Nationals stir up uranium debate: ‘We need to move down a nuclear path’
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No other mineral has generated as much controversy globally as uranium, and this week the debate over its place in Australia’s energy mix has once again come to the fore.
Speaking on the Sky News channel, deputy Nationals leader David Littleproud has called for a revival of Australia’s nuclear industry, saying that politicians need to make the case for an eventual nuclear energy use in the country.
Littleproud, who’s also the Minister of Agriculture, told Sky that politicians need to have a mature, broad conversation to convince the public of the need to lift the ban on nuclear energy.
“At this juncture, I don’t think we can give the public that confidence,” Littleproud said.
“But I think we shouldn’t steer away from the fact of trying and putting in their mind what are the possibilities, including taking into account the new technologies that exist.”
His comments were backed by Nationals senator Sam McMahon, who wants the nuclear ban to be overturned through a bill aimed at streamlining environmental approvals.
The bill in question is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999, which currently restricts uranium mining to some degree but prohibits nuclear plants altogether.
“The only realistic way to bring down carbon emissions in our nation is to use our natural resources and move down a nuclear path,” McMahon said.
McMahon also stated that his home state of Northern Territory has almost a third of Australia’s low-cost uranium deposits, and “being able to use it in our own country would provide benefits to many communities.”
Changes to the environmental bill itself face a tough ride in the Senate, and are currently still a vote short of getting approved.
Whilst the role of metals in the electrification economy is evident, the energy mix required for the path to carbon neutrality is less clear.
Australia holds almost one-third of the world’s proven uranium reserve, so the argument for nuclear energy makes sense from that perspective.
There are currently three operating uranium mines in the country: Ranger in the Northern Territory, and Olympic Dam and Beverley Four Mile in South Australia.
But nuclear reactors have been banned since 1998, when public debate centred on the decommissioning of the Lucas Heights reactor.
Advocates of nuclear energy, who are predominantly uranium mining stakeholders, argue that nuclear is a safe, readily deployable, zero emissions power source that should be part of Australia’s carbon neutrality strategy.
Nuclear provides around 10 per cent of the world’s power, providing zero emission electricity to billions of people in more than 30 countries, the argument goes.
In the US, uranium and nuclear energy are indeed vital to national security.
The US government has just allocated a $6 billion lifeline for struggling nuclear power reactors that are at risk of being shut down, as part of President Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure package announced yesterday.
That bodes well for Australia’s uranium explorers, who collectively export 7,500 tonnes per year, with half of that headed for the US.