Australian approach to uranium is neither cohesive nor supportive

Australia is yet to fully embrace its role as a potential major uranium supplier to the world, according to the sector’s major lobby group, the Australian Uranium Association. While the Minister for Mineral Resources Development, Paul Holloway, opened the Paydirt 2008 Uranium Conference expressing the expectation that South Australia [SA] would consolidate its mantle as Australia’s lead uranium state, Australian Uranium Association’s Executive Director, Michael Angwin, said that while more Australians than not supported the uranium industry nationally, it had yet to emerge either as a single national political consciousness, or as a national industry.

“Western Australian [WA] and Queensland maintain bans on uranium mining,” Angwin said. “New South Wales and Victoria prohibit uranium legislation and it would be a stretch to be confident that should those bans be removed, that the regulatory and political framework would grow up over night. These factors constitute a political barrier to expansion.

“We have a carbon constrained world, a scientific concensus about greenhouse gases, we have robust regulation to uranium mining and there is a general case that uranium expansion would be a benefit to Australia. However, Australia has an incomplete policy and incomplete regulatory regime. Despite a welcome shift to bipartisan support, we have considerable ground to cover before Australia is seen as a political friendly uranium country. We have not yet consolidated our political role.”

Angwin pointed to the growth prospects for the sector which produces around 9,600 t/y but is expected to grow to 13,300 t by 2013.

The Association, he added, believes that the sector needs to continue to build public confidence in it and that would require the industry to “do a lot of things right with little scope for departure from best practice. It will continue to require exemplary practices in exploration and mining performance, in occupational health and safety, in environmental management and in engagement of indigenous communities. These are the areas of our performance to which the industry’s stakeholders will look in making assessments of the credibility of our case for expansion.”

Angwin said that while there had been significant increases in exploration in WA and Queensland, most of the national expenditure remained in SA and Northern Territory, which combined accounted for 82% of national uranium exploration. “The uranium industry in Australia has not yet broadened into an Australia-wide industry and remains heavily concentrated on SA and the NT and that is where the future expansion will take place.”

Holloway said the “figures show that 55% of the uranium exploration activity in Australia is taking place right here in South Australia.”

“Further underlining the excellent exploration results is confirmation from the Fraser Institute of the performance of South Australia’s mining sector on the global stage,” he said. “The respected Canadian institution’s annual Survey of Mining Companies, continues to rank South Australia fourth in the world in terms of mineral potential. The next Australian State, Queensland, placed 19th globally in the mineral potential index, a gauge based on respondents’ answers to whether or not a jurisdiction’s mineral potential under the current policy environment encourages or discourages exploration.

“South Australia’s maintenance of its current mineral potential ranking is strong and is even more impressive on a national basis. In the 2006/2007 survey, four Australian States made up the top 10 positions. A year later and South Australia stands alone as the only Australian state in the top 10.

“There are currently 83 exploration companies holding 339 Exploration Licences for uranium in South Australia – and a growing list of Adelaide-based uranium explorers listing, or proposing to list, on the Australian Stock Exchange. This State’s uranium industry is in very good shape.”

Nevertheless, Australia is in bad need of political leadership on uranium mining, with the current collective government thinking described as “still unsatisfactory”. Respected uranium analyst, Warwick Grigor, said there had been nothing yet to test the uranium mettle of the new Federal Labour Government “even though is has quietly said it is in favour of new uranium mines”.

Grigor, Managing Director of Far East Capital, told conference delegates there remained an underlying and circumspect view that perhaps Labour would not be particularly supportive of new uranium mines.