Simon Evans – 08 Feb 2015 12:41:45
South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill has opened the door for a nuclear industry to be set up in the state, which hosts one of the largest uranium deposits in the world at BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam.
He will set up a Royal Commission to look at the risks and opportunities in expanding the industry beyond mining to include enrichment, energy and storage to both deliver better economic growth, and to assist in warding off problems caused by climate change.
“The question is whether we should deepen our involvement for our benefit,” Mr Weatherill said at a press conference in Adelaide on Sunday.
He said consultation on the terms of the Royal Commission would start on Monday, and it would be a forward looking commission calling on experts from a broad range of fields.
Mr Weatherill said he had previously been opposed to the nuclear industry and the Labor Party platform was against it but it was time to have a wide-ranging debate about the whole issue.
“This is not going to be a short debate, this is going to be an extended debate,” he said.
Mr Weatherill declined to put a time frame on when the Royal Commission might report.
He emphasised it would be a long-term project and any changes would need to go through the political process and have community support.
South Australia hosts four out of five of Australia’s uranium mines, with ERA’s Ranger mine in the Northern Territory the other mine. The others in SA beside Olympic Dam are Honeymoon, Beverley and Four Mile.
But some of the smaller uranium mines in far north South Australia are mothballed because of a slump in uranium prices which happened after the nuclear reactor disaster in Japan at Fukushima in 2011.
Mr Weatherill said he hadn’t yet consulted BHP, which is still working on new lower-cost expansion plans for the Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine, 560 kilometres north of Adelaide.
But he said there had been many proposals advanced by various companies over the years seeking to set up nuclear projects in far north SA, which has stable geology and is considered ideal for nuclear storage.
“There’ve been many proposals that have been advanced by companies almost on a regular basis,” Mr Weatherill said.
BHP in 2012 scrapped a planned $30 billion expansion of the Olympic Dam mine because of falling copper and uranium prices, in a big blow to the South Australian economy.
Mr Weatherill said the royal commission would look closely at all phases of the nuclear cycle including mining, enrichment, energy and storage.
This had been the case for more than 25 years, with the Olympic Dam mine having been exporting uranium soon after it became operational in the late 1980s when it was owned by Western Mining, later known as WMC. WMC was later acquired by BHP.
Mr Weatherill said the debate around the nuclear industry needed to be carried out in a way that “understands the potential economic benefits for our state and our nation”
He said the matter had been discussed in State Cabinet, and he was entitled to change his mind from earlier in his political career, when he had been a fierce opponent.
“When the facts change, people should change their mind,” he said.
Uranium prices fell more than 50 per cent after the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor in 2011 but have since partially recovered.
The Honeymoon mine in northern SA owned by a subsidiary of United States nuclear giant General Atomics was mothballed in 2013 because of low prices, while the nearby Beverley mine followed soon after. But the nearby Four Mile mine has uranium processed at Beverley.