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The future is renewable, not radioactive

ht view Updated: Sep 12, 2014 23:27 IST

India and Australia have signed a nuclear cooperation agreement that may open the door for uranium sales. However, obstacles remain and claims of an economic bonanza for both countries ignore facts.

A 2011 report in Australia’s Fairfax press claimed that uranium sales to India could generate A$1.7 billion in annual exports. But according to the World Nuclear Association, India’s uranium demand this year will amount to just 913 tonne — 1.4% of the world’s demand.

If Australia supplies 20% of that demand, uranium export revenue will increase by 3% — two orders of magnitude short of the figure in the Fairfax press.

Indian demand would have to grow ten-fold just to sustain one small uranium mine in Australia. Projections of exponential growth leading to hundreds of gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity in India should be disregarded.

In 1962, the Department of Atomic Energy predicted 20-25 GW of nuclear capacity in 1987 — the true figure was 0.95 GW. The department later predicted 43 GW in 2000 — the true figure was 2.7 GW (6% of the forecast).

It is claimed uranium sales to India will indirectly boost trade between the two countries.

But again, the facts do not support such claims. Bilateral trade between India and Australia grew from A$3.3 billion at the turn of the century to more than A$20 billion in 2011, despite Australia’s ban on uranium exports to India and other countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Since the uranium policy was overturned in 2011, bilateral trade has gone backwards and now stands at A$15 billion. Expectations of direct and profitable investment by Indian companies in Australia’s uranium industry are likely to fall flat.

Australia’s uranium industry now accounts for just 0.2% of the national export revenue and 0.02% of jobs. French company Areva had to give up on plans to mine the Koongarra deposit because of a veto by Aboriginal Traditional Owners.

Canadian company Cameco gave up on the Angela Pamela uranium deposit in the face of a fierce community campaign driven by concerns over pollution of drinking water.

A subsidiary of Russian giant Rosatom put the Honeymoon uranium mine into care-and-maintenance last year. A subsidiary of the US company General Atomics began operations at the Beverley Four Mile mine earlier this year — but at the same time it closed the nearby Beverley mine. In 2012 mining giant BHP Billiton abandoned plans to expand the Olympic Dam uranium mine, and disbanded its uranium division.

Uranium Investing News noted in April that “the phrase ‘uranium renaissance’ has been uttered so often that it has begun to feel like a bad joke.”

The uranium price has fallen to below half of the pre-Fukushima price and the nuclear power renaissance has failed to materialise. Global nuclear power capacity has been stagnant for 20 years and if there is any growth in the coming 20 years it will be very modest.

Surely it would be better — and safer — for both India and Australia to focus on the development of renewable energy sources. It has been heartening to watch the spectacular decline of the solar power cost-curve over the past decade and to read a recent report saying that India could deploy 100-145 GW of solar capacity in the next 10 years — far, far more than nuclear could possibly deliver.

The future is renewable, not radioactive.

Jim Green is the president, Friends of the Earth, Australia and editor, the World Information Service on Energy’s Nuclear Monitor
The views expressed by the author are personal