30/03/2015 - 05:03

Uranium to broaden economy

30/03/2015 - 05:03


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One of the earliest moves made by Premier Colin Barnett’s first government was to open the door to uranium mining.

Uranium to broaden economy

One of the earliest moves made by Premier Colin Barnett's first government was to open the door to uranium mining.

It was a sensible policy that should not have been left until so late in the mining boom.

Decades of restrictive state and federal policies around uranium had left it dormant in Western Australia; an odd state of affairs in what is otherwise a pro-mining and pro-energy export province.

Perhaps with so much going on we could afford to be complacent about what natural wealth we sought to exploit.

However, that delayed progress on uranium development has come back to bite us.

Instead of having a long history of developing a commodity which is: exported by other Australia states; used by sophisticated economies for power generation; and seen as important ingredient in limiting the emission of CO2 – WA has been left behind.

Mr Barnett's opening of the door in 2008 may have been reasonable if uranium was a commodity like iron ore or another mineral, with many new mines having been developed since 2008.

Regrettably, the accident at Fukushima that occurred when a horrific tsunami hit Japan in 2011 prompted a retraction of the nuclear power sector just as its role in mitigating any human influence on climate change was generating new investment.

Japan shut down much of its industry and Germany decided to exit the sector. Both are thought to be regretting their haste and reconsidering their positions in light on the rising costs of alternatives.

Nevertheless, Fukushima sent uranium prices south and caused those wishing to develop new mines to pause.

Despite the issues around this fuel, China is forging ahead with plans for its own series of reactors, due to the fact that its coal-powered industry is creating health problems for its massive and increasingly wealthy population.

As a result, nuclear power does have a future and Australia ought to be part of that.

South Australia Premier Jay Weatherill has stolen a march on WA by proposing that his state leads a much deeper involvement in the sector; well beyond just mining ore and producing yellow cake. He wants to be fully involved in all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle.

With Australians, especially those in mining states like WA, wondering what to do post-boom, getting involved in downstream processing, nuclear power generation and waste disposal make a lot of sense.

Of course, there are dangers at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle; but there are few countries with the political stability, governance standards and appropriate geography of Australia to sensibly play a role in what is an international issue.

The challenge, as ever, is to overcome irrational argument and the Nimby vote to ensure that, if we are going to participate in this important sector – or better still, put our stamp on it – it is done in a way that is not intolerably compromised by politics.

The fact that a Labor state (SA) has proposed such a move offers hope. With conservatives in power nationally and in WA, a key state in terms of the potential raw materials, it is possible a bipartisan position could create unstoppable momentum.

Of course, uranium would be but a small part of WA's commodity mix. Nevertheless, it is that breadth of minerals and other resources that smooths out the roughest parts of the cycle.

It is heartening to see that, even as iron ore comes off the boil, other minerals are having some encouraging price movements.

New developments in fields such as copper and nickel show the importance of having a diversified economy, even if that diversity is within the more narrow area of resources.


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