South Australia has power to lead world
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