nuclear free 28 November 2016

On shaky ground: Australian uranium and Fukushima

THE powerful earthquake that struck off the coast of Fukushima prefecture in Japan last week, is a stark reminder of the deep and continuing safety concerns following the 2011 nuclear disaster.

THE powerful earthquake that struck off the coast of Fukushima prefecture in Japan last week, is a stark reminder of the deep and continuing safety concerns following the 2011 nuclear disaster.

The stricken reactor complex remains polluted and porous and every added complication leads to further contamination.

Closer to home the renewed tectonic instability highlights the need for urgent Australian government action on the industry that directly fuelled the continuing nuclear crisis.

In October 2011, Robert Floyd, the director general of the Department of Foregn Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) confirmed to the Federal Parliament that "Australian obligated nuclear material [uranium] was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors."

Rocks dug in Kakadu and northern South Australia are the source of Fukushima’s radioactive fallout. There is a clear chain of consequence from a failed nuclear facility on Japan’s East coast to the back of a big yellow truck at an Australian mine-site.

The Federal Government has cravenly ignored this fact and also remains resistant to an independent cost-benefit assessment of Australia’s uranium trade, as directly requested by the then UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon in the wake of Fukushima.

To date there has been no meaningful response from any Australian government, uranium company, uranium industry body or regulator. There have been political platitudes and industry assurances but no credible attention or action.

Indeed, instead of the requested industry review there has been a retreat from responsibility and a rush to rip and ship more uranium ore by fast-tracking risky and contested new uranium sales deals, including to India and Ukraine.

Despite Canberra’s irresponsible fire sale approach the Australian uranium sector is facing tough times.

In June, BHP Billiton, the world’s biggest miner, confirmed that it scrapped its long planned, budgeted and approved Olympic Dam expansion in South Australia because of the impact of the Fukushima disaster on uranium demand and prices.

BHP admitted: ‘Fukushima changed everything.’ 

And the result is clear — nuclear power’s contribution to the global energy mix is shrinking and is being eclipsed by renewables. Uranium operations are on hold, extended care and maintenance or well behind planning schedules and prices, profits, share value and employment numbers have gone south.

IBISWorld’s March 2015 market report shows that less than 1,000 people are employed in Australia’s uranium industry. The uranium industry accounts for 0.01 per cent of jobs in Australia and in the 20131/14 financial year, accounted for a scant 0.19 per cent of national export revenue. Despite the uranium industry's promises, uranium mining is not and never will be a significant source of employment or wealth in Australia.

Fukushima is a global game changer with Australian fingerprints.

Fukushima is a global game changer with Australian fingerprints. Like Japan, the Australian uranium sector is also on shaky ground and is in urgent need of review. This high risk, low return sector lacks social licence and it is time for less excuses and more examination of the asbestos of the 21st Century.

Dave Sweeney

Nuclear free campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation.