Uranium and the case for reform

Daniel Zavattiero, keynote speaker at the upcoming AusIMM International Uranium Conference 2016, says that while the South Australian Royal Commission shined a spotlight on opportunities in the nuclear fuel cycle, a simple reform will help boost the well-established Australian uranium industry’s prospects in the global market.  

https://www.ausimmbulletin.com/opinion/uranium-and-the-case-for-reform/

Australia’s uranium industry continues to offer exciting possibilities for jobs and export revenue for Australia in the decades ahead.

In 2015, economists Professor Sinclair Davidson and Dr Ashton de Silva modelled potential jobs and revenue that could flow Australia’s way under various scenarios (Davidson and De Silva, 2015). They looked at what uranium demand would be under various global energy scenarios outlined by the International Energy Agency (IEA). They found that the more the world enacted policies to alleviate the effects of climate change, the more nuclear power would be required to balance the demand and emissions ledger.

Importantly, they also modelled the impact of Australia increasing its share of global production, currently around 10 per cent, to something closer to its share of global resources currently around 31 per cent.

[Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission press conference with Kevin Scarce, Adelaide.]
South Australia Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commissioner Rear Admiral the Honourable Kevin Scarce AC CSC RAN (Rtd). Creative Commons: Danimations

In the scenario where global nuclear power generation rose over 150 per cent due to strong climate policies and Australia increased its share to 30 per cent of global production, their modelling showed an Australian uranium industry with over 20 000 direct and indirect jobs generating over $9 billion in annual economic activity by 2040. This compares with the Australian uranium industry today, which accounts for around 3000 jobs and $600 million of annual exports.

Since that study, there have been positive signs that Australia is positioning itself to capture this future potential.

The Federal Government finalised a bilateral agreement and administrative arrangements with India in December 2015 that open up India as a potential future market for Australian uranium. India promises to be a large nuclear power generating country. According to the IEA’s base case, nuclear power generation in India is expected to grow by almost 700 per cent from 2013 to 2040. Over this period, it sees the share of electricity production generated by nuclear power in India growing by an average of almost 8 per cent per annum.

Also in December 2015, the Federal Government finalised an administrative arrangements agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that allows Australia to sell uranium to this growing market. This followed the conclusion of the Australia-UAE bilateral agreement in 2012. The UAE’s nuclear program is aiming to deliver electricity to the grid in 2017 and produce nearly a quarter of the country’s electricity by 2020. Four units are now under construction, with more than 75 per cent complete.

In February 2016, the South Australia Royal Commission into Nuclear Fuel Cycle potential handed down its Tentative Findings (available at http://www.nuclearrc.sa.gov.au). It confirmed that ‘an expansion of uranium mining has the potential to be economically beneficial’. According to its modelling, ‘growth in the value of the uranium mining industry of 32 per cent by 2029-30 in South Australia would represent significant growth in activity in regional areas’.

In March 2016, the Federal Government signed a bilateral agreement with Ukraine to enable Australian uranium sales to another growing market. Ukraine already has 15 reactors generating about half of its electricity, and the government plans to maintain nuclear share in electricity production to 2030. Its nuclear power capacity is projected to approximately double between 2013 and 2035.

However, progress in responsibly opening up new markets and considering new opportunities in the fuel cycle continue to be thwarted by an outdated regulatory requirement imposing unnecessary delays in bringing new uranium projects to market for no environmental or other benefit.

In its Tentative Findings, the Royal Commission noted that a significant barrier to the viability of new uranium mine developments in South Australia was:

the requirements for regulatory approval of new uranium mining activities from state mining and environmental regulators and the federal environmental regulator. Although the approvals processes at the state and federal government levels have a common purpose, they are separate, have different timeframes, require different information, and can result in differing conditions being imposed on the same activity. This has increased the anticipated costs of, and timeframes for, regulatory approval for a new uranium mine.

The time to address this barrier is well overdue.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is the Australian Government’s key piece of environmental legislation. It has several objectives, including providing for the protection of the environment, especially matters of national environmental significance (MNES). Under the Act, actions that have or are likely to have a significant impact on an MNES require Australian Government approval.

The nine MNES protected are world heritage properties, national heritage properties, wetlands of international importance, listed threatened species and ecological communities, migratory species, Commonwealth marine areas, the Great Barrier Reef, nuclear actions and water resources in relation to coal seam gas or large coal developments.

Nuclear actions understandably refer to actions involving a nuclear installation, such as a nuclear reactor. Oddly however, they also include ‘mining or milling uranium ores’ and ‘decommissioning and rehabilitating’ such mines.

Environmental management planning will vary from mine to mine depending on the nature of the operation. Plans are tailored in line with individual mine characteristics using standard science and risk-based assessment practices. These environmental management plans, which are a requirement of state-based approvals, address the broad range of potential environmental impacts that may arise from a project. The EPBC Act trigger for uranium mining, which often relies on state assessment, serves only to duplicate this requirement.

Any uranium mine, no matter how small or low impact, requires Australian Government approval prior to proceeding. This results in delays and costs that Australia can ill afford. Consider the global uranium productiontrend of the last decade. Between 2004 and 2014, global uranium production went from 40 178 t to 56 252 t. During that time, Australian production fell from 8982 t to 5001 t. Uranium production in Kazakhstan rose from 3710 t to 23 127 t during this period, bringing with it jobs and increased export revenue (World Nuclear Association).

The case for removing uranium mining, milling decommissioning and rehabilitation from the definition of ‘nuclear actions’ is incontrovertible.

Extraordinary treatment of uranium mining has never been justified

With the exception of uranium mining, the provisions relating to MNES are all cast in terms of the impact of activities ‘on’ something, such as the impact of activities ‘on’ World Heritage properties, National Heritage places or a declared Ramsar wetland. In contrast, the unique treatment of uranium mining under the EPBC Act is cast in terms of the protection of the environment ‘from’ uranium mining.

There is no scientific justification for the assumption in the EPBC Act that uranium mining, milling, decommissioning and rehabilitation requires specific federal oversight for general environmental matters already covered by state regulation. Other MNES within the EPBC Act provide the appropriate basis for federal assessment of uranium or any other projects without the need for extraordinary provisions that uniquely apply to uranium.

No overwhelming negative public opinion

Australians do not identify uranium mining as a key issue for them or the country, and there is no overwhelmingly negative sentiment that justifies the extraordinary treatment that the EPBC Act metes out. In other words, there is no argument that extraordinary treatment provides assurances to a fearful public.

With respect to uranium mining, the most recent polling by Essential Research in late 2015 showed that only 30 per cent of Australians oppose uranium mining and export (Essential Media Communications, 2015). These results do not represent a sufficient level of community concern to justify discriminatory treatment under the EPBC Act, let alone state bans on uranium mining in Queensland, NSW and Victoria.

Opposition is even lower in states with a history of uranium mining. Almost three quarters of South Australians support or hold neutral attitudes towards uranium mining, where mines have been operating safely and successfully for many decades (SACOME, 2014).

Uranium industry regulatory framework is ‘best practice’

Mining uranium is not particularly different to mining other minerals in that it involves extraction and processing of ore with extraction technologies that are very similar to those used to extract other minerals.

The only unique feature of uranium – its low level of radioactivity – is subject to existing regulation derived from international policy standards translated into Australian practice via the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).

Broadly speaking, outside of duplicative EPBC Act requirements, the regulatory framework for uranium is already comprehensive and accounts for the potentially unique risks associated with uranium mining and transport, including:

environmental assessment and approval conducted under state-based mainstream environmental laws

the regulation of exploration for and mining of uranium under state resources industry laws

the regulation and management of radiation issues associated with uranium exploration and mining (and other industries), mainly by state laws derived from globally accepted evidence and principles under guidance from the ARPANSA codes

state regulation of uranium transport under radiation protection laws, ARPANSA’s Code of Practice for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Materials and the Commonwealth Safeguards Act

public reporting of aspects of uranium industry operational performance under state laws, including reporting requirements associated with environmental approval conditions

the export of uranium only for peaceful purposes under longstanding Commonwealth policy and regulation in line with Australia’s international obligations.

This policy and regulatory framework is essentially the same framework as for mining generally, but includes the addition of laws governing radiation protection (which may also apply to other mining industries) and uranium-specific export policies.

That uranium mining involves the management of mild radioactivity, dealt with under occupational health and safety law, is not a justification for a duplicative environmental assessment imposed on the industry by the EPBC Act. The average effective dose received by a uranium industry worker in a year is comparable to what a long distance pilot receives in three months. The resources and expertise exist at the state level to assess the radiation aspects of uranium projects.

Australian uranium industry performance is excellent

Australian uranium projects have a track record of meeting the highest standards of environmental approval under mainstream project assessment and approval processes. Since 2008, six projects have been approved under state and federal environmental laws under both Labor and Coalition governments.

Radiation protection of workers and the public is closely monitored, managed and publically reported, reflecting an industry operating safely and under controlled processes.

All uranium industry worker doses are reported to ARPANSA, which reports annually on dose trends. Its latest report says that analysis of doses in 2014 indicates ‘that more workers are now receiving lower doses across the industry’ and that ‘average doses to workers remain consistently low’ (ARPANSA, 2015).

Annual radiation protection reports by BHP Billiton and Energy Resources of Australia show that doses received by the public near Roxby Downs, Olympic Dam and Jabiru are close to undetectable at around 0.02-0.03 mSv per annum or 2-3 per cent of ARPANSA’s prescribed public dose limit (MCA, 2016).

While there are environmental incidents from time to time, as in any mining operation, few have been serious enough to attract regulatory scrutiny or action. Like all mining companies, uranium businesses report on a variety of bases to regulatory authorities, and reports are scrutinised and actioned if necessary.

In South Australia, there have been no cases of a uranium company having to report serious environmental harm or abnormal radiation exposure to workers or the public (South Australian Department of State Development, 2014). In the Northern Territory, the Office of the Supervising Scientist monitors the Ranger mine and reports annually on how the environment is being protected from mining activities.

For transport, uranium oxide concentrate is double-sealed inside steel drums that are kevlar strapped into shipping containers. The containers are locked and are not opened, unless for official inspections, until they reach their overseas destination. Uranium is transported by road or rail following the normal routes for commercial transport. Transport is regulated by Commonwealth and state laws in accordance with the transport code created by ARPANSA. There have been over 11 000 containers transported and exported without an incident posing risk to public health.

The Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, to which all security-related incidents relating to the transport of uranium are required to be reported, advised in its 2014-15 Annual Report that ‘all AONM (Australian Obligated Nuclear Material) safely reached its destination’ (ASNO, 2015).

With respect to rehabilitation of uranium mine waste sites, ARPANSA confirmed in the Australian National Report (2003) that:

waste management is an integral part of any uranium mining operation, and regulatory requirements are currently in place for all Australian uranium mining operations to ensure that wastes are managed in accordance with current best practice, and that long term rehabilitation measures will be taken as currently operating facilities are closed.

Uranium projects will be assessed under the EPBC Act if they trigger other MNES

Uranium mining does not require extraordinary regulatory treatment under the EPBC Act to ensure its safe operation and the avoidance of unacceptable environmental impact. This assurance is available through state-based regimes and the EPBC Act where a uranium development could have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance.

In recent years, several uranium projects have triggered other MNES, such as Kintyre (threatened species) andOlympic Dam (threatened species, wetlands, migratory species, Commonwealth land), and would have been assessed under the EPBC Act anyway. However, other projects, such as Wiluna and the Beverley extension, only triggered the ‘nuclear actions’ definition. This duplicative review adds costs and delays for no environmental benefit.

It is long past time that the definition of ‘nuclear actions’ under section 22 of the EPBC Act be amended to remove the reference to uranium mining, milling, decommissioning and rehabilitation.


References

Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), 2003. ‘Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management – Australian National Report’. Available from: <www.arpansa.gov.au/pubs/reports/jc040803.pdf>

Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), 2015. ‘ANRDR in Review: Issue 2 – July 2015’. Available from: <www.arpansa.gov.au/pubs/Services/ANRDR/ANRDR_in_Review_Jul15.pdf>

Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO), 2015. ‘Annual Report 2014-15’. Available from: <dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/international-relations/asno-annual-report-2014-15/html/index.html>

Davidson S and De Silva A, 2015. Realising Australia’s uranium potential, Minerals Council of Australia.

Essential Media Communications, 2015. ‘Essential Report: Mining and exporting uranium’. Available from: <www.essentialvision.com.au/mining-and-exporting-uranium>

Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), 2016. ‘Radiation’. Available from: <www.minerals.org.au/resources/uranium/radiation>

South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy (SACOME), 2014. ‘South Australian Attitudes on Uranium and Nuclear Power’. Available from: <http://www.sacome.org.au/images/UAS_Results_summary_final.pdf>

South Australian Department of State Development, 2014. ‘Summary of major operating and approved mines and quarries’. Available from: <minerals.statedevelopment.sa.gov.au/mining/mines_and_quarries>

World Nuclear Association, 2015. ‘Uranium Production Figures, 2004-2014’. Available from: <www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/facts-and-figures/uranium-production-figures.aspx>