Introduction

On 18 March 2013, the Queensland Uranium Mining Implementation Committee (Uranium Committee) released its much anticipated report on the development and operation of the uranium mining industry in Queensland.  Until October 2012, Uranium mining had been banned in Queensland for some 30 years and the recommencement of uranium mining was to be subject to the report of the Uranium Committee. 

In endorsing the recommencement of uranium mining in Queensland, the Uranium Committee acknowledged that the existing framework for the regulation of mining and radiation safety is generally appropriate and a new legislative framework will not be required, which should shorten the length of time necessary for uranium mining to commence in Queensland.   It is hoped that this report will pave the way for the development of the estimated AUD$10 billion worth of uranium reserves in Queensland1.

This update discusses the key recommendations made by the Uranium Committee. Of particular interest to uranium mine developers and investors will be the recommendations:

  • to apply a 2.5% royalty rate for the first 5 years of a mine’s life, increasing to 5% thereafter, with potential increases once the price of uranium reaches a certain higher threshold;
  • not to export uranium through Queensland ports, but instead to export Queensland uranium through ports in Darwin and Adelaide; and
  • that specific mine safety and health guidance documentation needs to be developed, which could take more time.

Background

On 22 October 2012, the Queensland Government announced its decision to end the 30 year ban on uranium mining.  On 18 March 2013, the Uranium Committee delivered the report entitled “Recommencement of uranium mining in Queensland – A best practice framework” (Report), which sets out a number of recommendations for the recommencement of uranium mining in Queensland.

The Uranium Committee considered a range of important issues including:

  • the establishment of a best practice approvals framework for Queensland through examining the mining industries of other states and jurisdictions;
  • the transportation and export of uranium;
  • necessary work place health and safety standards, including those relating to radiation exposure;
  • environmental impacts and safeguards associated with uranium mining, including the management of environmental risks from radioactive materials;
  • uranium mining rehabilitation requirements, standards and the use of appropriate financial or other assurances; and
  • the development of social and economic opportunities and the benefits that will result from the recommencement of uranium mining.

The Uranium Committee sought more than 70 submissions from local, national and international stakeholders, including other state and territory governments, local governments, peak bodies, uranium mining operators, transport and port authorities, Traditional Owners, environment groups, and community organisations, in order to ensure a diverse range of views were considered and a balanced approach was adopted. 

Key recommendations and benefits

The Uranium Committee’s recommendations include the following:

Approvals framework

  • The Queensland Government should ensure a coordinated and efficient approvals process for uranium mining by referring all proposals to the Coordinator-General’s ‘coordinated project’ process under the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971 (Qld), which will provide a comprehensive assessment of environmental, social, health and safety, infrastructure and agricultural impacts, whilst avoiding unnecessary delays.
  • Assessment of uranium mines for the purposes of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Qld) should be undertaken according to the bilateral agreement between the Queensland and Australian Governments.
  • A whole-of-government Uranium Mining Oversight Committee (UMOC) should be established to oversee and coordinate uranium mining implementation, operation and rehabilitation. 
  • An independent ‘specialist advisor’ with expertise in managing environmental performance of uranium mining such as the Australian Government’s Supervising Scientist Division (SSD) should conduct compliance and performance audits in order to enhance transparency and accountability of the compliance and monitoring program.
  • A new MOU should be established between relevant regulatory agencies to ensure clear roles and responsibilities with regard to the oversight and administration of the uranium industry in Queensland, and to foster cooperation and sharing of expertise.

Communication and consultation

  • A Uranium Mining Stakeholder Committee (UMSC) should be established that is supported by the UMOC, representing local governments and communities, Indigenous communities, industry, environment and natural resource management groups. 
  • Local communities should be given access to both project proponents and Government officials involved in the assessment process, and have the opportunity for continued involvement in the UMSC during the operational and rehabilitation phases of a uranium mine.

Transportation and export

  • The Queensland Government should establish an inter-state committee to oversee and harmonise transport and logistics associated with uranium, including mutual recognition of transport licences.
  • The Queensland Government should facilitate the use of existing ports (Darwin and Adelaide) and shipping lanes for uranium export, as the quantities of uranium oxide likely to be produced in Queensland make it unlikely that a new shipping route will be established from Queensland in the near future, if at all.
  • A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) should be developed between Queensland’s transport regulators regarding transport compliance inspections.

Safety and health

  • Specific mine safety and health guidance documentation must be developed to ensure best standards are maintained at all stages of uranium exploration, mining, and ore milling and processing.
  • Radiation safety regulators (such as Queensland Health) must develop and implement guiding principles for emergency response, and conduct education and training for emergency workers.
  • Selected mines inspectors should undertake training as radiation safety officers for naturally occurring radioactive material, so that they can conduct proportionate and consistent assessments of radiation management plans and provide technical advice regarding radiation safety in mining.
  • The Queensland Government should fully support the use of the Australian National Radiation Dose Register (ANRDR), including: (i) submission of occupational radiation exposure data from all Queensland uranium mining operations to ANRDR; and (ii) efforts to expand the ANRDR scheme to cover all workers in Australian mining operations involving occupational exposure to naturally occurring radioactive substances.
  • The Queensland Government should also devise an internal state monitoring regime to ensure that radiation risks from naturally occurring radioactive materials are kept within acceptable levels in Queensland.

Environmental impacts and protection

  • Environmental model conditions specific to uranium mining must be developed. These conditions must focus on achieving positive environmental outcomes rather than prescriptive measures.
  • The initial and operational planning stages of a uranium mine must consider the potential water quality and groundwater impacts of mining, as well as the effects of climate change and the potential mobilisation of radionuclides that may impact on environmental values.
  • Rehabilitation guidance material must be reviewed with particular consideration to the need for rehabilitation goals, objectives and completion criteria specific to uranium mining.  Normal financial assurances for mine rehabilitation should be applied to the uranium mining industry.
  • Third party auditors should be used to augment the Queensland Government’s in-house expertise in the regulation of uranium mining activities, and the Queensland Government, third party auditors and industry should consider using the technical expertise and services of the SSD.

Economic and community development

  • The Royalties for Regions (R4R) program should be expanded to future uranium mining areas.
  • The Queensland Government should implement a training and business development initiative in the form of a trust arrangement with a government funding contribution to assist Indigenous Queenslanders access benefits from uranium mining, such as jobs on offer in the resources sector.
  • The Queensland Government should apply a 5 per cent royalty regime to uranium, but also investigate use of a higher rate once the price of uranium reaches a certain higher threshold. It should also offer a ‘new mine’ concessional royalty rate of 2.5 per cent, regardless of the price of uranium, for the first five years of a mine’s life.
  • As part of the Queensland Government’s investigations of the development of ‘rare earths’ at Mary Kathleen, the government should consider the potential for uranium to be produced as a co-product, for example uranium present in tailings along with other minerals, and the potential for conditions to further rehabilitate the Mary Kathleen site.

The Uranium Committee recommends that the immediate implementation of these recommendations should be devolved to the Department of Natural Resources and Mines (DNRM), and the first action should be to establish the UMOC.

Conclusion

As expected, the Uranium Committee has recommended the recommencement of uranium mining in Queensland, subject to a list of recommendations.  It is encouraging that a new legislative framework is not required for the recommencement of uranium mining in Queensland; however, the existing framework will need to be adapted to ensure that it meets best practice. 

Developers of and investors in Queensland’s uranium mining projects will now need to check the financial impacts of the recommendations regarding royalties and transportation of uranium through the ports of Darwin and Adelaide on the financial feasibility of their mining projects.