Summary

Australian uranium developer and explorer Toro Energy Ltd (Toro) has been given Federal and State approval to proceed with its Wiluna uranium mining project in Western Australia (Wiluna Project). Toro plans to mine up to two million tonnes of ore each year over the anticipated 14 year life of the mine, producing approximately 1,200 tonnes of uranium oxide concentrate per annum.

The Wiluna Project will be Australia’s sixth uranium producer and the first uranium mine approved in Western Australia since the ban on uranium mining was lifted by the State Government in 2008.

Background to approvals

Toro referred the Wiluna Project for environmental impact assessment under the State Environmental Protection Act 1986 (WA) (EP Act) and Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act) in late 2009. The process from referral to approval has spanned three and a half years. It included detailed assessment of all key environmental factors, including radiation and its potential impact to environmental aspects such as groundwater, surface water and air quality, a number of opportunities for public comment and consideration of advice from expert authorities, including Geoscience Australia, and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency.

State approval under the EP Act was given on 10 October 2012 in Ministerial Statement 913. The approval is subject to strict conditions, particularly in respect to groundwater and flora and fauna species that are water dependent, including a requirement for biodiversity offsets.

There has been some criticism of the approval by the Greens, stating that it has failed to place adequate conditions on mine closure. From 1 July 2011, mine closure has not generally been addressed in detail as part of the assessment of mining projects under the EP Act, where they are subject to the Mining Act 1978 (WA). Criticism of singular processes or approvals usually ignores the reality that there are numerous laws, many duplicative, in existence which provide environmental protection measures.

The Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP) is the lead regulator for mining projects and tasked with ensuring appropriate closure conditions are applied, reviewed and implemented during the life of a project. Closure requirements are assessed by DMP in the Mine Closure Plan, which must be submitted with all Mining Proposals. For uranium mines, management of radioactivity, including closure, is also regulated under the Mines Safety and Inspection Regulations 1995 (WA) and the Radiation Safety Act 1975 (WA).

Federal approval under the EPBC Act followed on 2 April 2013, after a decision on the Wiluna Project was deferred three times by the Federal Minister during the latter part of three and a half year assessment period. 

The final approval contains 36 conditions, which the Federal Minister has stated will ‘ensure the proposal meets the world’s best practice environmental standards from uranium mining, and that the risks to the environment, including risks from radiation and to groundwater and surface water can be acceptable managed’.

What this means for industry

Approval of the Wiluna Project demonstrates that both the Western Australian and Federal Governments remain committed to developing uranium resources in this State and controlled growth of the Australian uranium industry.

These approvals pave the way for future uranium developments in WA and are likely to provide a precedent for new projects and those current in the assessment system.