Uranium mining is once again permitted in Queensland. The policy banning uranium mining in Queensland has now been lifted and the Government is currently examining what more needs to be done in order to facilitate the full recommencement of uranium mining in Queensland.

The Government has already determined that the existing legislative framework for mining will be adequate to support uranium mining.  In particular, the existing tenure framework in the Mineral Resources Act 1989 (Qld) will be used to govern uranium mining activities.  However, for at least the first two years, uranium mining applications will be assessed under the ‘coordinated project’ process under the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act1971 (Qld).

Some legislative amendments, as well as supporting policies and guidelines, are to be developed in order to deal with uranium-specific issues.  For example, the Government has acknowledged that legislative amendments may be necessary for the creation of a uranium-specific royalty regime.

The Government intends to work with other State and Territory Governments toward harmonising uranium transport and logistics across Australia.  As Queensland uranium miners will most likely need to initially export uranium from the Australian ports that are already licensed to export uranium (ie Port Adelaide and Port of Darwin), miners will need to arrange inter-State transport.

A review of the model conditions for environmental authorities for mining projects has been endorsed by the Government as part of the recommencement of uranium mining.  Such a review is not necessary until the operational phase of the first uranium mine is imminent (most likely in 2017).

Full details of the Queensland Government’s approach to recommencing uranium mining in Queensland is set out in the Action Plan to Recommence Uranium Mining in Queensland: Implementation Strategy 2013-14 (Plan), which was developed in response to a detailed report on the recommencement of uranium mining by the Uranium Mining Implementation Committee.

Current Australian uranium market

Currently, Australia only has active uranium mines in the Northern Territory (Ranger Mine) and South Australia (Olympic Dam, Beverly and Honeymoon Mines).  In the 2012-13 financial year, these mines exported a total of approximately 8954 tonnes of triuranium octoxide (U3O8).[1]  With approximately 31% of the world’s uranium, Australia is currently the third largest producer of uranium after Kazakhstan and Canada.[2]

Uranium mining has been prohibited in Queensland since 1989, although exploration of uranium has been permitted to continue.  As the uranium potential in Queensland is currently believed to be 165.95mt of ore,[3] Queensland has the potential to become a major exporter of the mineral.  The Queensland Government has recently focussed on acquiring geophysical data, catchment baseline geochemistry and geological and mineral mapping in order to assist explorers in greenfield exploration.[4]

Under Commonwealth law, uranium may only be exported from Australia for peaceful non-explosive purposes under a bilateral safeguards agreement.  Although this may sound restrictive, Australia holds bilateral safeguard agreements with 27 countries, including the five largest users of nuclear energy – the USA, France, Russia, South Korea and China.[5]

Timing of industry recommencement

The Queensland Government plans to have finalised all necessary guidelines and policies in time to assess applications from July 2014.  Given the Newman Government’s declared commitment to reducing red tape in exploration applications, it is possible that the State will see uranium mining commence as early as 2015.

Next Steps

Some of the key next steps in the re-establishment of a uranium mining industry in Australia are:

  • the preparation of policy guidelines to clarify the regulatory and assessment requirements for uranium mining applications assessed via the ‘coordinated project’ process under the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act1971 (Qld);
  • a review of existing guidelines relating to radiation protection programs to determine whether they are sufficient, and revise the existing safety guideline (Queensland Guidance Note 12) to ensure that it reflects national radiation principles;
  • a review of rehabilitation guidance material in light of the re-commencement of uranium mining;
  • to facilitate the use of existing licensed ports and shipping lanes by industry participants, and seek to harmonise transport and logistics across jurisdictions; and
  • release the ‘Toward Better Social Impact Management’ Framework and associated social impact assessment guidelines.