With its decision to overturn a long-standing prohibition on uranium mining, the Newman Government has the opportunity to transform Queensland into an energy powerhouse of regional and potentially world significance.
The uranium opportunity stands alongside the opportunity Queensland has already taken to supply energy through coal and gas to the rest of the world. It stands alongside the opportunity to develop renewable sources of electricity for domestic use in Queensland. Few regions in the world have the natural energy endowments of Queensland.
Queensland has the infrastructure to exploit these resources. Queensland has the ideal political setting to help the state realise its energy potential. It is sensibly conducting a review to ensure it has the regulatory capability to guide uranium development.
The Implementation Committee Premier Newman has appointed to guide the commencement of the uranium industry is just beginning its work. The committee is an appropriate mechanism to ensure that the state’s legislative and regulatory framework is adequate – with a few tweaks – and to ensure the uranium industry can operate effectively and responsibly in the state and will deliver the benefits it promises.
The committee is led by former Local Government Association of Queensland President Paul Bell. The group has the right mix of community, government, scientific and industry expertise to ensure a good result for the north and north west of the state, where most of the mining activity will take place, and for the state as a whole.
By itself, the uranium industry in Queensland will likely be a moderately sized industry developed over a lengthy period, but with the potential to make a valuable contribution to the diversity and prospects of the Queensland economy and to employment, including regional employment.
Queensland’s uranium endowment is about 2% of Australia’s endowment, which is the largest uranium reserve of any country in the world – between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of the world’s uranium, depending on which category of cost of recovery you use to define the resource. Queensland contains upwards of 40,000 tonnes of reasonably assured and inferred resources.
Five companies are currently seeking to develop most of those resources: AREVA Resources Australia, Paladin Energy Ltd and its associate Summit Resources, Laramide Resources and Mega Uranium Ltd.
The largest deposits are Valhalla and Skal, controlled by Paladin and Summit, near Mount sa. Paladin and Summit now manage more than 140 million pounds of uranium (U308) in the Mount Isa region.
Paladin is a global uranium production company with two operating mines in Africa, the Langer Heinrich Mine in Namibia and the Kayelekera Mine in Malawi. These two mines are the only new conventional uranium operations built anywhere in the world in the last 20 years. Paladin has a majority shareholding in Summit, the operator of the Mount Isa projects that it jointly and equally owns with Paladin.
AREVA Resources Australia is the local subsidiary of AREVA International, an integrated energy company with nuclear and renewables interests. AREVA is exploring around 20,000 km2 of prospective country in the Gulf Region, focusing particularly on sediment hosted uranium deposits within the Karumba and Carpentaria Basins, which have not been explored for decades.
Laramide’s Westmoreland Uranium Deposits are located in Far North West Queensland, on the Northern Territory border, 400 km from Mount Isa. This places the project north of the Century Mine and Doomadgee township and north west of Hells Gate Roadhouse. The deposits contain more than 50 million pounds of U3O8 and are subject to continuing exploration which has totaled $45 million since 2006.
The potential benefits to this region are large. The township of Doomadgee is an example of the kind of remote regional community that stands to benefit from uranium development. With few employment and training opportunities currently, the uranium industry will be a long lived source of employment, training and income for Doomadgee and the surrounding area, potentially for decades to come. Mining can provide many benefits to this remote community, and Laramide’s efforts attract strong support amongst Traditional Owners and other local stakeholders.
Mega Uranium Limited has two mining leases at Ben Lomond, 50 kilometres west of Townsville and three exploration permits covering the Maureen deposit in the Georgetown area. So far, Mega has spent $8 million exploring the potential of the Ben Lomond project, determining its economics and the ideal steps to developing a mine, should the opportunity arise.
Together, these projects amount to the core of a significant industry. It will never rival the coal industry in scale, but the energy value locked up in these deposits is enormous and highly attractive to the global nuclear industry, which is set for a new era of growth from 2015-16 onwards. This is an ideal time scale, as establishment of the framework for development of the Queensland industry and subsequent development of the mines themselves will take considerable time.
Queensland already has a sound regulatory framework with the Mineral Resources and Environmental Protection Acts at its heart, along with existing state radiation safety laws. Together, these elements provide a firm platform to deal with the assessment and regulation of uranium mining in the state.
No doubt the Implementation Committee will be seeking to assess the capacity of the Queensland Government and public service to extend the application of these instruments to a new industry.
The key will be to ensure that regulation is fit-for-purpose. Those with the responsibility for overseeing the industry will be best equipped for the task with a science-based understanding of the actual properties of the mineral.
There has been a tendency occasionally in the past to believe uranium warrants special regulatory treatment in order to comfort and reassure a public spooked by decades of inaccurate claims about the risks of uranium, mostly derived from the myths and fears deliberately built up by uranium’s opponents. The property of uranium as a low-level radiation emitter is its main difference from other minerals – although the mineral sands industry also deals with low-level radiation and has operated safely, successfully and without undue hindrance in Queensland and elsewhere for many years.
Similarly, the uranium industry has managed radiation safely and responsibly in South Australia and the Northern Territory (and previously in Queensland) for decades. The industry has well-tried systems and processes for ensuring emissions from mines and radiation doses for workers in mines and processing plants are kept to very low levels, consistently well below the limits set by federal and state regulatory authorities.
The uranium industry worked closely with the Commonwealth radiation regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) to establish a national register of radiation dose data for uranium mine workers throughout Australia.
The register has been operating since July 2010 and holds career dose data for around 24,000 people who have worked in the uranium industry. Mine operators collect the data and provide it to ARPANSA, which operates the register, and holds the data for workers to access privately.
The uranium industry will urge the Queensland Government to make the necessary legislative provisions to allow any mines that are established in Queensland to be exempted from privacy restrictions that would prevent the mining companies contributing their employees’ dose data to the register.
Monitoring of worker dose levels is an essential part of ensuring uranium miners remain safe and healthy. This is central in the continuing effort of the uranium industry to operate to the highest standard of environment, community and employee safety.
Uranium mine operators have an exemplary record in these areas and the Australian Uranium Association, by requiring Member adherence to its Charter, Code of Practice and operational guidance framework, seeks to ensure that uranium mining and exploration companies continually look to improve the way they operate.
Evidence of this is the success in recent years of a number of uranium companies to satisfy the rigorous environmental processes of Commonwealth, state and territory Governments, for example, in assessments and approvals of the Four Mile, Beverley North and Olympic Dam expansion projects in South Australia and, most recently, the Toro Energy Wiluna project in Western Australia.
In turn, the uranium sector operates within the standards framework of the broad resources sector. There is little real difference between mining uranium and mining any other commodity – and therefore few differences in the framework required for supervising uranium mining compared with any other commodity.
The uranium industry looks forward to working with the Newman Government to ensure its contribution to Queensland’s energy ambitions can be achieved safely and responsibly.