by Jim Green
The Minerals Council of Australia launched a pro-uranium social media campaign on Wednesday. By that afternoon the twitter hashtag #untappedpotential was trending but ‒ as an AAP piece picked up by SBS and others noted ‒ contributors were overwhelmingly critical.
Nearly all contributors offered thoughts such as these:
“A week away from the #Chernobyl 30-year anniversary and Minerals Council begins propaganda trip on the #untappedpotential of uranium. Huh?!” said Twitter user Jemila Rushton.
“We need to better harness the #untappedpotential of solar power”, tweeted Upulie Divisekera.
“#untappedpotential to put more communities at risk of nuclear waste dumps,” Ace Collective said.
“We concur that uranium has much #untappedpotential … for disaster, cost and time blowouts and proliferation,” Anglesea After Coal said.
No doubt the Minerals Council anticipated the negative publicity and is working on the basis that all publicity is good publicity. But what the MCA didn’t anticipate is that in recent days the uranium price has fallen to an 11-year low. Mining.com noted in an April 20 article that the current low price hasn’t been seen since May 2005. The current price, under US26/lb, is well under half the price just before the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and under one-fifth of the 2007 peak of a bubble.
Mining.com quotes a Haywood Securities research note which points out that the spot uranium price “saw three years of back-to-back double-digit percentage losses from 2011-13, but none worse than what we’ve seen thus far in 2016, and at no point since Fukushima, did the average weekly spot price dip below $28 a pound.”
Mining.com notes that five years after the Fukushima disaster only two of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors are back on line, and that in other developed markets nuclear power is also in retreat. The last reactor start-up in the U.S. was 20 years ago. The French Parliament legislated last year to reduce the country’s reliance on nuclear power by one-third. Germany is phasing out nuclear power. The European Commission recently released a report predicting that the EU’s nuclear power retreat ‒ down 14% over the past decade ‒ will continue.
China is a growth market but has amassed a “staggering” stockpile of yellowcake according to Macquarie Bank. India’s nuclear power program is in a “deep freeze” according to the Hindustan Times (unfortunately the same cannot be said about its nuclear weapons program), while India’s energy minister Piyush Goyal said on April 20 that India is not in a “tearing hurry” to expand nuclear power since there are unresolved questions about pricing, safety and liability waivers sought by foreign companies.
Even if all of Japan’s 50 reactors are included in the count, the number of power reactors operating worldwide is the same now as it was a decade ago. Zero growth despite the endless rhetoric about a nuclear renaissance.
A decision on two planned reactors in the UK could be announced in the next fortnight and the price-tag for the reactors explains why nuclear power is stagnant worldwide and why the Minerals Council is talking about uranium’s ‘potential’ rather than its current contribution to export revenue and employment. The total price-tag for the two planned reactors is A$45 billion. If the project proceeds, the industry will be hoping it doesn’t go three times over budget, as reactor projects in France and Finland have.
South Australian academic Richard Leaver has neatly summed up the uranium industry’s tiresome rhetoric: “‘Potential’ is one of the most powerful chemicals available to the political alchemist. Any individual, firm or sector deemed to have potential is relieved of a massive and perpetual burden − the need to account for past and present achievements (or, more probably, the lack of them). The history of Australian involvement in the civil uranium industry offers an excellent example of this alchemy at work.”
Whatever the future potential of the uranium industry, it contributes next to nothing to the economy at the moment: <0.2 percent of national export revenue and <0.01 percent of all jobs in Australia. And those figures will fade further into irrelevance with the end of mining and the gradual winding down of processing at the Ranger uranium mine in the NT.
The stagnation and cost escalation of nuclear power contrast sharply with the trajectory of renewables. Driven by sharp cost reductions, renewable energy generation has doubled worldwide over the past decade and renewables now produce more than twice the amount of electricity as nuclear power. The gap is widening every day.
Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.