Ranger Uranium Mine, Number 3 pit
Quarterly expenditure ($millions) on uranium exploration since 1988
Annual Australian production of uranium (thousand tonnes) since 1989

Radioactive ores were first extracted in South Australia at Radium Hill in 1906 and Mount Painter in 1911. 2,000 tons of ore were treated to recover radium for medical use. Several hundred kilograms of uranium were also produced for use in ceramic glazes.[1][2]

In 2019 Australia exported 6,613 tonnes (15 million pounds) of uranium, 12% of world production, for use in nuclear power generation.[3] IAEA and the OECD's NEA reported that the price of uranium in 2019 was $130/kg, and estimated that 35% of the world's uranium resource reserves was in Australia (1,748,100 tonnes out of 4,971,400 tonnes).[4][5] In terms of production, Kazakhstan is the largest supplier, followed by Canada and Australia.[6][7]

Following the Japanese Fukushima nuclear disaster in early 2011, many countries scaled back their nuclear power production, with some setting deadlines for a complete shutdown of all nuclear power reactors, with a resultant impact on demand for uranium. As of 2013 uranium prices have been very low. New mine developments have received State government approval in Western Australia and Queensland, although it is unlikely that new projects will enter active development until the uranium market price improves.

For several decades uranium mining has been a major part of the Australian political discussion, with opposition groups citing the wide-ranging environmental impacts, indigenous land access and nuclear proliferation as reasons for ceasing or restricting the industry. The debate has resulted in limitations on mining and export activities, with Federal and State governments occasionally backflipping on public policy.

As of 2017, there were three operational uranium mine sites: Olympic Dam (BHP), Ranger (Energy Resources of Australia), and Beverley Four Mile (Heathgate Resources).[8]

History

Radium Hill minesite c.1954

The occurrence of uranium in Australia had been known since the 1890s.[2] Uranium was produced as a bi-product of radium mining in South Australia at Radium Hill from 1906 and Mount Painter from 1911. A refinery at Hunters Hill, Sydney processed the ore between 1911 and 1915 for radium bromide and uranium. The radium was used for medical research and the uranium used in ceramic and glass manufacture.[9]

Serious uranium exploration started in 1944 after requests from the United States and United Kingdom governments, and in 1948 tax concessions were offered by the Commonwealth for successful discoveries. A£1.8 million uranium treatment complex operated by the Government of South Australia at Port Pirie commenced operations in August 1955, processing ore from Radium Hill and Wild Dog Hill (Myponga), south of Adelaide. The complex supplied the United Kingdom - United States Combined Development Agency and closed in February 1962.[10][11]

Uranium deposits were found at Rum Jungle (NT) in 1949 and a mining operation run by the Commonwealth commenced there in 1954. Further discoveries were made at South Alligator River (NT) in 1953, Mary Kathleen (Qld) in 1954, and Westmoreland (Qld) in 1956. In 1954 Radium Hill reopened as a uranium mine and mining operations started at other sites in the late 1950s, including El Sherana, Coronation Hill and Palette.[12]

By 1964, production had mostly ended due to depleted reserves and filled contracts. Export sales during this initial phase included 7,730 tonnes of uranium to the US and UK for their nuclear weapons programs. Much of the sales related to the power generation in overseas countries.[13]

A second wave of exploration activity in the late 1960s occurred with the development of nuclear energy for electricity production. 60 deposits had been identified up to the late 1970s. The Ranger deposit was discovered in 1969, Nabarlek and Koongarra in 1970, and Jabiluka in 1971.

The first of many government inquiries into the industry was tabled in 1976 as the "Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry" (also known as the "Fox Report"), and addressed the question of whether Australia should mine and export uranium.[14] Mining operations ceased while the inquiry was underway but recommenced in 1977 after the government took up a 42% share of Ranger Uranium Mines.[2] In 1979 the Commonwealth sold its share in the still to be built Ranger operation and at the same time established Energy Resources of Australia to own and operate the mine. Ranger finally opened for production in 1981. The mine continued to operate until January 2021 and is now marked for remediation.[15]

The Nabarlek (NT) mine operated for four months in 1979. Milling of stockpiled ore commenced in 1980 and produced 10,858 tonnes of uranium oxide up to 1988 with sales to Japan, Finland and France, for civil power generation.

Mary Kathleen closed in late 1982 becoming the site of Australia's first major uranium mine site rehabilitation project. This was completed in 1985. A similar site rehabilitation project at Rum Jungle also took place in the 1980s.[2]

The Olympic Dam mine at Roxby Downs started operations in 1988, operated by Western Mining Corporation. A large underground mine, it was mainly focussed on copper production, with uranium, gold and silver as by-products. Western Mining Corporation was taken over by BHP Billiton in 2005.[2]

Historically, many prospective Australian uranium mines have been constrained by active antinuclear opposition, but state governments have now approved mine development in Western Australia and Queensland.[16] But it is unlikely that any new projects will enter active development until the market improves. As of 2013 uranium prices are very low. Cameco placed the Kintyre project on hold until market prices improve and Paladin has stated that its project proposals (Bigrlyi, Angela/Pamela, Manyingee, Oobagooma, and Valhalla/Skal) need higher uranium market prices before they can proceed. Toro wants to take the Wiluna proposal to the development phase, but has not been successful in attracting equity investors. When market prices go up again, so that mine development is justified, most projects would need at least five years to proceed to production.[17]

Map

Major uranium mines and deposits in Australia
Angela
Angela
Oobagooma
Oobagooma
Manyingee
Manyingee
Naperby
Naperby
Bigrlyi
Bigrlyi
Koongarra
Koongarra
Mulga Rock
Mulga Rock
Westmoreland
Westmoreland
Major uranium mines and deposits in Australia[2][18]

Active mine    Deposit/possible future minesite    Closed mines/plants    City/town

(May 2009)

Markets

Generally, there is only one commercial use for uranium: as the source material for nuclear power generation. In February 2009 there were 436 operational nuclear power plants worldwide, with a total generating capacity of nearly 372 gigawatts of electricity.[19] Another 64 nuclear power reactors are expected to be commissioned over the next six years.

There are no nuclear power generation plants operating in Australia and therefore no domestic demand. The High Flux Australian Reactor at Lucas Heights, New South Wales operated from 1958 to 2007. The OPAL research reactor is currently in operation at Lucas Heights.

Australian uranium is mined and sold only for electrical power generation or nuclear research, Almost all the uranium is exported under strict International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

Government policy and politics

See also: List of inquiries into uranium mining in Australia

Uranium mining in Australia has been highly political, particularly for the Australian Labor Party (ALP) at both state and federal level. Development of projects has often been stymied by a succession of inquiries and the politicisation of the issuing of mining and export licences.

The biennial ALP National conference in 1982 debated the issue vigorously. At the 1984 Conference, the newly elected federal Labor government under Bob Hawke introduced the so-called "Three mine policy".[20] The policy confined Australian uranium mining activities to the three sites already operational: Ranger, Nabarlek and Olympic Dam with a moratorium on new mines opening. Subsequently, reserves at Nabarlek were depleted and the Beverley Uranium Mine became the notional third mine.

The coalition won the 1996 Federal election under John Howard and promptly abandoned the policy.

On 28 April 2007, the Howard government adopted a new uranium strategy which aimed to immediately remove "unnecessary constraints impeding the expansion of uranium mining, such as overlapping and cumbersome regulations relating to the mining and transport of uranium ore" and repeal prohibitions on further nuclear industrial development which had been established in 1999 under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999.[21]

The same day, the Labor party abandoned its "no new mines" policy, while maintaining its opposition to other forms of nuclear industrial development in Australia.[22]

After returning to government in 2008, the ALP approved a fourth uranium mine in July 2009: the Four Mile uranium mine in South Australia, thus ending its 25-year-old policy.[23] Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson subsequently declared that increased uranium mining in Australia was inevitable.[24]

Recent legislative changes

The Western Australian ban on uranium mining was removed in 2008.[19]

Queensland's ban on uranium mining was revoked in 2012, when Premier Campbell Newman back-flipped on a pre-election promise.[25] In March 2015 the Palaszczuk government announced that it would be reinstating the ban.[26]

The New South Wales Government passed the Mining Legislation Amendment (Uranium Exploration) Act 2012 No 16 on 4 April 2012. The Act was proclaimed on 14 September 2012. The Act removed the ban on uranium exploration to help gain an understanding of what uranium and uranium-bearing mineral resources may exist in the State. The ban on uranium mining remains in place.[27]

Opposition

Dr Helen Caldicott
Dr Helen Caldicott
Kevin Buzzacott in Adelaide 2014

Opposition to uranium mining has been considerable in Australia, and notable anti-uranium activists have included Dr Helen Calidicott, Kevin Buzzacott, Jacqui Katona, Yvonne Margarula, and Jillian Marsh.[28][29][30] In the 1970s and 1980s demonstrations numbering up to tens of thousands people were held around Australia and the loading of yellowcake on ships was disrupted by environmentalists and unionists.[16]

In November 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard called on the ALP to reverse its policy at the ALP national conference, to allow export of Australian uranium to India. India has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

While being welcomed at the time by State and Federal governments as a major boost to the economy, the proposed Olympic Dam expansion of mining operations did attract criticism. In 2010, local traditional owners and Indigenous communities protested the proposed expansion.[31] In July 2012, more than 400 people joined a "Lizard's Revenge march" to the Olympic Dam site. The anti-nuclear activists, including Elder Kevin Buzzacott, protested against the mine expansion and the uranium industry. They say the company and the government have put short-term economic gain ahead of environmental and health concerns. Organiser Nectaria Calan said police harassed protesters, demanding identification and controlling access to and from their campsite.[32] In August 2012, BHP Billiton announced that the expansion was being postponed indefinitely pending investigation of a "new and cheaper design".[33][34]

In 2016, BHP Billiton's asset president, Jacqui McGill, announced that the expansion plans would move ahead, "through low-risk, capital efficient underground expansions."[35]

Regulation of uranium mining in Australia

Federal law

Mining or milling uranium ore is defined as a 'nuclear action' in Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, s.22(1)(d). This means that an EPBC Act approval is required for uranium mining from the Federal Environment Minister if a corporation or the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth agency is to take a nuclear action that has, will have or is likely to have a significant impact on the environment (s.21(1)).

State and Territory laws

NSW

Until 2012, the Uranium Mining and Nuclear Facilities (Prohibitions) Act 1986 (NSW) prohibited uranium mining in NSW. In 2012 the O'Farrell government proposed the repeal of selected provisions of this Act, by means of the Mining Legislation Amendment (Uranium Exploration) Bill 2012, which passed on 28 March 2012, and received Royal Assent on 4 April 2012. The UMNFP Act had made it an offence to prospect for, or to mine, uranium in NSW. (s.7) The 2012 Bill removed the general prohibition on prospecting for uranium in New South Wales. It also enables exploration licences and associated permits (but no other licences or authorities) to be granted under the Mining Act 1992 to prospect for uranium, to apply the State environmental planning policy applicable to other mineral exploration to uranium prospecting, vests all uranium in NSW in the Crown and excludes compensation for that vesting. The UMNFP Act still prohibits State authorities from constructing or operating nuclear reactors for the production of electricity (s.9).

Northern Territory

Queensland

Mining uranium was banned in Queensland from 1989 to 2012. The ban was repealed by the Newman government, then the Palaszczuk government in 2015 announced that it would be reinstated.[36][37]

South Australia

Radiation Protection and Control Act 1982 (SA) (ss. 5, 27).

Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) Act 1982 (see: Schedule)

On 19 March 2015 the South Australian government established The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission to investigate the expansion of uranium mining and exploration of new uranium deposits in South Australia.[38] On 15 November 2016 the government decided to support all five uranium mining related recommendations made by the commission.[39]

Victoria

Nuclear Activities (Prohibitions) Act 1983 - s.5: Prohibition against exploration etc. for uranium or thorium

Western Australia

Before the 2017 State election, former Western Australia's Environment Minister, Albert Jacob, gave approval for the Wiluna Project, owned by Toro Energy, the Yeelirrie Project owned by Cameco and the Mulga Rock Project owned by Vimy Resources. The WA McGowan government was elected in March 2017 and reinstated the ban on uranium mining but allowed these three and the Kintyre Project, owned by Cameco, to proceed.[40][41]

Mines

Mary Kathleen mine, 2011

About 96% of known resources are at six sites: Olympic Dam (the world's largest known uranium deposit), Ranger, Jabiluka, Koongarra, Kintyre and Yeelirrie.[2]


Uranium Mines in Australia[42]
Name Alternate Names State Coordinates Status Commodities Geological Province Geological Age Deposit Model[43]
Carrapateena mine Carrapateena South Australia 31°13′03″S 137°29′54″E / 31.2175°S 137.4984°E / -31.2175; 137.4984 Operating Mine Copper, Gold, (Silver, Uranium oxide) Gawler Craton, Olympic Domain
Four Mile uranium mine Four Mile East South Australia 30°08′30″S 139°31′45″E / 30.1417°S 139.5292°E / -30.1417; 139.5292 Operating Mine Uranium, Uranium oxide Callabonna Sub-basin Cenozoic
Coronation Hill Northern Territory 13°35′10″S 132°36′27″E / 13.5862°S 132.6074°E / -13.5862; 132.6074 Historic Mine Gold, (Uranium, Platinum, Palladium, Platinum group elements, Uranium oxide) Pine Creek Orogen Paleoproterozoic Environment: Basin hydrothermal, Group: Unconformity-related, Type: Unconformity-related U
Nabarlek Uranium Mine Nabarlek Northern Territory 12°18′30″S 133°19′12″E / 12.3082°S 133.32°E / -12.3082; 133.32 Historic Mine Uranium oxide, Uranium Pine Creek Orogen Proterozoic Environment: Basin hydrothermal, Group: Unconformity-related, Type: Unconformity-related U
Beverley Uranium Mine Beverley South Australia 30°11′25″S 139°36′18″E / 30.1904°S 139.6051°E / -30.1904; 139.6051 Care And Maintenance Uranium oxide, Uranium Lake Eyre Basin, Callabonna Sub-basin Cenozoic
Kintyre Western Australia 22°20′15″S 122°04′20″E / 22.3374°S 122.0722°E / -22.3374; 122.0722 Feasibility Uranium, (Uranium oxide) Paterson Orogen, Rudall PGE (prospective) Metallogenic Province, Rudall Province Proterozoic
Olympic Dam mine Olympic Dam, Roxby Downs South Australia 30°26′15″S 136°53′21″E / 30.4374°S 136.8893°E / -30.4374; 136.8893 Operating Mine Copper, Gold, (Uranium, Silver, Rare earth elements) Gawler Craton, Olympic Copper Gold Metallogenic Province, Olympic Domain Mesoproterozoic Environment: Regional metasomatic, Group: IOCG, Type: Hematite-dominant IOCG
Monakoff Mount Margaret, Mt Margaret, Tinboll Queensland 20°37′30″S 140°41′19″E / 20.625°S 140.6885°E / -20.625; 140.6885 Care And Maintenance Copper, Gold, (Uranium, Cobalt, Silver) Mount Isa Orogen, Cloncurry-Selwyn Zone Proterozoic Environment: Regional metasomatic, Group: IOCG, Type: Magnetite-dominant IOCG
Mary Kathleen, Queensland Mary Kathleen Queensland 20°44′46″S 140°00′47″E / 20.746°S 140.013°E / -20.746; 140.013 Historic Mine Rare earth oxides, Uranium, Uranium oxide Mount Isa Orogen, Mary Kathleen Domain, Mary Kathleen Zone Paleoproterozoic Environment: Magmatic hydrothermal, Group: Skarn, Type: Skarn U-REE
Mount Painter Armchair, Mt Gee, Radium Ridge, Streitberg South Australia 30°13′37″S 139°22′12″E / 30.227°S 139.37°E / -30.227; 139.37 Historic Mine Uranium, Rare earth elements, Uranium oxide Mount Painter Block Paleozoic
Eva Pandanus Creek Northern Territory 17°40′52″S 137°49′11″E / 17.681°S 137.8196°E / -17.681; 137.8196 Historic Mine Uranium, Gold, (Uranium oxide) Mount Isa Orogen, Murphy Inlier
Honeymoon Uranium Mine Honeymoon South Australia 31°44′28″S 140°39′45″E / 31.741°S 140.6624°E / -31.741; 140.6624 Care And Maintenance Uranium, (Uranium oxide) Lake Eyre Basin, Callabonna Sub-basin Cenozoic
Mount Elliott mine Mount Elliott, Mt Elliott Queensland 21°32′24″S 140°30′06″E / 21.54°S 140.5017°E / -21.54; 140.5017 Historic Mine Copper, Gold, (Uranium) Mount Isa Orogen, Kuridala-Selwyn Domain, Selwyn Metallogenic Province, Cloncurry-Selwyn Zone Mesoproterozoic Environment: Regional metasomatic, Group: IOCG, Type: Magnetite-dominant IOCG
Ranger Uranium Mine Ranger Northern Territory 12°40′25″S 132°55′07″E / 12.6735°S 132.9185°E / -12.6735; 132.9185 Closed Uranium, (Uranium oxide) Pine Creek Orogen Proterozoic Environment: Basin hydrothermal, Group: Unconformity-related, Type: Unconformity-related U
Mount Margaret-E1 (Glencore) E1, E1 East, E1 North, E1 South, Monakoff, Mt Margaret Queensland 20°26′33″S 140°46′58″E / 20.4424°S 140.7829°E / -20.4424; 140.7829 Operating Mine Copper, Gold, (Uranium, Uranium oxide) Mount Isa Orogen Proterozoic
Four Mile uranium mine Four Mile West South Australia 30°09′S 139°30′E / 30.15°S 139.5°E / -30.15; 139.5 Operating Mine Uranium, (Uranium oxide) Callabonna Sub-basin Cenozoic
Ben Lomond Queensland 19°22′37″S 146°18′00″E / 19.377°S 146.3°E / -19.377; 146.3 Historic Mine Uranium, (Molybdenum, Uranium oxide) Lachlan Orogen, Charters Towers Province
Rum Jungle, Northern Territory Rum Jungle Creek South Northern Territory 13°02′23″S 130°59′54″E / 13.0397°S 130.9984°E / -13.0397; 130.9984 Historic Mine Uranium, Uranium oxide Pine Creek Orogen Proterozoic Environment: unknown, Group: unknown, Type: unknown
El Sherana Northern Territory 13°30′21″S 132°31′13″E / 13.5057°S 132.5203°E / -13.5057; 132.5203 Historic Mine Gold, Uranium oxide, Uranium Pine Creek Orogen Proterozoic Environment: Basin hydrothermal, Group: Unconformity-related, Type: Unconformity-related U
Radium Hill South Australia 32°20′33″S 140°38′07″E / 32.3426°S 140.6353°E / -32.3426; 140.6353 Historic Mine Uranium oxide, Uranium Curnamona Province Proterozoic Environment: Regional metasomatic, Group: Metasomatic iron, Type: Iron oxide U
Mount Burton Northern Territory 12°58′37″S 130°57′49″E / 12.977°S 130.9636°E / -12.977; 130.9636 Historic Mine Copper, Uranium, Uranium oxide Pine Creek Orogen Proterozoic
White's Northern Territory 12°59′06″S 131°00′29″E / 12.9849°S 131.008°E / -12.9849; 131.008 Historic Mine Uranium, Copper, Uranium oxide, Lead, Cobalt Pine Creek Orogen, Mount Todd Gold Metallogenic Province Proterozoic
Mount Fitch (Northern Territory) Mount Fitch Northern Territory 12°56′48″S 130°56′54″E / 12.9468°S 130.9483°E / -12.9468; 130.9483 Historic Mine Nickel, Copper, Cobalt, Uranium, Uranium oxide Pine Creek Orogen Proterozoic
Ashburton Downs Windy Ridge Western Australia 23°27′03″S 117°15′12″E / 23.4509°S 117.2533°E / -23.4509; 117.2533 Historic Mine Copper, Uranium Ashburton Basin Proterozoic

For a more comprehensive list, see List of uranium mines.

Closed/depleted
Operating
Known deposits/possible future minesites

See also: Uranium in Western Australia

See also

References

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