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Henry Thornton - SMERSH: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Uranium Boom – but not for Australia Date 15/01/2006
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Goldmember and virtual geologist, Louis Hissink, ponders the issue of uranium - relatively clean fuel that Australia has in abundance but hardly uses.
By Louis Hissink Email / Print

One of the more perplexing issues involved with the recent the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate is the mining of Australian uranium.

Fairfax writer Jamie Freed writing in The Age has noticed that the ALP has effectively banned the mining of uranium for purely political purposes. However as ALP Left-wing power broker Martin Ferguson wrote in yesterday’s The Australian:  “It's time to abandon the political correctness espoused by the green movement. Let's be real: without getting business on board we cannot achieve anything. The environmentalists are simply attacking the coal industry for the sake of it. Labor supports our aluminium and coal industries in their endeavours to develop lower emissions technologies. They are our big export earners, creating jobs and wealth for this country, and without economic prosperity no government can pay for the social and environmental welfare measures so vigorously demanded by the Greens”. Though reading some of the letters published on the internet one can but smile wryly at the reactions to his comments.

Western Australia is an interesting case – this state has some large, easily mined, uranium deposits but these are under no circumstances allowed to be mined, well at least up to 2009 when Premier Gallop has to return to the electors for re-election.

Yet there is a world-wide boom in uranium and Australia with some of the largest uranium reserves is going to miss out simply because the ALP has a set-in-concrete policy of no more uranium mining.  I suspect Martin Ferguson has flagged the start of a serious policy shift for the ALP though just how much power he is effectively able to wield on this issue has yet to be seen.  There is little rationality to the banning of uranium mining, especially when that most social democratic of all countries, France, supplied 85% of her energy needs with nuclear power. Hence ALP opposition to uranium cannot be based on the usual green and environmental reasons.

The ALP will have to make up their minds very smartly if they are serious about Greenhouse Gas emissions because banning uranium mining means that they are not serious about the issue.  As Ferguson has noted, apart from the US the next two largest greenhouse gas emitters are China and India and they are exempt from the Kyoto Protocol, so in reality curbing CO2 emissions in the developed world will do nothing to reduce global warming (if global warming is a real physical phenomenon, which now appears not to be the case - from a comment posted by Douglous Hoyt on the Warwick Hughes Blog.)

In fact CO2 emissions have been increasing and even Europe is now finding it cannot meet its targets.

The other interesting interpretation one could make of current State ALP opposition to uranium mining (apart from South Australia) as a solution to cutting down Greenhouse gases is the distinct possibility that maybe greenhouse gases are not the evility they are made out to be by the Greens, and the ALP. If converting to uranium power plants to reduce Greenhouse emissions is a sensible move to reduce greenhouse emissions, then why not do so unless another game is in play.

In any case this has meant that Australian mining companies are looking overseas for new uranium projects, with the expected drain on exploration and mining skills.  To make matters worse we also have a serious shortage of geologists in Australia – especially ones willing to sit on drilling rigs week in week out. Scanning the jobs advertised pages of the newspapers does not support this view but then advertising has moved to the internet, and there one finds an enormous amount of job vacancies such as those at Seek.com.

Many of our readers may not realise this but Australia is facing a long term economic downturn in mining. The reasons for this are varied and complex. Essentially large mining companies are run by accountants who cannot see the need to maintain viable exploration expertise. The mega miners such as BHP-Billiton now admit they no longer have the technical expertise to do mineral exploration, relying instead on the juniors. Yet even this approach has its problems because the smaller companies or hopefuls have no chance of attracting investment unless they have a cash-flow operation ready to start. In other words they have found a new mine and need cash to get it going. No immediate cashflow project? Too bad no investment. This effectively means that greenfields exploration has ground to a halt.

This has caused the problem that for the last 10 years world-wide, no one has found either a large gold or diamond mine. We already know that diamond reserves (gem and more importantly industrials) are being rapidly depleted – new discoveries are not replacing mined deposits. The same applies to gold.  The problem is that we seem no longer to have the skilled people to do the exploration. Young geologists (and we must include mining engineers and metallurgists) are just not interested in doing field work. Lifestyle for them is more important than finding new mines.

Most impediments to greenfields exploration can be traced to regulatory regimes setup as a reaction to Green demands, be it draconian EPA regulations, Native Title impediments or locking vast areas as State Parks etc. Fortunately some in the WA DOIR are starting to wake to this looming economic disaster but one suspects unless there is a drastic policy change in the ALP, whether on uranium mining, native title or EPA regulations, life is simply going to pass us by, leaving Australia as an industrialised backwater.

It is time we started rejecting the medieval mindset that pervades the Green Movement and throw their ludditic ideas onto the trashcan of history.

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