Uranium ban becomes sovereign risk issue

01 September 2008

Leading up to a state election in Western Australia, the Labor premier, Alan Carpenter, has said that if re-elected on 6 September the government will legislate to ban uranium mining.


Alan Carpenter

Alan Carpenter's comments have even extended to the issue of radioactive waste. He said the international nuclear industry was "licking its lips" at the prospect of uranium mining in his state proceeding "because they'll be able to get their waste taken back into Western Australia."


There is no precedent worldwide, however, to back up Carpenter's claims. "Nations representing two-thirds of humanity are now using uranium to generate clean electricity, and each one is storing its small residual of waste in compliance with world standards," said John Ritch, director general of the World Nuclear Association and a former US Ambassador to UN organizations in Vienna.


"Nowhere has there been a proposal to ship wastes to countries fortunate enough to be uranium exporters, which obviously have sovereign control over their own imports," Ritch added before concluding: "Any such fantasy is a scare-tactic by a politician looking for an issue."

At present uranium mining is not allowed in the state, despite the Labor party at a national level changing its partial opposition to blanket approval in April 2007. Carpenter voted for the change at that time.  Mining companies have taken the view that since Labor party attitudes generally have been swinging to become more positive towards uranium and its use for electricity generation, then it was only a mater of time before uranium could be mined in Western Australia.


Early in July, Cameco and Mitsubishi paid $495 million for Rio Tinto's Kintyre deposit in the state, and considerable funds have flowed to mineral exploration targeting uranium. But following the latest announcement, Mega Uranium has threatened to walk away from its Lake Maitland uranium deposit, on which it has spent over $100 million.


Greens in parliament have been calling for a law to ban uranium mining for some time, but only four months ago Carpenter parried this, saying that it would raise major compensation issues. The government then voted with the opposition to defeat a private member's bill to legislate for a ban. In what the media have called a "spectacular policy reversal" only 16 days after saying that he didn't see the need for a ban, Carpenter now says that he does not believe compensation would be payable to aggrieved mining companies who hold valid leases.


Mining companies have pointed out that this election pitch, if carried though, would turn his personal ideological opposition into a sovereign risk issue by entrenching the veto. Carpenter's decision raises the level of business risk all round in the state, since he is in effect reducing the value of corporate assets without compensation. The opposition Liberal Party has been campaigning on a platform which includes opening up uranium mining.


Aboriginal interests


The Martu Aboriginal traditional owners of land covering the Kintyre deposit were not consulted on the Carpenter's sudden reversal. The Western Desert Lands Corporation (WDLAC) holds land including that covering the Kintyre deposit in trust for them and WDLAC chief executive Clinton Wolf said Carpenter's announcement was disappointing: "We strongly believe that uranium mining could be an opportunity for our people to generate equity and commercial benefit and importantly play an important part in the development of significant resources projects for this state."


"This is an important intergenerational issue for our people, and it's an issue that Martu should be able to consider and make decisions about in an informed manner, especially as a means of achieving economic and social outcomes for a group of people who continue to be underserviced by state government," Wolf said, adding that the Martu wanted to generate their own income.


"By proposing to ban uranium mining, the premier and state ALP government are effectively robbing one of the most poor and disenfranchised people in this country of the right to earn a living and potentially achieve an equity stake in a major mining project," concluded Wolf.




Australian Uranium Association executive director Michael Angwin said Carpenter's "bewildering decision" on uranium mining failed to account for the fact that demand for uranium was driven by concerns about climate change and energy security. "Any ban on uranium mining is simply not sustainable because the counter-argument for its use is too strong," he said.


Uranium exports would add about A$3.2 billion ($2.7 billion) to Western Australia's gross state product between now and 2030 and would avoid 1.5 billion tonnes of greenhouses gases, Angwin said. "The per-capita emissions of greenhouse gases in WA is among the highest in the country - exporting its uranium is probably the single biggest contribution Western Australia could make to the global fight against climate change... There is great demand for West Australian uranium from our traditional trading partners, China and Japan. China, in particular, is hungry for uranium from Australia to help it reduce its reliance on high-carbon electricity from black coal."


The Association of Mining and Exploration Companies chief executive Justin Walawski supported the WDLAC which "today highlighted the devastating economic and social impact a legislative ban on uranium mining would have on the future of traditional owners for generations to come. However, the wider effect of this policy will be to reinforce the growing international perception that WA's mining policies are not conducive to investment." He concluded that it would "clearly jeopardise WA's economic outlook."


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