Summary

On 22 October 2012, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman announced a decision to recommence uranium mining in Queensland. Just 3 months later, and with the Uranium Implementation Committee due to provide its report to the State Government in March, we take this opportunity to consider – what’s next for uranium mining in Queensland?

Queensland’s last uranium mine closed in 1982 and since 1998 successive State Governments have had a policy of not granting mining leases for the extraction of uranium. This effective ban was overturned in October 2012 when Queensland Premier Campbell Newman announced the formation of a Uranium Implementation Committee to oversee the resumption of uranium mining. The committee was tasked with developing a framework for the development of uranium mining in Queensland and considering a range of issues – including safety, rehabilitation and royalties.

With findings due only four months after the ban was lifted, it is anticipated that the Uranium Implementation Committee’s report will provide an interim framework for further legislative and policy reforms. We expect that the committee will consider whether additional legislation or guidance will be necessary to facilitate the ‘best practice’ development of Queensland’s uranium industry. Further industry and community debate will undoubtedly follow such report – particularly in the environmental regulatory space.

Set out below are some of our key expectations for the short to medium term.

Regulatory change

The previous restriction on uranium mining was enforced through policy, not law, and the Mineral Resources Act 1989 (Qld) already permits uranium mining in the same way as for other minerals. As such, no significant legislative changes are required to enable the grant of a mining lease for uranium.

Radioactive materials are also already encountered in Queensland as part of both uranium exploration and mining for other minerals (eg bauxite, copper and phosphate). Radiation occurring as part of exploration and mining is regulated by existing State and Commonwealth legislation and the transport of radioactive materials in Queensland is governed by Commonwealth legislation and the Radiation Safety Act 1999 (Qld).

However, uranium mining will likely be subject to additional requirements relating to radiation protection and security. We expect that, as was the case when the ban on uranium mining was overturned in Western Australia in 2008, the approvals regime will not be significantly overhauled but there will be amendments to:

  • enhance uniformity with and references to standards, codes of practice and guidelines released by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency,
  • expand subsidiary regulations/departmental guidance notes, and
  • potentially, introduce a uranium-specific royalty regime.

Resource demand at the Department of Natural Resources and Mines

The recommencement of uranium mining will bring with it increased regulatory oversight associated with the assessment of new proposals, inspection of operating mines and inter-governmental and inter-agency cooperation. One of the key findings of the Western Australian Inter-Agency Working Group Report (released in August 2009 following the lifting of that State’s ban) was an urgent need for government regulators and industry to directly engage and/or develop additional adequately trained and skilled personnel prior to the development of new uranium mines. Similar ‘up-skilling’ is likely to be needed in Queensland.

Delay

One consensus that has emerged from recent debate is that operational mines are a number of years away. The Western Australian ban was lifted in 2008 and that State’s first mine (Toro Energy Limited’s Wiluna Uranium Project) is currently in the process of seeking final Commonwealth approvals, which have recently been delayed. Similarly in Queensland, a number of factors are likely to contribute to a lead time of at least 5 to 7 years:

  • Regulatory issues aside, at the commercial level uranium prices will need to move to a level which supports bankability and feasibility studies for development of the relevant projects in Queensland.
  • Following identification of a feasible mine site, the prospective uranium mine will need to complete the approval process and then be built. Such a mine will encounter regulatory hurdles at both a State and Federal level, and the very real possibility that the approvals process itself will be evolving during this period. In October 2012, the Australian Uranium Association said they did not see a uranium mine operating in Queensland for a minimum of 5 years.
  • The uranium transport debate has already commenced. The Uranium Implementation Committee Chairman Paul Bell has stated that Townsville and Cairns could potentially be used as ports to export uranium – despite not being special purpose hazardous ports. Queensland Resources Council spokesman Michael Roche has suggested it would make more sense for uranium to be transported to the Adelaide-Darwin railway and sent to Darwin or Adelaide. Infrastructure would need to be upgraded or developed to support such transportation options.

Increase in exploration

Given the lead time associated with commencing mining operations of any kind, one of the shorter term impacts of overturning the uranium mining ban may be increased interest in the uranium exploration industry in Queensland. With increased certainty that a project will be able to be developed, and increased interest in the Australian industry generally, exploration companies may turn their focus to uranium prospects in Queensland.