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Uranium mining - Faustian bargain or economic bonanza?

By Chris Harries - posted Monday, 7 August 2006

With both John Howard and Kim Beazley egging on a uranium debate, let’s have one. I mean a real information debate.

As a long-term campaigner against uranium mining and expansion of the nuclear fuel cycle, I am not about to dispute the financial arguments put forward. I will even add to them.

Put succinctly, for all its inherent risks, the world is simply not going to leave uranium resources in the ground. Our addiction to unsustainable, high-energy living, coupled with climate change, will guarantee that.


Howard and Beazley are opening up this can of worms on the pretext that uranium will be a bonanza for the national economy.

So, what’s really in it for Australia? Here’s how it goes, in a nutshell.

Until now, the world’s 440 nuclear reactors have been largely fuelled by using plutonium from dismantled cold war stockpiles. Mined uranium has just filled the gap. But that’s about to change, because the old nuke stockpiles are rapidly coming to an end.

This factor is what is injecting strong demand for new uranium mines. So too is a number of new nuclear power plants soon to be constructed, not least those in China. Then there is the gradual worldwide spread of carbon taxes intended to discourage and phase out the use of fossil fuels. The nuclear power industry is the main a beneficiary of carbon taxation and is rubbing its hands.

Like it or not, demand for fissile uranium is shooting up exponentially and with over one third of the world’s extractable uranium lying under Australian soil (1.1 million tonnes) it is not hard to see why we are being goaded into a hurried debate.

Significant uranium resources also exist in Canada, the US, Brazil, Niger, South Africa, Kazakhstan and Namibia, so it’s not as if there is no competition. Howard and Beazley obviously want Australia to be in the front running.


And Australia has a unique competitive edge over other potential suppliers - that is, if it wants to exercise that advantage. Our ancient geology enables Australia to offer uranium on an exchange basis, taking back high-level radioactive wastes, this being an unresolvable headache for nations having nuclear power plant. Agreeing to become a global waste dump goes hand in glove with the economic debate, a volatile issue that Beazley will not be able to shove under the carpet, try as he may.

Though heated public controversy will most likely prevent any state from agreeing to become a nuclear waste dump, the Federal Government has constitutional power to override the Northern Territory’s wishes. The territory, then, is destined to become the world’s major nuclear waste ground.

Now let’s add three more salient factors.

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About the Author

Chris Harries is a Tasmanian based opinion writer and social advocate, and former adviser to Australian Greens senator Bob Brown.

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