Introduction

On 22 October 2012, the Queensland Government announced its decision to end the 30 year ban on uranium mining. This means that Queensland uranium miners will be permitted to exploit the estimated AUD$18 billion worth of uranium reserves located in that State. 

This change in policy is one of numerous recent developments in Australia, which indicate the continuing policy shift in favour of uranium mining. Other recent developments include:

  • the Federal government approval of uranium sales to China and opening up new markets for Australian uranium by negotiating bilateral agreements with countries including India and the United Arab Emirates;
  • the Western Australian Government’s environmental approval of that State’s first uranium mining project; and
  • the lifting of the 26 year ban on uranium exploration in New South Wales.

These changes in law and policy will put Australia in a stronger position to meet the growth in demand for uranium that has been recently predicted by the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

This article examines the law and policy surrounding uranium mining in Australia, including the recent changes in policy in Queensland and New South Wales.

Federal Government

As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Australian government policy requires that uranium may only be exported for peaceful, civilian purposes under a network of bilateral safeguards agreements providing for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Australia presently has 22 bilateral safeguards agreements in force covering at least 39 countries. In recent times, Federal government policy has made a clear shift in favour of uranium mining and export, as summarised below:

  • In December 2011 the Australian government changed its policy against exports of uranium to India. Australia and India have now commenced top level discussions regarding the uranium safeguards agreement to enable the export of uranium to India. However, it is expected that it will take at least a year or two for any agreement to be finalised and for exports to begin.
  • In August 2012, the Australian Foreign Affairs Minister signed a safeguards agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which will make the UAE the first Middle East market for Australian uranium.
  • The Federal Government approved sales of uranium concentrates to China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Company (CGNPC) by Energy Metals Limited, an ASX-listed company that is majority owned by a subsidiary of CGNPC. 

Therefore, at the Federal level, there is a clear policy in favour of uranium mining and export. However, the environmental effects of uranium mining will be closely scrutinised by the Federal government before the necessary environmental approvals are granted for new uranium mines.

Queensland

Uranium was mined in Queensland as recently as 1982. However, while uranium exploration had been permitted, commercial mining of uranium had been banned since that time. Prior to the Queensland State elections in March 2012, the now Premier, Campbell Newman, stated that his Liberal National Party had "no plans" to allow uranium mining in Queensland. 

However, on 22 October 2012, the Premier announced that Queensland's 30 year ban on uranium mining will be lifted. The Premier pointed to Prime Minister Julia Gillard's recent trip to India to discuss the sale of Australian-produced uranium as a catalyst for the change in policy. That trip followed calls in June 2012 by the Federal Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, for Queensland to lift its uranium mining ban.

It was announced that a three-member implementation committee will oversee the resumption of uranium mining and will report back to the government within three months. While no legislative changes are required to give effect to the change in policy, current holders of exploration permits for minerals which encompass significant uranium deposits will need to apply for a mining lease for uranium before those deposits can be mined.

Significant uranium resources in Queensland include the Valhalla, Skal and Bikini deposits owned by Summit Resources Limited, the Maureen and Ben Lomond deposits owned by Mega Uranium Ltd, and the Westmoreland deposit owned by Laramide Resources Ltd.

It remains uncertain whether the uranium produced by Queensland mines would be allowed to be shipped through Queensland ports.

New South Wales

On 15 February 2012, the New South Wales (NSW) Government announced that it would overturn the 28 year ban on uranium exploration in New South Wales. The Mining Legislation Amendment (Uranium Exploration) Bill 2012 was then passed by parliament and the ban was effectively lifted on 14 September 2012. 

While uranium exploration may now be permitted, the ban on commercial uranium mining remains in place. The New South Wales Premier stated that mining of uranium will not be allowed until the government has "carried out the necessary environmental and exploration checks and [has] had a mature and sensible discussion about utilising this resource".

Before applying for an exploration licence for Group 11 minerals (ie. uranium and thorium), a party must first apply for consent from the NSW Minister for Trade and Investment. The initial applications for Ministerial consent will close on 13 November 2012. Any requests received after that date will be entered into a register and considered after applications received during the initial period have been processed. Once consent is granted, a party may apply for a Group 11 mineral exploration licence.

Existing mineral exploration licence holders cannot apply to add uranium and thorium to their licences. Instead, they must apply for a new licence for Group 11 minerals.

Although the extent of uranium deposits in NSW is relatively unknown, potential sites include areas around Broken Hill. The Honeymoon uranium project is just west of this area, over the border in South Australia. The NSW government has conducted aerial surveys that identified areas of low concentrations of uranium in the Broken Hill district, the New England district and central and southern NSW. The NSW Department of Trade and Investment is currently developing data sets for release in the near future.

South Australia

Uranium mining is well established in South Australia and four mines have previously been approved: Olympic Dam, Beverly, Four Mile and Honeymoon. 

The South Australian Government is in favour of uranium mining and exports of uranium are permitted through the Port of Adelaide. Last year, the Olympic Dam expansion was given environmental approval by the State and Federal governments. It was predicted that production of uranium at Olympic dam will increase to 19,000 tonnes per annum. However, in August 2012, BHP Billiton Limited announced that it would undertake a review of the proposed Olympic Dam expansion and would not be ready to approve the expansion before the December 2012 deadline with the South Australian government.

Northern Territory

The Northern Territory government supports uranium mining and has one operating mine, the Ranger uranium mine held by Energy Resources of Australia Limited (ERA). 

The Northern Territory government is receptive to new uranium projects, although this is qualified by the government’s announcement on 28 September 2010 that it would not support mining of the Angela and Pamela deposits south of Alice Springs (due to their proximity to the city). However, the Federal government ultimately has the power to decide whether new uranium mines will be allowed to proceed in the Northern Territory.

ERA’s proposed Jabiluka uranium mine will not proceed until the traditional owners of the land consent to its development.

Western Australia

The ruling Liberal National coalition overturned Western Australia's ban on uranium mining in November 2008, which led to increased investment in uranium exploration in Western Australia. 

The opposition West Australian Labor Party (WAALP) maintains its policy against uranium mining. However, in January 2012, the new opposition WAALP leader announced that if the WAALP win the next election, existing uranium mines that have been granted final state approval prior to the election will be allowed to proceed.

Therefore, if uranium mining projects have not obtained approval prior to the next election, there is a risk those projects will not be allowed to proceed if the WAALP wins the election. This is a cause for concern for investors in Western Australian uranium projects that do not yet have final approval.

Recently, the West Australian government has made the following important decisions regarding uranium mining:

  • On 10 October 2012, the West Australian Government granted final environmental approval to Toro Energy Limited's Wiluna project. This is a major milestone in the approval process for the Wiluna Project, with the next step being a formal decision by the Federal Minister for Environment.
  • On 25 May 2012, the West Australian government announced that it would not allow shipping of uranium from West Australian ports because existing ports are either surrounded by residential areas or do not have container facilities. Therefore exporters and purchasers of West Australian uranium may be forced to export from Darwin or Adelaide, thereby incurring additional costs.

Conclusion

As can be seen from the above, the regulation of uranium mining and export in Australia is evolving at a rapid pace.