Instant expert

Uranium mining

The run-down of the controversy surrounding uranium mining in Australia.

Ranger uranium mine

Ranger Uranium Mine in Kakadu National Park.

Credit: Stephen Codrington

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Does Australia have much uranium?

Tonnes of the stuff! Australia has the largest known reserves of uranium in the world, and we are the world's second-largest exporter, after Canada.

Uranium exports add $558 million per year to Australia's economy and experts say the industry could be worth $17 billion a year if we developed it.

There are three operating uranium mines in Australia: Ranger in the Northern Territory; and Olympic Dam and Beverley, both in South Australia.

What's it used for?

Uranium is first "enriched" and then used to run nuclear power stations, like on The Simpsons. Unlike burning coal, nuclear energy is low in carbon dioxide emissions and so it doesn't contribute to climate change.

Richard Yeeles, BHP Billiton's manager of uranium corporate affairs, says that nuclear energy provides 16 per cent of the electricity generated worldwide.

That sounds good. What do people have against uranium then?

The problem is that uranium is also used to make nuclear bombs. Through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well as agreements with importing countries, Australian uranium is monitored to ensure it is not used to manufacture weapons.

But some anti-nuclear campaigners say this just frees up uranium from other countries to be used in weapons.

Is that why there are campaigns against uranium mines?

It's one of the reasons. But uranium mining also contaminates the surrounding air, soil and water with radioactive materials that don't go away.

These radioactive materials can cause cancers, genetic and reproductive damage to plants, animals and humans.

Uranium is only found in small concentrations (less than one per cent of the ore) so it's always mined on a huge scale with massive disruption to the environment and loads of radioactive waste.

Olympic Dam has 70 million tonnes of radioactive waste that will need to be isolated for another 200,000 years. Plus, we still don't know what to do with all that left over nuclear waste from power stations.

Are more uranium mines being built?

Just before the 2007 federal election, the Australian Labor Party controversially scrapped their "no new mines" policy, paving the way for new mine developments. A new Australian uranium mine, known as Honeymoon, is due to open in South Australia in 2009.

With all this uranium in Australia, why don't we have nuclear power?

At present, the federal government has ruled out the development of nuclear power in Australia. Both pro- and anti-nuclear people point out that it's a double standard that we mine uranium but that we won't use any of it here for electricity generation.

Where can I read more?

Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review
Australian Uranium Association
Friends of the Earth