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Uranium mining

In Australia uranium mining has been plagued with leaks, spills, accidents and met with fierce opposition from First Nation communities and the public. There is a national review of Australia’s environment laws which threatens to defer powers to state and territory government and reduce the scope of environmental protections. Below are details about why we need stronger, not weaker, laws to protect the environment from uranium mining risks.

Associate Proffessor Gavin Mudd has written extensively on the failures of uranium mining in Australia in a recent article “Expensive, Dirty and Dangerous.” and calls for ongoing federal oversight.

On a regular day uranium ends up as nuclear waste on a bad day uranium ends up as nuclear fall out. Uranium mining in Australia accounts for 0.2% of national export revenue and accounts for less than 0.02% of jobs in Australia – less than a thousand jobs. This marginal sector puts workers, communities and the environment at risk here at home in Australia and the countries where it is exported to.What starts in a dump truck in the outback ends up as a radioactive legacy fuelling risks at nuclear power reactors and pilling up as nuclear waste and weapons grade material around the globe.

First Nations Opposition

First Nations communities have led the fight against uranium mining in Australia at Ranger on Mirrar country, Olympic Dam on Kokatha country, Beverley mines on Adnyamathanha country, Mulga Rock, Yeelirrie and Wiluna on Wongatha country and Kintyre on Martu country. Some communities have been fighting for over 40 years to stop mines others for over 40 years and been forced to live with mining. For more on the First Nations led resistance to uranium mine see the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance.

Uranium Tailings

One of the greatest risks of uranium mining is the tailings. Tailings are the waste from uranium processing, they sit in tailings ponds until mine closure when they are supposed to be rehabilitated. The best national standard for tailings is at the Ranger uranium mine – where there is a requirement to “the tailings are physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years.”

However, during the operation of the Ranger mine ERA and Rio Tinto have failed to secure those tailings, with evidence showing that up to 100,000 litres of tailings leak from the site everyday. Ranger is preparing for rehabilitation to begin in 2021 it is expected to cost close to $1 billion dollars.

In 2019 the Australian National Committee on Large Dams (ANCOLD) gave BHPs Olympic Dam uranium mine tailings a ranking of “Extreme” consequences category, a ranking that is given for facilities that, if the dam fails, would cause the death of 100 or more people. Despite this extreme risk BHPs proposed additional tailings facility at Olympic Dam was granted approval in 2019 without an environmental assessment.

Uranium tailings threaten the environment, public and workers health and safety across generations. What make them even more dangerous is the push to weaken environmental regulations.

Uranium Mine Rehabilitation

There is no example of a uranium mine in Australia that has been successfully rehabilitated. Mary Kathleen (QLD) and Rum Jungle (NT) Narbalek (NT) have all undergone, to varying degrees, rehabilitation and are all sites with ongoing pollution. The NT and Commonwealth government are now preparing for a third attempt to rehabilitate Rum Jungle which is expected to cost well over $300 million dollars – and it is only expected to reduce, not eliminate, the pollution. For more details on the legacy of Australian uranium mining read the joint submission to the 2020 Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation review.

Australian Uranium Fuelled Fukushima

In October 2011 Dr Robert Floyd, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed “that Australian obligated nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors.”

The UN Secretary-General called on Australia and all uranium producing countries to conduct “an in-depth assessment of the net cost impact of the impacts of mining fissionable material on local communities and ecosystems.”

Uranium Mining and Health

There is a dangerous trend in seeking to normalise uranium which has consequences for health and safety. Establishing a culture that seeks to normalise radioactive material and diminishing the risks puts workers at harm. This is evident in a paper written by consultant radiologist and ARPANSA Radiation Health and Safety Advisory Council member Dr Peter Karamoskos who identifies that it “is estimated that up to 50 per cent of underground uranium miners in Australia do not use their masks, and thus drastically increase their risk of lung cancer while underestimating their actual radiation dose (since this is calculated assuming PPEs are used).”

The most widely accepted model for understanding radiation exposure and health outcomes is the “linear no threshold” which suggests that the greater the radiation exposure the greater the risk of adverse health outcome. Richard Monson Professor of Epidemology at Harvard School of Public Health explains that “The health risks – particularly the development of solid cancers in organs – rise proportionally with exposure. At low doses of radiation, the risk of inducing solid cancers is very small. As the overall lifetime exposure increases, so does the risk.” Workers are exposed to low doses every year.

The BEIR VII report concluded that “there is a linear dose-response relationship between exposure to ionizing radiation and the development of solid cancers in humans. It is unlikely that there is a threshold below which cancers are not induced.”

Uranium Price

uranium price chart and quote on low uranium price

In March 2020 the uranium price began to increase the rise was short lived and has begun to come back down. Following decisions to closure two rectors 10 and 20 years earlier than expected was another blow to the uranium price. Arena reports that “the near-term outlook for the uranium market held by many traders, producers, and utilities immediately shifted from a cautiously optimistic outlook to a more bearish view.”

Cameco the worlds largest uranium producer has said “the decisions many producers, including the lowest-cost producers, have made to preserve long-term value by leaving uranium in the ground.”

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Energy Roadmap and Small Modular Reactors

Today the Federal Minister for Energy Angus Taylor released an energy roadmap. Not only does the roadmap include an unfortunate “watching brief” on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) – it locks in no new emissions targets and doubles down on supporting and funding fossil fuels. Over 60 groups, representing millions of Australians, made a submission to the federal government calling for urgent action on climate change, supporting renewables and leaving nuclear at the door. The Minister has done the opposite.

Of deep concern is the signalling that the Government will review ‘impediments’ to their ‘stretch targets’ – which includes SMRs. The Ministers comments today about future regulatory changes to remove barriers signals an intent to remove the prohibition on nuclear power which is prudent and popular barrier to nuclear power and SMRs. See more about the risks to the nuclear power ban here Nuclear Ban.

Unsurprisingly the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) has welcomed the energy roadmap in a media release highlighting the mineral industries who will benefit from the energy roadmap. Including uranium, iron ore and bauxite, aluminium, copper, nickel, zinc, base metals, lithium, minerals sands, rare earths and others. The MCA commended the inclusion of SMRs suggesting they could be ready in the next decade for commercial deployment. The energy roadmap has diverted attention to SMRs which are expensive, would produce more nuclear waste per unit of energy, consume as much water per unit of energy as large nuclear reactors with many of the same problems and risks.

The truth about Small Modular Reactors

Adapted from Dr Jim Green.

SMRs would produce more nuclear waste per unit of energy produced compared to large reactors.

A 2016 European Commission document states: “Due to the loss of economies of scale, the decommissioning and waste management unit costs of SMR will probably be higher than those of a large reactor (some analyses state that between two and three times higher).”

The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission report noted: “SMRs have lower thermal efficiency than large reactors, which generally translates to higher fuel consumption and spent fuel volumes over the life of a reactor.”

Every independent economic assessment finds that electricity from SMRs will be more expensive than that from large reactor.

SMRs will inevitably suffer from diseconomies of scale: a 250 MW SMR will generate 25% as much power as a 1,000 MW reactor  but it will require more than 25% of the material inputs and staffing, and a number of other costs including waste management and decommissioning will be proportionally higher.

A December 2019 report by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator concluded that wind and solar power, including two to six hours of storage, is two to three times cheaper than power from small reactors per unit of energy produced. Nuclear lobbyists dispute the construction costs that underpin this estimate but, in fact, they are a neat fit with real-world construction costs (as opposed to self-serving industry speculation). Indeed the CSIRO/AEMO estimate is lower than the average cost of small-reactor projects in China, Russia and Argentina.

SMRs in China, Russia and Argentina are, respectively, 2, 4 and 23 times over-budget. None could be described as “very affordable”.

A handful of SMRs are under construction (half of them to power fossil fuel mining operations in the Arctic, the South China Sea and elsewhere).

Private sector investment has been pitiful and the main game is to find governments reckless enough to bet billions of taxpayer dollars on high-risk projects. SMRs under construction are all being built by government agencies.

In a 2017 Lloyd’s Register report based on the insights of almost 600 professionals and experts from utilities, distributors, operators and equipment manufacturers. They predict that SMRs have a “low likelihood of eventual take-up, and will have a minimal impact when they do arrive”.

A 2014 report produced by Nuclear Energy Insider, drawing on interviews with more than 50 “leading specialists and decision makers”, noted a “pervasive sense of pessimism” regarding SMRs.

SMRs will likely use as much water per unit of energy produced compared to large reactors ‒ possibly more due to lower thermal efficiencies. Nuclear power, large or small, is incredibly thirsty: a typical large reactor consumes 35‒65 million litres of water per day. Gas cooling creates its own set of problems and inefficiencies, leading to higher costs ‒ that is why a very large majority of reactors are water-cooled.

SMRs will be subject to the same risks as large reactors. Burying reactors below-grade would add a new set of problems for example:

“Potential fire and explosion hazards: below-grade facilities present unique challenges, such as smoke/fire behavior; life safety; design and operation of the HVAC [heating, ventilating, and air conditioning] system and removal of waste water. Potential flooding hazards: below-grade reactors and subsystems raise concerns with regard to hurricane storm surges, tsunami run-up and water infiltration into structures. Limited access for conducting inspections of pressure vessels and components that are crucial for containing radiation, such as welds, steam generators, bolted connections and valves.

identified by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Rolls-Royce sharply reduced its small-reactor investment to “a handful of salaries” in 2018 and is threatening to abandon its R&D altogether unless the British government agrees to an outrageous set of demands and subsidies.

There are disturbing connections between small reactor projects and nuclear weapons proliferation. Rolls-Royce provides one example: part of the company’s sales pitch to the British government includes the argument that a civil small-reactor industry in the UK “would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability” for its weapons program.

No SMRs are being produced in an off-site factory. No such factories are being built. SMRs are at an early developmental stage. They are not a short-term proposition.

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What is new nuclear technology really…

The Australian parliament’s ‘inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia’ in 2019 made the bizarre recommendation to retain the existing ban on nuclear power, but lift a ban on new nuclear technology. The premise of the inquiry was that “new technologies in the field are leading to cleaner, safer and more efficient energy production.” Below is a snapshot of new nuclear technologies – it is clear they are not cleaner, safer, affordable or ready for commercial development.

To the limited extent they have been deployed, these ‘advanced’ nuclear plants have been dangerous, expensive failures. We need urgent action to transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear simply does not meet our needs. Our energy future is renewable not radioactive.

Nuclear power for fossil fuel extraction

Russia, China and Canada are developing new types of reactors for the mining of fossil fuels. In Russia the first floating reactor was launched in 2019 to be used to access fossil fuels in the arctic. China are still developing floating reactors for offshore oil, gas and deep sea mining. And Canada is developing a roadmap for Small Modular Reactors – a key target is for mining tar ‘oil’ sands.

Small Modular Reactors?

Nuclear power proponents often push SMRs as solving many of the barriers to large scale nuclear – but here is why they are a bad idea:

  • they would produce more nuclear waste per unit of energy produced compared to large scale nuclear.
  • SMRs loose economies of scale – it’s been suggested that SMRs are between two and three times more expensive than large reactors.
  • they have lower thermal efficiency – this equated to higher fuel consumption and spent fuel volumes
  • The CSIRO and the Australian Energy Marker Operator reported in December 2019 that wind and solar power, including two to six hours of storage, is two to three times cheaper than power from small reactors per unit of energy produced.
  • SMRs in China, Russia and Argentina are, respectively, 2, 4 and 23 times over-budget. None could be described as “very affordable”

Fast Reactors/ Fast Breeder / Fast Nuetron

Fast breeder or fast neutron reactors and other ‘advanced’ concepts are sometimes called Generation IV concepts. But fast reactors have been around since the dawn of the nuclear age. They are best described as failed Generation I technology ‒ “demonstrably failed technology” in the words of Allison Macfarlane – former Chairman of the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The number of operating fast reactors reached double figures in the 1980s but has steadily fallen and will remain in single figures for the foreseeable future.

More recently:

  • Terrapower abandoned plans for a prototype not prototypes prototypes fast reactor in China
  • France abandoned plans for a demonstration fast reactor
  • Russia clawed back $4 billion from Rosatom’s budget by postponing its fast neutron reactor program
  • Both the US and UK have rejected proposals for GE Htachi’s PRISM fast reactor technology
  • Currently, just five fast reactors are operating ‒ all of them described by the World Nuclear Association as experimental or demonstration reactors.

Fusion

At best Fusion reactors are decades away and most likely they will forever remain decades away. Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, fusion scientist Dr. Daniel Jassby explains that many of the same problems with fission would exist with fusion ‒ waste, weapons proliferation risks, high water consumption, etc.

Nuclear Waste as Nuclear Fuel?

Attempts to use nuclear waste as fuel have faced big hurdles and left an even bigger mess. The Union of Concerned Scientist report that “Department of Energy (DOE) has spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to magnify, rather than simplify, the waste problem.” Another report by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists says these reactor types “will actually exacerbate spent fuel storage and disposal issues.

Thorium

There are no fundamental differences between thorium and uranium so the idea of replacing the uranium fuel cycle with a thorium fuel cycle is absurd. India’s interest in thorium is clearly connected to its weapons program. Thorium R&D is minimal and the World Nuclear Association notes that there are “significant hurdles in terms of building an economic case to undertake the necessary development work.”

Nuclear Weapons

Proponents of nuclear power dismiss the link to nuclear weapons. Some claim new technology can solve the risk of making weapon grade material. New nuclear technology being trialled in India shows two types of reactors – one which produces weapons grade material, the other relies on weapons grade material to begin the reaction that makes energy. And so the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons remains strong.

“For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal … then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”

Al Gore – Former US Vice President

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Scott Morrisons new laws

Scott Morrison’s government has put forward the “Streamlining environmental approvals bill” which would weaken our national environment laws. The bill would transfer all project approvals to state and territory governments. This includes uranium mine projects.

Ignores its own committees advice

The “Streamlining environmental approvals bill” (August 2020) has been tabled in parliament before the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) review Committee have submitted their final report. The final report is due in October 2020. It also ignores advice from Committee in their Interim Report (July 2020).

The Committee called for ‘national environmental standards’. They called for accreditation systems for state and territory governments laws and processes for project assessments and approvals. Not even these small improvements are included in the bill. Find out more about the Committees proposal and risks for uranium projects.

We need new laws that are stronger not weaker.

And so the sad reality is that we are fighting to protect a system that is deeply flawed and deficient. We should be in progressive discussions about improving our national environmental laws.

Existing laws are failing & new laws are even worse

Existing environmental laws have failed to protect the environment from the threats of uranium mining. Uranium mining in Australia has been plagued with, leaks, spills, accidents and failed attempts to rehabilitate. What is proposed would further weaken this system.

The last four uranium mine approvals under the current system have seen substantial increase in conditions through federal approvals. This shows that state approvals and conditions have been weak. Federal conditions have been stronger – but not strong enough. New laws would remove this layer of federal oversight and ability for the federal government to strengthen approval conditions.

In short this means that there would be no checks and balances for environmental protection. If a state decision is weak there is no federal government role to strengthen conditions for environmental protection.

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No need for nuclear

Plans for renewable energy in Australia are becoming more possible. Firstly, new research shows a 20 year plan to reach between 70 -94% renewable energy by 2040. Secondly, Nuclear reactors take on average 20 years to construct. And so nuclear continues to be a dangerous distraction from real action on climate change.

In 2019 the Climate Energy Council wrote to the Government to argue against nuclear power. They argued that renewables, are cheaper, cleaner, faster and more popular. The CEC explained that nuclear continually fails to meet key criteria on social license and cost.

Climate Energy Council on nuclear power
Climate Energy Council 2019 – Parliamentary Inquiry into nuclear power.

There is overwhelming support for renewable energy in Australia. In 2019 over 60 organisations representing millions of Australians called for urgent transition to clean renewable energy. The statement there was a detailed description of why nuclear is not the solution to the climate crisis we face.

“The transition to clean, safe, renewable energy should also re-power the national economy. The development and commercialisation of manufacturing, infrastructure and new energy thinking is already generating employment and opportunity. This should be grown to provide skilled and sustainable jobs and economic activity, particularly in regional Australia.”

Joint Statement to the Parliamentary Inquiry on nuclear power.

Our energy future is renewable not radioactive. And we’re already doing it. Over the last 10 years renewable capacity in Australia has grown by 12% each year. Meanwhile this growth has been despite big road blocks and lack of leadership from government. Imagine what could happen with government support!

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nuclear power push & mining interests

The push to lift the ban on nuclear power in Australia has been driven by interests in uranium mining. This push is less about climate change and more about lifting the uranium price. The slump in uranium price since the Fukushima nuclear disaster has stopped a number of mines and forced others into suspension.

The Minerals Council of Australia has (as the AFR explain) waged a campaign to lift the ban on nuclear power. In the MCA Climate Change plan 2020 they promote advancing “nuclear solutions.” The MCA has released “untapped potential” promoting nuclear and uranium mining. They have promised to “advocate for the lifting of the nuclear energy ban in Australia.”

You don’t have to look far to see why the MCA has a sudden interest. They have at least 11 member groups who are uranium companies. Lifting the ban on nuclear power they believe would drive up the uranium price. The MCA also represent at least 14 coal companies. So is the MCA interested in climate change solutions. Or are they just looking out for a small number of marginal companies?

The uranium companies include: Boss Resources. BHP. Cameco Australia. Cauldron Energy. Deep Yellow. Heathgate Resources. Energy Resources Australia. Paladin Energy. Rio Tinto. Toro Energy and Vimy Resources.

Executives from BHP, Rio Tinto and Vimy Resources all hold board positions with the MCA. Previously executives from Toro Energy and Cameco were on the MCA board. And so it is not surprising the MCA has adopted a pro nuclear position.

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Renewable Energy Status

REN21 is a global network from science, academia, governments, NGOs and industry. They have released their annual Renewables Global Status Report.1 It shows renewable energy is growing faster than nuclear power.

The report finds that the growth of renewables (including hydro) amounted to a record 201 gigawatts (GW) in 2019. The end-of-year total was 2,588 GW. The report states:

“For the fifth year in a row, net additions of renewable power generation capacity clearly outpaced net installations of fossil fuel and nuclear power capacity combined.In most countries, producing electricity from wind and solar PV is now more cost effective than generating it from new coal-fired power plants. These cost declines have led to record-low bids in tendering processes, which became even more common during the year.”

REN21 Renewables Global Status Report

Comparing nuclear and renewables:

In 2019 renewable energy output grew to 201 GW nuclear energy output declined to 4.5 GW.2

In 2019 renewables delivered 75% of new power generation. For the last 5 years renewable energy has grown faster than all other power sources combined.

Solar PV accounted for a record 115 GW of the 201 GW of renewable growth. Solar PV energy was 627 GW by the end of 2019. Wind power saw its second largest annual increase, with 60 GW of new growth bringing the total to 650 GW (including 29 GW of offshore wind).

Renewables accounted for an estimated 27.3% of global electricity generation by the end of 2019 according to the REN21 report. By contrast, nuclear accounts for 10%. Renewables energy output has doubled over the past 10 years whereas nuclear power generation has been stagnant.

Total new investment in renewable power and fuels was at least US$316.7 billion in 2019. Global investment in renewables has exceeded US$200 billion every year since 2010. Investment in renewables in 2019 was more than 20 times greater than nuclear power investments of US$15 billion. Renewables accounted for 75% of investments in power capacity, gas 11.9%, coal 9.3% and nuclear 3.8%. Developing and emerging economies outweighed developed countries in renewable energy investments for the fifth year running, reaching US$152 billion.

The renewable energy sector employs around 11 million people worldwide according to the REN21 report.

References:

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Environmental laws review report released

Nuclear Power Cannot Solve the Climate Crisis

The long awaited Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act review report has been released today. The report does not recommend the removal of prohibitions to nuclear power. The report does however support the further devolution of powers to assess uranium mines while maintaining some federal powers to intervene. Environment Groups have urged caution over the new approach to regulating uranium mines – a system which could further weaken regulations. Groups have called for an independent inquiry into the costs and benefits of uranium mining.

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Push to fast-track uranium mines no answer to climate crisis

The uranium mining industry are advocating to weaken Australia’s environmental approval process.

But the push to soften environmental approvals is no answer to the climate crisis.

Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering at RMIT, Dr Gavin Mudd – argues why we must stop the push to fast-track uranium mines. See below for an Interview with Dr Gavin Mudd.

Uranium is a unique element with immense potential for misuse – as seen with rogue nuclear states like North Korea.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison states that BHP’s Olympic Dam uranium mine expansion will be fast-tracked for environmental approval.

Currently, any new uranium mine requires both state and federal government environmental approvals.

The Minerals Council of Australia wants to change this. They argue that uranium’s special risks are redundant and that environmental risks are adequately addressed in state processes. They want to remove the State government approval process.

Gavin Mudd argues that Federal oversight of uranium mining must remain. He says uranium mining, and nuclear power is not a solution for the climate crisis.

Read Dr Mudd’s article in the Conservation: “Expensive, dirty and dangerous: why we must fight the push to fast-track uranium mines”.

Listen to his chat with RTRFM’s Perth Indymedia Radio Show on why uranium mining approval remain a federal issue and the dangers of Nuclear Energy.

Perth Indymedia on RTRFM spoke with Dr Gavin Mudd – Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering at RMIT University
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Renewable energy transition makes dollars and sense

An article published by the UNSW debunks claims that renewable energy will harm the economy. The article says “A/Prof Diesendorf said their findings were controversial in light of some fossil fuel and nuclear power supporters, as well as some economists, rejecting a transition to large-scale electricity renewables.

“These critics claim the world’s economy would suffer because they argue renewables require too much lifecycle energy to build, to the point of diverting all that energy away from other uses,” he said. 

“Our paper shows that there is no credible scientific evidence to support such claims, many of which are founded upon a study published in 2014 that used data up to 30 years old.