home Supply, U Uranium mining has long divided Western Australia, but industry observers say a viable trade could be established

Uranium mining has long divided Western Australia, but industry observers say a viable trade could be established

Western Australia is renowned for exporting a range of minerals from iron ore to gold, but one commodity, uranium, regularly sparks fierce protests from the community.

The debate was reignited in recent days when Liberal leader Libby Mettam said her party would legalise uranium mining if they won the 2025 WA election, overturning a state government ban.

This was immediately dismissed by Premier Roger Cook, and environmentalists pointed to disasters such as the 2011 accident at the uranium-powered Fukushima nuclear plant as evidence of its inherent danger.

However, industry observers say the public often attaches the risks of nuclear power to uranium mining — despite them being separate issues — and a viable uranium mining trade could be established if it undertook some reputational repair work.

How did we get here?

Uranium mining occurs in other states but has been prohibited by the WA government since 2017.

Four remote operations were given exceptions from the ban as they were approved before Labor got back into power earlier that year.

Three of those have indefinitely stalled due to financial pressures and the remaining project, Deep Yellow’s Mulga Rock project, has never entered production.

Kintyre mine in East Pilbara.

Cameco Australia’s Kintyre mine was one of the four projects to avoid the ban.(Supplied)

The pressures were largely a dramatic price slump in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima power plant disaster in Japan which led to a global pivot away from nuclear power.

This kind of reputational damage, as well as environmental questions about nuclear waste management, lie at the heart of uranium’s problem, according to analyst Peter Strachan.

“People are conflating issues with the accidents that happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima,” he said.

“The industry still has a lot of work to do to build that trust. What’s being spoken about in WA is uranium mining, and that’s completely different [to nuclear power].”

A crowd of Martu people and other protestors wave at the camera holding Aboriginal flags and other banners.

A group of Martu people and other protestors demonstrating against the Kintyre mine in 2016.(Supplied: Tobias Titz)

That distrust was clear in the lead up to the 2017 ban, with projects such as Cameco Australia’s Kintyre mine in the Pilbara deeply unpopular in sections of the community.

Curtin University radioactive materials expert Nigel Marks said the risk profiles of power plants and uranium mining were different, with other commodities mined in WA also radioactive.

“The radiation protection and safety levels [required] in operating nuclear power plants are astounding,” he said.

“[Uranium] it’s just a rock that occurs in the ground and it’s a little bit radioactive, but so are a lot of other rocks.”

Australia does not have nuclear power plants, but this would change if the federal Liberal party won government next year according to party leader Peter Dutton.

For her part, Libby Mettam distanced herself from the prospect of nuclear power plants in WA and said uranium mining in the state would be for export to markets with established nuclear energy.

A nuclear power plant.

Australia has long debated the role of nuclear in the energy transition.(PexelsRoblicense)

However, anti-nuclear campaigners such as Mia Pepper argued Australia had an obligation to export socially responsible commodities and should not ship uranium for use overseas.

“Australia has exported uranium for a very long time, and I think it’s really important to look at that legacy,” she said to ABC Perth’s Mornings program.

“Once it’s off our shores we can’t control it.

“Wherever uranium goes it poses a unique threat to communities, workers, and the environment.”

Is it financially viable?

Jonathan Fisher is the chief executive of Cauldron Energy which holds uranium deposits in the Pilbara.

He said selling uranium to markets in the US and European Union, where nuclear energy is a pillar of net zero emissions goals, could be profitable for years to come.

“I know that nuclear energy in Australia is still an emotive issue and one that we don’t need to answer now,” he told ABC Mornings.

“The rest of the world understands that nuclear is necessary for them to reach their net zero goals.”


Duration: 16 minutes 30 seconds
The federal Coalition is throwing its weight behind a nuclear energy policy.(ABC 7.30)

Analyst Peter Strachan said uranium prices had recovered and would continue to stay strong as nuclear energy projects progressed around the world.

“[After Fukushima] the price of uranium fell to a low of about $15 a pound on the spot market, and that’s well below the cost of production,” he said.

“And now, at sort of $93.50 a pound, it’s well and truly into the profitable zone for these projects.”

Source: ABC News