A blue about yellowcake

News Online reports that the Howard government has today announced that it is seizing control of approvals for new uranium mines from the Martin Labor NT government:

THE Federal Government has taken control over the future of the Northern Territory’s rich uranium deposits, declaring the territory open for business on uranium.

The NT Labor Government had promised to ban new uranium mines, despite fierce opposition from the Federal Government.
But the Federal Government sought legal advice, and today said it had taken over responsibility for the development of new mines, following a meeting between the federal and NT resources minister in Darwin.

It’s hardly a surprising move on either side of the political divide. Clare Martin had pandered to the Greens in the run-up to the recent election by announcing that her government would not under any circumstances approve any new uranium mines.

Moreover, “no new uranium mines” remains part of the ALP’s National Platform, still being an article of faith of the Socialist Left and even some otherwise more moderate and sensible types. It’s a fairly meaningless, if archaic piece of self-indulgent flummery in most parts of Australia. But the Territory has large, undeveloped uranium reserves at several locations, notably Jabiluka and Koongarra within the boundaries of Kakadu National Park (though formally excised from it), so the ALP Platform was always going to become a real life problem for a Labor government in the Territory.

Federal Resources Minister Ian MacFarlane has very properly indicated that he wasn’t proposing to approve any mines unless and until indigenous traditional owners agree. But bizarrely, the Martin government seems perfectly happy to stay permanently in bed with the lunar lefties even if traditional owners, miners and the Feds are all agreed to the contrary. It’s a strange concept of fostering Aboriginal self-determination. And it’s by no means impossible to imagine traditional owners, at least of Koongarra, giving approval. Even the Mirrar people and their usually hardline senior TO Yvonne Margarula might conceivably soften their stance on Jabiluka as they discover the real world consequences of the fairly imminent exhaustion of the existing Ranger Mine. Those rivers of gold of “sit down money” are about to dry up.

On a slightly different angle, McFarlane might actually have done Clare Martin an unintentional favour. The Martin government has approved numerous uranium exploration licences across wide areas of the NT over the last 4 years. It occurs to me that in those circumstances a blanket “no new mines” policy might be legally challengeable on a variety of administrative law grounds, and might also open the Martin government to damages actions by disgruntled miners who have spent substantial sums exploring their licence areas on the not unreasonable assumption that the Mines Minister would consider any subsequent application for a mining lease on its merits.

Finally, there’s the obvious issue of global warming. Whether the greenies like it or not, nuclear power remains the only universally available mature technology capable of delivering large amounts of baseload power without emitting any greenhouse gases at all. However they twist and turn, simply stubbornly refusing to consider the nuclear option at all is just plain irresponsible in environmental terms as well as economic ones.

Moreover, the current development of modular pebble bed nuclear reactors by China and South Africa provides a very real and near-term prospect of much cheaper nuclear power with no risk of reactor meltdown. That will remove most of the greenies’ standard kneejerk excuses for opposing uranium mining and nuclear energy generally. This federal decision is a logical extension of the just-announced agreement with the US, China and India to pursue technological solutions to global warming in preference to the largely ineffectual Kyoto Protocol. The lefties will hate it, but it’s difficult to argue logically that it doesn’t make sense if you really believe that human-induced global warming is a potentially serious problem (as I certainly do).

PS – For the sake of completeness, I should point out that the NT government doesn’t actually have any constitutional authority to either authorise or prevent unanium mining. Thus, for Clare Martin to make a “no new uranium mines” election promise (as she did) was arguably more than a tad misleading. Executive authority over uranium mining was specifically withheld by the Commonwealth by the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Regulations in 1978. Thus the NT government only exercises functions in relation to uranium mining by purely contractual arrangement with the Commonwealth, and specifically in relation to the existing Ranger Mine i.e. the Commonwealth in effect delegates the function to the NT. A prospective new uranium miner (Ranger is the only actual example of the process since self-government AFAIK) would make application to the federal government for approval to mine and export uranium. The federal minister would then probably make compliance with the requirements of the NT Mining Act a condition of a grant of federal approval (at least if he followed the Ranger precedent).

Presumably, the only sensible way to interpret Martin’s “no new mines” pledge (apart from as a mere cynical ploy for Greens preferences) is that she was saying that if the Commonwealth minister followed the Ranger precedent and made compliance with NT Mining Act requirements a condition of federal approval to mine, the decision-maker under the NT Mining Act (ultimately the Minister) would refuse to approve the application irrespective of its merits. Hence it’s hardly surprising that Federal Resources Minister McFarlane indicated that in those circumstances he wouldn’t be entrusting any part of the approval function to the NT government. It’s all a bit confusing, because the Commonwealth didn’t actually “seize” control of the process (as NT Mines Minister Kon Vatskalis originally claimed), in that the Commonwealth always possessed that control, nor can it really be said that the NT government “abdicated” its responsibility (as McFarlane’s press release claimed) because the NT government doesn’t have any responsibility, at least in a constitutional sense, and never did.

The politics of all this for Clare Martin are probably quite okay. She avoids antagonising the Greens and breaching her own Party’s Federal Platform, but any new mining development (subject to normal environmental approvals and indigenous consent if on Aboriginal land) will still go ahead and fuel economic growth.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Robert Merkel
2021 years ago

With regards to the standard kneejerk excuses left for opposing nuclear power, PBMRs only solve some of them.

The ones that are unaffected (sort of) by the type of nuclear reactor used are:

* The risk of nuclear proliferation.
* The waste disposal issue

I don’t think either of these are showstoppers, but the greenies do.

Nic White
2021 years ago

So pro-uranium = sensible? Isnt that a very biased and subjective statement?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

Robert

Nuclear proliferation and waste disposal don’t need to be problems if Australia elects to sell its uranium in a “package deal” where we charge a price component to accept and store the waste here in CSIRO-developed Synroc. That way we sell at a higher value-added price and simultaneously create safe waste disposal and virtually eliminate weapons proliferation risks, not to mention making a major contribution to reducing greenhouse emissions.

Nic

“pro-uranium” isn’t the antonym or the only alternative to “rigidly and automatically anti-uranium”. I’m simply suggesting that each proposal ought to be examined and decided on its merits. Thus I would almost certainly conclude that an open-cut mine at Koongarra would be unacceptable, because it would drastically despoil the view from numerous lookout points on the World Heritage-listed Nourlangie Rock. On the other hand, I think an underground mine there with minimal above-ground infrstructure and with the uranium being processed elsewhere would probably be acceptable. Similarly, either an open cut or underground mine at Jabiluka with onsite processing and tailings dam would be unacceptable, because it’s far too close to the Magela floodplain. OTO an underground mine with processing taking place at the old Ranger Mine (which is what was being proposed last time the project was actively pursued) strikes me as perfectly acceptable on environmental grounds. What we’re talking about is assessing the risks, costs and benefits on a case by case basis, instead of just rejecting all proposals simply because they contain the evil word “uranium”. That isn’t “pro-uranium” unless you define that expression as meaning “failing to be utterly anti-uranium irrespective of the facts”.

Cameron Riley
2021 years ago

James Lovelock of Gaia fame had an interesting solution to nuclear waste – put in the places you want to conserve. Humanity is the most destructive of any species on the environment. Dumping nuclear waste openly in the Daintree (rather than burying it) will keep tourists and developers out of the national park for quite a long time.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2021 years ago

Proliferation has aspects outside of shipments of uranium to foreign countries, Ken. If Australia in particular heads into nuclear power in a big way, some other countries in our neighbourhood might decide to do so as well. Now while rabid greenies might loathe Australia deriving baseload power from nuclear sources, I’d personally be more worried about triggering any South East Asian arms race.

Otherwise, nuclear power leaves any other baseload power candidate in the dust on any meaningful comparison. It’s cleaner, cheaper, safer and actually releases less radiation into the environment than equivalent coal energy production.

gilmae
2021 years ago

He can’t be serious about that idea of openly dumping it in national parks, can he? I don’t know about plant life, but I can’t imagine radioactive waste would be all that healthy for the animal life.

yobbo
2021 years ago

Ken: Greenies dont care about the rational arguments behind Nuclear Power. They oppose it for the same reasons they oppose any other kind of power:

Power enables consumption and capitalism, and they’d much prefer we lived in the woods burning turds for warmth and eating berries.

Robert Merkel
2021 years ago

Jacques, having a nuclear power station monitored by the IAEA doesn’t give you the ability to make nuclear weapons.

To grossly simplify, there are two ways you can get indigenous nuclear weapons: learn to enrich uranium, or operate a heavy-water reactor to enrich plutonium outside IAEA safeguards.

The uranium route is probably the most likely for a secret nuclear program because it’s the easiest to hide; Israel did it the other way, but Israel got its nukes with the knowledge and tacit approval of the major powers. North Korea’s supposed weapons are also made of plutonium, but their nuclear program isn’t a secret either.

Gilmae, if you encase nuclear waste in something nice and solid (like Synroc) and bury it properly, it’s not going to represent a risk to anyone. It’s only really dangerous for a thousand years or so, not the millions sometimes claimed by green groups.

Rex
Rex
2021 years ago

It’s interesting that the Howard Government have chosen to overide the NT on this.

How do you think Territorians will feel when/if the Government say that the NT is where Australia’s N-waste will be stored also?

Nic White
2021 years ago

Ok, Ken. Thanks for the clarification.

Gilbert
Gilbert
2021 years ago

Rex, if the people of the NT don’t like their government being overridden by the Federal government, they can vote for statehood.

homer Paxton
homer Paxton
2021 years ago

i’m glad the Federal government is a conservative one otherwise they might overrule the territory Government and centralise decision -making

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

Rex

I think you’ll find the federal government has already said that the waste dump will probably be in the NT (although they haven’t chosen a specific site). Naturally local Labor pollies are beating the whole thing up for all they’re worth. But in fact it’s low to medium level waste, largely products of nuclear medicine generated for local Australian purposes. So we have to store it somewhere, and the NT is remote, sparsely populated and geologically stable. It’s the best place for such a waste dump on utilitarian grounds, and the feds will be entirely justified in ignoring the cynical, NIMBY-oriented bleating of local ALP pollies. Moreover, sticking the dump in the NT also makes sense for the Howard government from a purely electoral viewpoint, because it only risks one House of Reps seat.

meika
2021 years ago

Nuclear energy should be reserved for space development.
Why?

Because there is not very much of it. And its the most compact dense fueling system we have. (Bang per kilo)

(and the idea that it would stop yobbos burning dung and eating berries high in vitamin c appalls me, its banable for this reason alone).

http://dolebludger.blogspot.com/2005/06/more-on-nukey-power-nsw-is-going-into.html
and
http://dolebludger.blogspot.com/2005/06/nuclear-power-is-too-precious-nuclear.html

Rex
Rex
2021 years ago

Ken, Sounds reasonable to me. I’m certain that we need to decide on a safe location for N-waste, and the NT or SA in the desert would surely have to be the best geological options.

I’m also certain that we’ve got a major greenhouse problem ahead of us. I’m just not so convinced that Nuclear is our only option at this point, and I don’t think there been enough clear headed analysis of these options to make that call just yet.

John Rawnsley
John Rawnsley
2021 years ago

Tonight on Stateline the Federal Dept. official at the Katherine public forum, Pat Davoren, observed:

“In an ideal world we would have had the facility operating at Woomera which is technically one of the best sites in the world, I mean, you couldn’t think of a better sort of geologic environment to do this sort of thing but I guess it was just a failure of leadership at some levels of government.”

http://www.abc.net.au/stateline/nt/content/2005/s1431577.htm

Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC) spokesman John Brisbin (Alice Springs) said:

“There’s no reason why that [low to intermediate level waste] shouldn’t stay at the already approved reactor site in Sydney,”…

“They’ve already got the facilities there, they’ve got the technicians, it’s a perfectly safe place to store this perfectly safe waste.

“Why should the taxpayers have to fund this new facility for something that could be stored at Lucas Heights.”

http://abc.net.au/news/australia/nt/alice/200508/s1429740.htm

And further from Central Australian news:

Hydrogeologist Peter Jolly of the Territory’s Environment Department…says the Harts Range site [north of Alice] is on a flood plain between two active river channels that come off the ranges.

He says evidence shows that over hundreds or thousands of years massive flooding has been responsible for “catastrophic changes” in the course of rivers in central Australia.

“A river goes in one spot at the moment but a ‘mega flood’ can lead to it changing its course completely,” Mr Jolly said.

He says such issues are important to consider given the long-term nature of a nuclear dump.

“The river channels may migrate across the [dump] site, so if you’re looking at a containment time of 500 years or a couple of hundred years, the site may end up in the river channel at some stage,” he said.

http://abc.net.au/news/australia/nt/alice/200508/s1429642.htm

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2021 years ago

Robert;

While you and I and most sensible people realise that one may possess civilian nuclear capability without extending it into a weapons program, it nevertheless remains the case that a civil nuclear program is the ideal precondition for a military nuclear program.

One of the reasons we maintain ANSTO is to subsidise the retention of nuclear know-how. This was originally designed to keep the Red Threat/Yellow Horde/Domino Effect at bay with the ability to crash course develop a bomb. For some time we’ve also maintained F-111s, which don’t really do much for us defence wise, but which would make a ripper strategic (read: quick n dirty n-bomb) platform in a pinch.

Now going to a wholesale nuclear power program encourages others in the region to do likewise. Putting aside the serious benefits for air quality, I return to my original nervousness about some of our less stable neighbours developing high level national nuclear programs.

It’s also a pity that the technology which makes the nuclear fuel cycle spectacularly attractive in energy terms – fast breeder reactors – also produces weaponable plutonium as its main output.

meika
2021 years ago

and there is not very much of it, swap all coal power stations around the world with nuclear power, all reserves and bombs would be used up in 9 years, high grade ores in 3 years, low grade ores produce more CO2 in refining, supposedly equivalent to a third of a gas fired power station, their potential impact on (particularly in the long term) reducing greenhouse gases is marginal. part of the mix perhaps but why waste it when we can go to the stars!

see my above comment for links on this data

Cameron Riley
2021 years ago

gilmae, Yes, from abc;

http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ss/stories/s421192.htm

He doesnt think that mutation would pose any problem for the ongoing health of the planet. Mutation would probably only be local anyway, besides; nature being nature, cancer resistant parrots would probably appear after a while.

I think Bruce Sterling calls these kinds of sites involuntary parks, like the DMZ in Korea, or Bikini Atoll, or other places that unihabitable by humans for different reasons.

Bill Postere
Bill Postere
2021 years ago

“a fairly meaningless, if archaic piece of self-indulgent flummery”

Sums up Ken’s post very well.

Robert Merkel
2021 years ago

Meika, that claim that the greenhouse impact of nuclear reactors using low grade fuel is marginal simply doesn’t stand up to common sense.

You can try this report of a study on the matter (done by a nuclear advocate):

http://www.uic.com.au/nip57.htm

You will note that the total energy consumed by the mining and milling process to get fuel over the 30-year life of the plant is about 0.05% of the energy produced by the plant. This is the only part affected by using lower-grade ore. Even if low-grade ore takes 100 times more energy to mine and mill than higher-grade ore, that would still only represent 5% of the energy generated by the plant.

kyan gadac
kyan gadac
2021 years ago

“pebble bed nuclear reactors” are still experimental insofar as no one knows how silicon carbide will behave under long term neutron bombardment and since the silicon carbide microspheres are encased in graphite they seem perfectly capable of bursting into flame if exposed to oxygen and enough heat. Yes I no that they are in a helium containment vessel with no other shielding. Not to mention the fact that the uranium in these ‘pebbles’ is enriched(8%) and would appear to be in a form that is eminently stealable.

meika
2021 years ago

Robert Merkel

I guess I meant _especially_ ‘marginal in the long term’ (Sorry if it looked impact over the next few years, but I don’t think its a good use anyway, its special stuff)(must be a mental typo, no way to prove it).

By long term I am thinking like, _long term_. Relying on nuclear fuels in any way will use them up in the blink of an eye, historically speaking.

Nuclear fuel is currently, the most compact fuel we have. Using it to boil a kettle for tea is a waste. It should all be completely reserved. In an involuntary park or otherwise.

BTW
Hobart has an involuntarily reserve opposite the old Union Carbide Electrolytic Zinc work on the river Derwent. Perserves many a sad Tasmania bit of history and a stand of Australia’s rarest gumtree. (as well as being the subject of a multi-voice poem of mine “Shag Bay” pdf at http://meika.loofs-samorzewski.com).

(I know its not reasonable or sensible to think of the long term because it affects the mindless todayism of the market, and one should emotionally let go of that and let the big players do all the work, and I should just sit back and let then do it to me, but I think perspective informing day to day strtegic decisions is vital.)

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

I think Kyan’s observations about pebble bed technology are quite well made. The technology isn’t exactly experimental, but it certainly hasn’t yet been widely enough used to make a super-confident assessment of the possibility of accidents short of meltdown that could result in significant discharge of radiation to the environment. I suspect that stronger reactor containment could reduce or even eliminate tha risk, but would simultaneously greatly increase construction cost and therefore reduce the attractiveness of the technology in making the price of nuclear power competitive with existing baseload options (coal, gas etc). Then again, arguably that comparison is an unfair one anyway, because we don’t currently require coal or gas power stations to sequester their harmful emissions (which include large amounts of radiation as well as greenhouse gases).

As for meika’s point, I guess it depends how seriously one takes the threat of human-induced global warming. Current evidence suggests it may well be serious enough to rank as a higher priority than aiming at maximising the options for human space travel. Certainly uranium is a finite, non-renewable resource, and could only be a stopgap measure (and part of the global fuel mix) for reducing greenhouse emissions over the next 20-30 years while viable renewable energy sources are perfected. But if we’re concerned about ensuring that uranium is available as a fuel for space travel, we should be able to reserve some of it while still using the great bulk for greenhouse gas-free power generation.

Robert Merkel
2021 years ago

Further to Ken’s reply to Meika, the amount of fuel used in space exploration is negligible, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the cost of the exercise. As a for-instance, the liquid hydrogen for launching the space shuttle (not the total fuel cost, as you’ve also got the SRB’s on the side, but indicative), is worth about 300,000 USD. Out of a launch bill of hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s lost in the noise.

Give this kind of economics, you could afford to extract uranium from very uneconomic sources to power a spacecraft. You could even realistically extract uranium from seawater to support space exploration.

I know this is kind of getting offtopic, but it’s also rather fun stuff to speculate on…