ‘no’.

Firstly, despite a record of continuous, reliable, safe and responsible supply, the industry continues to be discriminated against under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. A uranium project may require federal environmental approval just because it is uranium. A similar project of another commodity requires no automatic federal environmental approval. This causes delays and additional costs for no environmental benefit. Approval conditions are invariably a complete duplication. It is past time that the definition of ‘nuclear actions’ in the EPBC Act was amended to remove uranium mining, milling, decommissioning and rehabilitation. These are not nuclear actions.

Like any other project, a uranium mine should undergo federal environmental approval only if it triggers a Matter of National Environment Significance (MNES) like world or national heritage, Ramsar wetlands, threatened or migratory species, and so on. They often do trigger one or more of these MNES’s – and they should be evaluated and approved on those specific triggers like any other project. This should be done effectively and efficiently under a one-stop-shop bilateral assessment and approval process. There are no reasons a uranium project per se should be considered an MNES.

Secondly, state policies need to become more consistent. Promoted here and banned there is embarrassing and out of date. It does not reflect the reality of the industry’s performance and importance. It threatens investment and relationships with customers. It costs jobs – mostly in remote areas that could really use them – and export revenue. It is time for policy consistency across the country.

Thirdly, uranium transportation is still restricted to export out of Darwin and Port Adelaide only. Uranium is shipped in about 30-40 containers per month. It is Class 7 radioactive. So are the 2000 packages of radioisotopes dispatched by Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) every month to hospitals and industrial sites throughout the country and its capital cities. State laws and regulations need to be normalised, allowing Australia’s uranium exports to be moved safely through the most optimal, cost effective route to market.

And finally, it is time to remove the federally legislated ban on nuclear power. Australia is the only country in the OECD with such a ban. Whether Australia has nuclear power or not is a separate question.

Conclusion

In mature countries like ours, there is no justification for banning a technology which supplies ten per cent of the world’s electricity, 20 per cent of the OECD’s, and which the IPCC and IEA are saying is critical for a sustainable global energy future.

The uranium industry continues to have great prospects for Australia. The public is becoming increasingly supportive of this. But policy reform is now urgently required to catch up with shifting public attitudes.