Nuclear reaction: Renewed calls to revise ‘archaic’ law

Australia must bring its archaic laws into the 21st century and pass legislation allowing provisions for nuclear power if the country is legitimately seeking to reduce emissions, mining executives say.

They note that the US accounts for about one-third of global nuclear electricity, providing just under a fifth of US generation. Nuclear power peaked in Japan over a decade ago, however the disaster at Fukushima in 2011 led to all plants closing down although the country is now on a pathway to restarting facilities.

China has an active nuclear program, as do some European countries including France, Germany, and Slovakia. Australia, the industry sources say, continues to lag behind.

Coming off the hottest recorded year on record, they tell this news service it’s time for Australia to reassess its stance against going nuclear. 

Terra Uranium (ASX:T92) Executive Chairman Andrew Vigar has long been bullish on the uranium sector. He says the growing need for uranium projects to come online to supply the now burgeoning market has never been more apparent.

Aurora Energy Metals (ASX:1AE) Managing Director Greg Cochran is another vocal supporter of the silvery grey metal, telling Mining.com.au that enabling nuclear power in Australia has always been controversial. 

“Unfortunately, we’ve made it extraordinarily more difficult because we’ve got politicians involved.”

Last week in a wide-ranging interview with Mining.com.au, Minerals Council of Australia Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Tania Constable shared her thoughts on the country ‘completely lagging behind’ in terms of decarbonisation efforts. 

“A lot of critical minerals and other minerals, other energy sources that go into the electricity grid, but it’s not going to be enough. It’s not going to be enough for industrial processes in Australia, just to have that renewable energy.”

Cochran and Constable note a clause in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)states clearly that nuclear power cannot be considered. 

Aurora’s MD adds: “In that act there is a clause there that says you cannot consider nuclear power. That is the issue. Nuclear power is banned outright.”

The EPBC Act covers a range of nuclear actions including establishing or significantly modifying a nuclear installation; transporting spent nuclear fuel or radioactive waste products; mining or milling uranium ore; and establishing or significantly modifying a large-scale disposal facility for radioactive waste, among others.

The Australian Energy Council says this law prevents the construction and operation of nuclear facilities for power generation, alongside facilities for the fabrication of nuclear fuel, uranium enrichment, and the reprocessing of nuclear waste.

However, nuclear energy is one of the most reviewed and assessed technologies in Australia. Despite this, progress to a nuclear powered country seems out of reach. 

“It won’t happen overnight, but our energy is not stagnant, it’s not a 2030 proposition. We need energy for the long term, so the sooner we can start, the better

The MCA’s Constable says while changes need to be made to reach net zero emissions by 2050, these will take time to implement and can’t be rushed despite a current favourable pricing environment. 

“It won’t happen overnight, but our energy is not stagnant, it’s not a 2030 proposition. We need energy for the long term, so the sooner we can start, the better.”

She tells Mining.com.au that if nuclear power is supported ‘wholeheartedly’ in places such as the UK, France, Canada, and the US, it’s curious why Australia is not considering adding it into the mix. 

“If you are seeing that in a country like France, why not consider adding it to our mix in Australia and taking the burden and the pressure off having to do renewable energy so quickly and it to be so costly for Australia.”

Cochran laments the lack of progress and believes the commitment to achieve 80% renewables by 2030 is merely impossible. 

“This commitment to 80% renewables by 2030, is just physically impossible, it just will not happen. The costs are exorbitant and uncosted and we know this is going to end in tears, it is already ending in tears.”

The uranium spot price has surged just over US$100 per pound, as this news service previously reported. The increase has led to a flurry of junior uranium plays releasing announcements and a hive of activity building with the momentum of a uranium bull market.

Interestingly, Cochran says: “The reality is, this is only the second time in history that the uranium spot price has breached US$100/lb.”

So, could this price shift be an impetus for legislators to change the law?

One simple step…

There is consensus that removing the impediment and ban on nuclear power from the EPBC Act is the first logical step of many for the country’s legislators. 

Cochran says: “That is a very seemingly simple step. Get rid of the impediment and let market forces decide and actually be honest.

You get people like CSIRO to do genuine honest research, not politically biassed research that then favours a particular political viewpoint and then we will see that nuclear does stack up.”

After completing this, Aurora’s MD notes there is expected to be several additional agreements that would be executed internationally. He says it’s all about making progress to move ahead. 

“Nowhere in human history have people gone backwards to go forwards

“Nowhere in human history have people gone backwards to go forwards.”

Cochran refers to less dense forms of energy supply when going backwards, as the world was more transformed when it went towards more dense sources of energy — which was oil and gas at the time. 

“We’ve been riding the back of that for 150 to 200 odd years and now all of a sudden going backwards to less dense, more material intensive and more land intensive sources of power is somehow going to solve our problem? Sadly not.”

Nuclear energy is the largest source of clean power in the US, as per the US Department of Energy. It is sought to protect air quality by producing a large volume of carbon-free electricity. 

Viking Mines (ASX:VKA) Managing Director Julian Woodcock says there are tax breaks, subsidies, and incentives to maintain certain industries that do not contribute to the global decarbonisation efforts, such as fossil fuel industries.

Yet it appears for the uranium sector, which is an option away from fossil fuels, it often is overlooked.

“We’ve got to get away from the consumption of brown coal and all of those things. My understanding is there are tax breaks, subsidies, and incentives to maintain those industries over there. 

Coal isn’t that prevalent here in Western Australia, so it’s not as much forefront. So, I think recognising that there needs to be movement and I did see recently some whole approvals that were being given to some large coal mines which are all getting exported.”

According to The Australia Institute, in 2022-2023, the Australian Federal and state governments provided just over $11 billion worth of spending and tax breaks to support these industries. 

Woodcock says: “If there are subsidies and tax breaks going into that industry, could it be better diverted in promoting the development of other critical minerals which will actually have the opposite effect and that will work towards decarbonisation, such as whether it be vanadium or green hydrogen.”

Consultancy Hatch says there are ‘enormous’ challenges for the mining industry as achieving net zero carbon emissions requires the industry to adopt radical new approaches and technologies that have yet to be developed.

Those in the uranium space likely agree that adopting existing approaches and technologies such as nuclear energy might be a logical first step.

Write to Aaliyah Rogan at Mining.com.au  

Images: Minerals Council of Australia
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Written By Aaliyah Rogan
Relocated from the East Coast in New Zealand to Queensland Australia, Aaliyah is a fervent journalist who has a passion for storytelling. When Aaliyah isn’t writing stories, she is either spending time with friends and family or down at the beach.