South Aus­tralia has power to lead world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Clean Energy - Keith Orchi­son

WHEN the nu­clear en­ergy row erupted in do­mes­tic pol­i­tics two years ago, all at­ten­tion was on whether and where ura­ni­um­fu­elled power sta­tions might be built in Aus­tralia.

The change of fed­eral gov­ern­ment put this is­sue to rest for the fore­see­able fu­ture, but Aus­tralia’s abil­ity to con­trib­ute to green­house gas abate­ment through nu­clear en­ergy re­mains highly con­tro­ver­sial.

Michael Ang­win, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian Ura­nium As­so­ci­a­tion, es­ti­mates that ex­ports of our ura­nium are cur­rently sav­ing about 400 mil­lion tonnes of car­bon diox­ide emis­sions a year in other coun­tries — dou­ble the amount be­ing emit­ted in Aus­tralia from burn­ing coal to make elec­tric­ity.

In the five years to mid- 2007 Aus­tralia has despatched al­most 50,000 tonnes of ura­nium ox­ide con­cen­trate to Ja­pan, South Korea, France, Spain, Bel­gium, Swe­den, Fin­land, Bri­tain and North Amer­ica, bring­ing in $ 2.4 bil­lion in ex­port earn­ings and cu­mu­la­tively dis­plac­ing two bil­lion tonnes of car­bon diox­ide.

This abate­ment, Ang­win points out, ex­ceeds the 342 mil­lion tonnes of green­house gas cuts that will be achieved cu­mu­la­tively be­tween now and 2020 through the Rudd Gov­ern­ment’s large in­crease in the manda­tory re­new­able en­ergy tar­get.

How far this con­tri­bu­tion to global warm­ing man­age­ment can be in­creased may turn out to be one of the ma­jor en­ergy is­sues of the Rudd Gov­ern­ment’s first term, with the South Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment push­ing strongly for present re­stric­tions on ura­nium min­ing to be over­turned.

Aus­tralia has the world’s largest re­sources of low- cost re­cov­er­able ura­nium, but it lags be­hind Canada as the largest pro­ducer — 22 per cent of the global mar­ket ver­sus 29 per cent — be­cause of po­lit­i­cal re­stric­tions on min­ing.

Thirty- two years af­ter min­ing of ura­nium for elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion be­gan at Mary Kath­leen in Queens­land, Aus­tralian pro­duc­tion is still re­stricted to three mines — Ranger in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory and Olympic Dam and Bev­er­ley in South Aus­tralia.

A pol­icy change could see pro­duc­tion more than dou­bled in the next decade — and global green­house gas emis­sions cut by more than a mil­lion tonnes a year, twice Aus­tralia’s to­tal CO out­put.

2 Economists Brian Fisher and Anna Maty­sek of Con­cept Eco­nomics say ex­ports can be in­creased from a lit­tle over 11,000 tonnes of ura­nium ox­ide to more than 25,000 tonnes an­nu­ally, de­pend­ing on com­mer­cial de­ci­sions by min­ers and cru­cially on gov­ern­ment pol­icy.

The big­gest im­pe­tus to this jump in sales to the world’s nu­clear power pro­duc­ers will come from BHP Bil­li­ton’s Olympic Dam op­er­a­tions in cen­tral Aus­tralia, if the goa­head is given to ex­pand the mine. Fisher and Maty­sek say Olympic Dam alone could be ex­port­ing 15,000 tonnes of ura­nium ox­ide by 2013.

In­ter­na­tional de­mand for ura­nium is on a sharp up­ward trend, they add. The largest ad­di­tions to global nu­clear power pro­duc­tion will take place in China, In­dia, Tai­wan, South Korea and Rus­sia.

Fisher and Maty­sek say the Chi­nese Gov­ern­ment plans to in­crease its nu­clear gen­er­a­tion ca­pac­ity al­most six- fold be­tween now and 2020 to about 42,000 MW. There are eight nu­clear re­ac­tors un­der con­struc­tion in In­dia at present and de­vel­op­ment that will lift its ca­pac­ity to more than 7000 MW by 2030.

Ang­win pre­dicts that to­tal world use of nu­clear en­ergy will in­crease by 49 per cent over the next 25 years ver­sus a 27 per cent in­crease in coal- burn­ing pro­duc­tion and 22 per cent in burn­ing nat­u­ral gas. He says 34 nu­clear power sta­tions are un­der con­struc­tion in Asia and 200 projects are pro­posed around the world. There are cur­rently 439 nu­clear power sta­tions op­er­at­ing in 41 coun­tries.

If the bans on ura­nium min­ing in Aus­tralian states — West­ern Aus­tralian, Queens­land and New South Wales — were lifted, this coun­try could ‘‘ eas­ily’’ sup­ply around 36 per cent of the world’s ex­panded needs, Ang­win adds.

Ac­cord­ing to the World Nu­clear As­so­ci­a­tion, ura­nium re­quire­ments for power sup­ply could ex­ceed 100,000 tonnes a year by 2020.

Ian Plimer, pro­fes­sor of min­ing ge­ol­ogy at Ade­laide Univer­sity, ar­gues that South Aus­tralia, which is con­sid­ered to hold the world’s largest com­mer­cially re­cov­er­able ura­nium de­posits, should be go­ing much fur­ther than just push­ing for more min­ing.

The state has the po­ten­tial to ‘‘ be­come an­other Saudi Ara­bia’’ through full ex­ploita­tion of its ura­nium re­sources, he ar­gues.

It should es­tab­lish an in­dus­try to cre­ate fuel rods for nu­clear power sta­tions, to lease and re­claim them af­ter use and to dis­pose of the waste. ‘‘ This,’’ he says, ‘‘ would make South Aus­tralia a dom­i­nant force in global en­ergy.’’

South Aus­tralian min­er­als re­sources de­vel­op­ment min­is­ter Paul Hol­loway says that there is the po­ten­tial for $ 25 bil­lion to be in­vested in ex­ploit­ing 30 ura­nium de­posits in the state. This in­cludes the pro­jected $ 5 bil­lion cost of ex­pand­ing Olympic Dam.

With this mas­sive do­mes­tic fuel re­source, could Aus­tralia yet again re­visit the prospect of its own nu­clear power sta­tions?

Fisher and Maty­sek say this is pos­si­ble over 20 years if car­bon cap­ture and se­ques­tra­tion drives up coal- fired power plant costs, and if east­ern Aus­tralian gas prices rise to ex­port par­ity lev­els, lead­ing to en­ergy sup­ply se­cu­rity con­cerns as well as con­tin­u­ing anx­i­ety over cli­mate change.

Ad­vo­cate: Michael Ang­win

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