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Uranium Export Management Overview

by Suleman
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            The two most pressing global problems that the world faces today are climate change and soaring petroleum prices. It is at the global level because every nation, big or small, developed undeveloped are severely affected. If these problems are not immediately addressed, the world will fall down on its knees. It’s even possible that Armageddon is just years away as the resulting desperation will force deeply affected countries to resort to destructive war out of greed or because of instincts for self-preservation. We had seen how militarized Iraq attacked hapless Kuwait with a view of controlling its oil wells. But with climate change, nature alone will signal the demise of our mother earth.

            It’s important to note down that there is only one common solution to both problems and that is nuclear reactors. Why? Let us elucidate things before we tackle the subject of uranium-fueled nuclear reactors.

            The pages of newspapers tell us that the world climate has gone berserk. It is a fact that the ocean’s water levels are fast rising putting to danger of being swallowed by the oceans low-lying atolls, islands and continents. This is the end result of the melting of the ice-caps of Greenland and Antarctica due to the elevation of world temperature as a result of the blanketing of earth by greenhouse gases such as CO2, methane etc. that are the emissions of industries which burn coal, petroleum and natural gases (Suplee 55). Engineers and scientists’ solution to this calamitous problem is the use of nuclear power from uranium-fueled nuclear reactors to generate electricity for power plants, heat for industries and domestic use and propulsion for nuclear marine and rocket propulsion (Kunstler 139). What is important is that the process doesn’t involve emission of gases that causes global warming.  But there cannot be any nuclear power without uranium-235 or plutonium-239. But since plutonium is a rare radioactive, metallic chemical element and uranium widely occurs in nature and is mined in great quantities in Australia and elsewhere as uraninite or pitchblende ore, then only uranium is being used worldwide.

Uranium Export Management Overview

            Like global warming, the world is also saddled by both soaring petroleum prices and depletion of fossil fuels such as oil and coal which happen to cause climate change. Like hopeless addicts, industrialized nations are dependent on oil, which prices are controlled and manipulated by OPEC as well as by events in oil-producing countries. Thus, the soaring cost of oil is wreaking havoc on economies all over the world, weakening the dollar and causing global financial crisis.  Businesses and consumers are feeling the pinch as lives of the common masses are pushed to desperation with high prices of goods and high inflation (Morrell 87).  While some are scampering to search for oil substitutes such as biofuels and jatropha seed oil, most developed nations have set their eyes on uranium-fueled nuclear power plants as the  solution to the problem.

            Nuclear power plants cannot run without uranium. Thus, the high demand for uranium from countries such as Australia.  In fact Martin Ferguson, Australia’s Minister for Resources and Energy was quoted as saying:  “Energy security and climate change are set to drive a significant increase in global demand for Australia’s uranium. With around 27% of the world’s uranium resources, Australia is well placed to take advantage of rising global demand for nuclear power  [……] and make a major contribution to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” (Bradley 1).

            The demand for uranium from Russia, China, Mexico, European Union, India, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan has moved Australia to expand uranium mining in South Australia and the Northern Territory and government has approximated an “increase in Australia’s GDP by more than $14 billion by 2030” (Bradley 1).  Because of the high demand, the impact on Australian economy and its  role of solving the crippling problems of global warming  and the soaring oil prices, I am constrained to choose uranium exporting as the subject matter of this paper.  Fighting global warming and finding a solution to soaring oil prices have always been causes I have zealously fought for.

            Uranium is a naturally occurring element that is mined in great quantities in Australia.  Australia is known to possess the greatest reserves for uranium in the whole world but it is Canada which is its greatest producer (27.9% of the world’s mined uranium).  Australia comes next with 22.8%, then Kazakhstan (10.5%), Russia (8%), Namibia (7.5%), Niger (7.4%),

Uzbekistan (5.5%), USA (2.5%), Ukraine (!.9%), and China (1.7%)(UXC Consulting Company).   Uranium occurs in nature in the form of  pitchblende, which is embedded deep in earth in sandstone or hard rock.  Pitchblende is brown to black radioactive mineral consisting of triuranium octaoxide (U3O8) with traces of radium, lead, thorium, polonium and helium.

However, when the mineral is exposed to air, it changes to tantalizingly bright yellow metallic substance.  It is radioactive and toxic and thus must be handled with care (Bloem).

            In Australia, the major uranium mines are the Ranger and Jabiluka mines in the Northern Territory and the Beverley and Honeymoon mines in South Australia as well as the Olympic Dam mines at Roxby Downs.  There are more mines in Western Australia but its Prime Minister Alan Carpenter vows that he will ban exportation of uranium in view of the danger of it being used by belligerent countries to start nuclear war and thus endanger world existence (The Australian).  Mining and exportation of uranium however, is  strictly regulated  by the Australian government with the enactment of seven laws:  Atomic Energy Act of 1953 which “vests in the Commonwealth ownership of all uranium found in the territories” (Sec. 35).;  Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999 by which all exporters and miners must undergo rigid “Commonwealth environmental assessment and approval process” (Secs. 21, 22 and 22A).; Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act of 1987.  This is based on the 1973 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  Because of this, Australian exporters are stopped from exporting uranium to ‘belligerent’ countries like Russia, India and Pakistan.  Australia is scared Russia might use nuclear power to level off Poland and start World War III.  It is also affrightened that India and Pakistan might erase each other from the face of the earth using nuclear arms triggered by Australian uranium exportation.  With China and Taiwan, the European Union and Mexico, Australia decided to export when the NPT was signed by both of them; the 1978 Environment Protection Act that controls miners; the 1978 Environment Protection Act;

The 1998 Australian Radiation Control and Nuclear Safety Act, which ignores the shipment of uranium and its by-products by exporters within Australia and in transit to importing countries (Sec. 3); the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which allows miners and exporters to honour the land rights of the citizens of Mirrar-Gundjehmi and, ultimately, the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations Act which prohibits all Australian exporters to export uranium and other radioactive materials without an export license.  Moreover, uranium exporters are subjected to the “Environment Requirements, developed under the Environments’ Protection Act of 1974” (Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources 4).

            Despite rigid restrictions, Australian exporters threw caution to the winds and embarked on frenetic exportation .  BHP Billiton Plc and Rio Tinto Plc are the main exporters (Rio Tinto Company Links) while Energy Resources of Australia, Ltd (ERA) is Australia’s lone producer of uranium which it also exports in the form of uranium oxide and only for generation of nuclear electricity  for industrial and domestic needs. ERA provides 10% of the world’s uranium production.  These firms are successful because they provide some of the cheapest uranium in the world.  Because of the need to construct nuclear power plants to counteract the twin problems of climate change and soaring oil prices, ERA expects a more profitable exportation of uranium.  If uranium mines in Western Australia be reopened for mining and new mines be developed in South Australia and Queensland, Australia may challenge Canada and Kazakhstan as the world’s prime uranium exporter.  And the future looks  bright for exportation, which has the obligation to supply some “442 commercial nuclear power plants worldwide  with a total capacity of 370,721 Mwe.  These would require a supply of  790,000 tons of pitchblende.

 annually.  Exportation is further bolstered by the  construction of 30 more nuclear reactors and the planning of 55 nuclear reactors (About.com ).  Exportation success is further ensured by the generation of more electricity .  “In 2005, production was 2,626 billion kilowatt hours” meaning that nuclear electricity production has increased by 725 billion kWh (About.com ).  China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia have declared “plans to increase nuclear power generating capacity up to 2030” (Mollard 11).

            There is virtually no target market for Australian uranium exporters because the importers themselves are persistently knocking on Australia’s door pleading that Australia supply them with uranium.  In fact, Australia is on the position to decline such pleas.  The Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, Ecodefense and others have  lambasted moves to supply uranium to Russia in view of its military offense against Georgia and its refusal for nuclear disarmament.  They claim that these are in contravention to Australia’s policy on nuclear non-proliferation .  Russia has promised to disjoin its military and civil nuclear programs and has asserted that they will be processing Australian uranium for other countries’ use  but not for their own use (The Age).  With Taiwan, which carries on a love-hate relationship with China, Australia deems it for its best interests and in consideration of China’s One China Policy, to export uranium via USA, which will process  the ore first before selling it to Taiwan’s  Taipower (Sydney Morning Herald).

            Newly industrialized countries China and India’s application for importation of uranium hit inexorable snags when the Arms Control Association and other groups bitterly protested the move on account of their active nuclear weapon programs and its obduracy to ink the NPT.

Pakistan, India’s nemesis, also insisted that Australia supplies it with uranium if it grants exportation to India. However, Australia is poised to export to China because of the ratification of the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement on January 4, 2007 (ABC). As to European Union, Indonesia and Mexico, all NPT signatories, Australia readily gave its go-signal for exportation. A sour note, however, still prevails and it is the fact that USA and Australia cannot see each other eye to eye with regards to uranium exportation. Australia is miffed by tough US anti-dumping countervailing policies while USA keeps on invoking its anti-trust law against Australia with the result that there is a stalemate (Snape 459).

            Luckily, there is no cutthroat competition for uranium exportation because of high demand and because the competition is trimmed down to more than a handful. Cameco Corp. of Canada is reputed to be “the world’s largest publicly traded uranium company” (Uranium Suppliers Guide). Other besides ERA are British Nuclear Fuels Plc, Alfa Aesar, US Energy Corp., Urenco Ltd of England, Reade Advanced Materials, Goodfellow Corp., Cogema Resources and Denison Mines Ltd of Canada.

            Pitchblende cannot be directly used in the nuclear reactor because the process necessitates controlled nuclear fission of  uranium-235 nucleus, which releases energy and neutrons, which also trigger more fission (Wood 6).  Since it contains only 0.72% uranium-235 (the rest is uranium-238 isotope), then no fission occurs.  The percentage of uranium-235 must be increased to make the ore useful. It must first be milled to produce impure uranium diuranate.

(U3O8). Refinement then converts it into purified uranium hexafluoride or uranium metal, after which it is further processed to give the uranium fuel. These are hazardous so Australia sends it to refining plants in UK, France, USA, Canada or Japan (OECD). The refined product is then exported.

            Australia has the distinction of possessing the greatest uranium reserves in the world (30%) with Kazakhstan a far second at 17%. But the funny thing is that uranium fuel is hardly used in Australia.  It is mined, sent to be processed elsewhere but never returns back as imported item because it has no use in Australia, which is the greatest believer of clean, green energy solutions i.e. water, wind, solar and tidal energy and is no believer of nuclear energy.  It doesn’t even have a single nuclear power plant because the aforesaid energy sources are so abundant.  Australia is the world’s driest continent and thus a nuclear reactor will steal tons of valuable water per day.  Besides, there is a fear of cataclysmic reactor meltdown of the same proportions as Chernobyl and the disposal of nuclear waste which is carcinogenic.

            Thus, I reiterate that all the import procedures which expertise I want to show off in this paper are rendered moot and academic because Australia has no use for nuclear fuel as it doesn’t have a single nuclear reactor.

References:
  • About.com.  Uranium Industry. http://metals.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?zi.
  • ABC.  January 5, 2007.
  • Atomic Energy Act of 1953, Sec. 35.
  • The Australian, April 12, 2007.
  • Bloem, Lisa.  Factsheet: Mineral Uranium. 29 Sept. 2006. http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/31.html.
  • Bradley, Michael. Australia to Benefit from Renewed Uranium Demand. Minister for Resources and Energy.Australia, 2008.
  • Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources, Submission 87, p.4.
  • Higgi, Rachel. A Nuclear Australia? May 6, 2006. http://www.actnow.com.au/issues/A_nuclear_Australia.aspx.
  • Kunstler, James Howard.  The Long Emergency. Grove Press, 2006.
  • Mollard, William.  Uranium: A Bare Research Report 6.21. http://abareconomics.com/publications_html/energy/energy_06/uranium.pdf
  • Morrell, James.  The Future of the Dollar and the World Reserve System.  Michigan: Butterworths, 1981.
  • OECD.  The Safety of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle. OECD Publishing, 2005.
  • Rio Tinto Company Links.  Rio Tinto Plc. http://www.wise.uranium.org/ucrtz.html.
  • Snape, Richard.  Australian Trade Policy.  Allen and Unwin, 1998.
  • Suplee, Curt.  Unlocking the Climate Puzzle. National geographic may 1998; vol.193, no.5:55.
  • Sydney Morning Herald, December 18, 2006.
  • The Age, August 17, 2007.
  • Uranium Suppliers Guide. http://www.metals.about.com/od/uranium/Uranium_Suppliers_Guide.htm.
  • UXC Consulting Company, 2007, World Uranium Production.
  • Wood, Janet.  Nuclear Power. Institution of Engineering and Technology, 2007.

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