14 August 2014
The resurgence of uranium mining in Queensland is gaining momentum, and talk is growing about the economic opportunity that could provide for ports in neighbouring states and territories.
Queensland announced this month it is now accepting applications from uranium miners wanting to operate in the state after a 32 year ban, raising questions about where the uranium will be exported from.
There are no ports in Queensland licensed to export the material, and the Newman Government says ports in Adelaide and Darwin will likely be used instead, rather than shipping over the Great Barrier Reef.
Queensland’s Minister for Natural Resources and Mines, Andrew Cripps, says it’s not up to him to decide which city becomes the hub for Queensland’s uranium exports.
“The commercial realities in place will determine when and if uranium does recommence in Queensland as an industry, and then proponents will do an assessment of how they intend to export their material out of Australia,” Mr Cripps said
“That will determine if they identify Darwin or Adelaide as a port of their preference.”
Mr Cripps would not rule out exporting uranium from Queensland directly, saying the option does exist for local ports to do it themselves, but he says it’s unlikely any will choose to go down this path as ‘the process for establishing a licensed port is quite complex and quite costly.’
“Assessment must be made under both State and Commonwealth legislation, and for a port to go through that process would be costly in the first place.
“So the port and applicants would have to have a motivation for that to occur, and will need to weigh up whether or not it’s more cost effective to make an application to a Queensland port.
“We consider it very unlikely that will be the case.”
Northern Territory Mines Minister, Willem Westra van Holthe, says he supports transporting uranium oxide from Queensland through the Northern Territory.
“Once Queensland have all their approvals in place and there are producing mines over there, I can’t envisage a problem starting that transfer in the Northern Territory as soon as possible,” Mr Westra van Holte said.
“Taking another state’s commodity and transporting through the Darwin Port is a good way to promote us as an important strategic location for the rest of the country.”
Mr Westra van Holthe says if the plan does eventuate, it won’t require the construction of additional infrastructure, like a rail line connecting Tennant Creek to Mt Isa.
“It is something that travels in drums and can probably come on trucks,” he said.
“It certainly wouldn’t be sufficient in bulk to justify it coming across on a rail line, or having to build a new railway line [to Queensland] to accommodate that.
“It would probably travel through Tennant Creek, having travelled along the Barkly Highway and then up the Stuart Highway to Darwin.”
Mr Westra van Holthe says he expects Territorians would be accepting of the idea.
“Uranium oxide is already transported quite regularly through the road systems of the Northern Territory, Ranger Uranium Mine [already] exports through the Darwin Port,” he said.
“So other than adding some additional trucks to the road and using greater stretches of the Stuart Highway and Barkly Highway, there’d really be no changes.”
Mr Westra van Holthe says exporting uranium from the Territory could also be an economic boost for Darwin Port, which has been hit hard with the slowdown of the Territory’s emerging iron ore industry, due to a recent dip in the price of the commodity.
“I think every bit of freight that comes through the Darwin Port makes it that little bit more viable, and anything you can add to the revenue base of the port will be a good thing,” he said.
But not everyone sees trucking uranium across the country as an opportunity.
Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation says he would be concerned to see radioactive material in large volumes on road or rail.
“It poses transport risks, it’s a long way from emergency and combat services that have the necessary technology and training to respond to accidents or incidents,” Mr Sweeney said.
“People in regional Australia know full well there are often accidents, incidents and unforseen events that happen during transport or travel.”
Mr Sweeney says the preferred option is to have no Australian port export uranium.
“If you’re talking words of ‘sustainability’ and being ‘environmentally friendly’, than you’re not talking uranium,” he said.
“This mineral is destined at best to become high level radioactive waste, which is a long term major and unresolved global environmental management problem.
“Australian uranium directly fuelled the Fukushima Nuclear accident, a continuing crisis.
“Our uranium dug up in Kakadu in northern Australia is now nuclear fallout in Japan and well beyond.
“The question of ‘which is the least worst – which port, which road, which rail?’ becomes a declining argument.”
Mr Sweeney also says he’s not convinced by the Queensland Government’s assertions that Queensland ports won’t export uranium in the near future, negating the need for transfer to Darwin or Adelaide.
“The Queensland Government has had a number of direct opportunities to rule [exporting from Queensland] out and it hasn’t,” he said.
“They’ve kept the door open for future uranium exports from a Queensland Port, and particularly from the Port of Townsville.”
“We’ve seen in both the Federal Government’s energy white paper, and in clear statements by the Australian Uranium Association, an industry body, a desire to develop an east coast port for uranium exports,” he said.
Mr Sweeney suspects Townsville is the most likely city to become a future Queensland-based export hub for uranium, despite Mr Cripps’ saying it is unlikely.
“The Ben Lomond [uranium] project is 50 kilometres up the road from Townsville, now you join those dots and you get a picture of ships through the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.
Canadian miner Mega Uranium, although interested in the Ben Lomond site, it is yet to announce plans to re-open it.
However, a French-owned mining company is spending millions of dollars on uranium exploration near remote towns in north-west Queensland, in a race to be the state’s first uranium miner since the ban 32 years ago.
AREVA Resources has drilled more than 90 holes since late 2012, and managing director Joe Potter says the company plans to continue searching.
“The change in policy and the certainty around the ability to mine uranium in Queensland has given us the confidence to press on with our exploration and see if we can become the first uranium miner,” he said.
The company plans to continue searching around Cloncurry, west of Mt Isa, later this year.
The length of time it takes to start up a uranium mine, let alone to begin processing uranium ore, gives decision-makers some breathing space.
The Federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, says any plan to truck uranium from Queensland to Darwin or Adelaide would require federal approval, as per the Environment Protection Act, but he doesn’t expect to see a proposal on his desk anytime soon.
“I imagine it’s 12 to 36 months away from the federal department receiving anything,” Mr Hunt said.
“I’m going to convey to the Queensland Government that of course it would have to be considered under the federal Environment Protection Act.”
Despite the Australian Conservation Foundation’s concerns, Mr Hunt believes in the Queensland Government’s assertion it will not export uranium from its ports.
“The Queensland Government has ruled that concept out,” Mr Hunt said.
Courtesy of ABC Rural