07/08/2007 - 22:00

A messy uranium conundrum

07/08/2007 - 22:00

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Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi are a long way from Perth, but they are the names of African countries that should be burning deeply into the conscience of Western Australia’s leading uranium recalcitrant, and premier, Alan Carpenter.

Each is a country in which a Perth-based mining company, using Australian money, is mining, or proposing to mine uranium.

Wonderful, is what Mr Carpenter might say, satisfied that he has driven an industry he detests out of his backyard.

What a disaster, is a more accurate description for a process that Briefcase sees as one of the world’s most fascinating examples of ‘morality transference’.

By refusing to consider the approval of uranium mining in WA, Mr Carpenter has played a key role in guaranteeing that it occurs elsewhere.

Those ‘elsewheres’, while generally having strong mining laws (often based on WA law) have minimal concern about what happens to the uranium once mined.

•••

It is also not stretching the point too far to say that most African countries have far less stringent laws when it comes to transporting, handling and storing uranium.

Australia’s role as a potential world leader in the revival of uranium as an essential non greenhouse gas causing fuel in the provision of electricity to an energy hungry world has been exported (along with Australian money and jobs) to a group of small African countries.

For now, and perhaps for a few years, everyone involved will be satisfied with what has been achieved.

• Mr Carpenter will have successfully prevented uranium mining in his backyard.

• The Africans will have a new industry.

• The world will get its uranium in a timely fashion to replace rapidly depleting oil reserves.

Uranium customers, especially those from China, will be delighted that they don’t have to put up with excessive, and intrusive, Australian nuclear non-proliferation inspectors asking pesky questions about what happened to the uranium once it left the mine.

Potential uranium thieves will share in this mutual backslapping because there’s no doubt that stealing a truckload of yellowcake on a road from central Africa, or on an unprotected African dockside will be much easier than trying the same thing in Australia.

Mr Carpenter, as is typical with all politicians, will refuse to see the error of his decision to maintain a ban on uranium.

In time, he will, because not only is he transferring skills and money to other countries, but he is effectively guaranteeing that uranium mining will become a global problem in decades to come because it has been placed in the hands of poorly developed countries with weak laws, and weaker officials.

•••

Uranex, a company unfamiliar to most people, is the name that sent Briefcase off on this week’s complex train of thought about uranium, business development and morality transference.

Floated two years ago, Uranex is a Perth-based company created to develop the uranium interests of the gold and iron ore explorer, Goldstream.

It has an excellent management team, is well funded, and has uranium assets in WA and Tanzania.

The top two exploration programs are at Thatcher Soak, about 50 kilometres east of Laverton in central WA, and Bahi in Tanzania.

A partner with Uranex in its uranium search effort is the China National Nuclear Corporation, an arm of the Chinese government.

Having a Chinese partner is nothing new in Australian business. The two countries are working well together in iron ore, coal, and gas developments. In South Australia, where uranium mining is welcomed, there is no doubt that Chinese and Australian companies will work well together in developing uranium mines.

The same close cooperation at a corporate level might also occur in Africa – though this is where a third party becomes involved; bureaucracy and corruption.

As far a Briefcase can see, Uranex is on to a winner at Bahi. Uranium grades from recent exploration work have been excellent. It would not surprise if, within the next year or so, Uranex and its Chinese partner declare Bahi a mine.

For Tanzania, this is a good thing. Jobs and investment are welcome.

But, in terms of the moral dimension, the views of Uranex director Robert Edwards are fascinating – as best told through this question and answer exchange with Briefcase on the question of uranium mining in Africa.

Briefcase: “The Tanzanian government is very supportive?”

Edwards: “They don’t differentiate (between) uranium and any other commodity. Next door, in Malawi, Paladin is developing Kayelekera. There doesn’t seem to be a problem in this part of the world, so long as it’s mining and they’re getting revenue.”

•••

There you have it.

Whether Premier Carpenter likes it, or not, WA is in the uranium mining business.

All that’s happening is that we are transferring the government part of the process, the controls and safeguards, to African governments which, no matter what spin you put on it, lack the abilities and legal strength of Australian government.

Philosophy students really ought to be debating this issue of morality transference in the same way as they debate classic question of, “if you change the axe head, and he axe handle, have you got the same axe?”

In WA today, we:

• raise money for uranium exploration in Africa;

• supervise exploration programs for uranium in Africa; and

• manage the development of uranium mines in Africa.

Does that mean we are in the business of uranium mining?

Premier Carpenter might well say no.

Briefcase says yes.

All that’s missing from the equation are the small matters of ensuring sufficient environmental protection, transport security, and non-proliferation safeguards – the stuff that government does, and the stuff that adds the moral dimension to the business of uranium mining.

•••

As a final thought on Africa, and the moral dimension, can anyone explain to Briefcase the difference between what China is doing in Africa and what the Europeans did in the 19th and 20th centuries?

Back in the good old days, the colonial masters from London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, sailed up the great rivers of Africa in gunboats to conquer (and enslave) the natives.

Now, it’s Chinese capitalists with fists full of dollars buying (bribing?) their way around the same regions with identical ideas – snatching control of Africa’s natural resources, and hauling them back home.

This latest plunder of Africa is in its early days, but Australia is playing a role in ensuring that it happens in the messiest possible way.

We are, quite correctly, erecting high barriers of environmental and safety protection to ensure that we are not plundered simply to feed Chinese appetites.

The Africans have no idea that this is exactly what’s happening to them, and even if some people do recognise the problem, they are soon silenced by a fistful of dollars in a way that is almost as effective as a gunboat up the Congo.

•••

“Morality is a private and costly luxury.” Henry Adams

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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