He's just authorised a new uranium mine, the 10th biggest in the world.
Garrett gives nod to uranium mine
Michelle Grattan and Barry Fitzgerald
July 15, 2009
The Rudd Government has given the green light to an expansion of the uranium industry, approving a new mine in South Australia that will add hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the industry's exports.
The Four Mile mine, 550 kilometres north of Adelaide, will open next year after winning clearance from federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett.
Mr Garrett, the former anti-uranium activist who once stood for the Nuclear Disarmament Party, said he did not take the decision lightly.
But he said that he was "certain this operation poses no credible risk to the environment" after it was subjected to a "rigorous and comprehensive assessment".
Four Mile will be Australia's first new uranium mine in close to a decade and the 10th biggest in the world. Its approval was made possible by Labor dumping its no-new-mines policy before the 2007 election.
With annual production of about 1400 tonnes, it will boost national output by 13 per cent to 12,100 tonnes and would earn about $260 million a year in revenue at current prices.
Mr Garrett said Four Mile had been subject to two independent reviews — both concluding it could go ahead without any significant lasting impact on the environment and that the proposal was world's best practice in uranium mining.
He said stringent safeguards would include rigorous monitoring, which would remain well after the mine closed.
Four Mile is 75 per cent owned by US company Heathgate and 25 per cent by Ian Gandel's locally-listed Alliance Resources. Other local mines are Rio Tinto's Ranger in the Northern Territory and Olympic Dam (BHP Billiton) and Beverley in SA. The development of Four Mile is expected to be followed by the smaller Honeymoon mine in SA, possibly later in 2010.
But the big uranium developments that could triple Australia's annual uranium exports to 30,000 tonnes are much further off. BHP plans to triple output at Olympic Dam — the world's biggest deposit — and is investigating developing the Yeelerrie deposit in Western Australia. Canada's Cameco and Japan's Mitsubishi also want to develop the WA Kintyre deposit.
While Labor has dropped its no-new-mines policy, it will still only allow uranium exports to countries that have signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That rules out sales to India but allows them to China. Labor also will not countenance nuclear power in Australia.
Asked whether Labor was now the party of uranium mines, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the party had "transparently and democratically … changed our policy" in 2007. Quizzed about nuclear power, he said the Government believed other energy options were sufficient for Australia's future.
Coalition resources spokesman Ian Macfarlane welcomed the decision. "Australia has got to exploit its uranium resources to the absolute maximum — it is the single base load technology lowering greenhouse emissions right around the world," he said.
But Greens leader Bob Brown blasted the decision, saying such a mine would not be allowed in the US because of the contamination of sub-ground water.
Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt said that in 2007 Mr Garrett had told the ALP conference he had long been opposed to uranium mining and remained opposed. "Somewhere along his journey Peter Garrett has gone from 'long been opposed to uranium mining' to the minister who approves uranium mining."
Asked about the conflict between his decision and his former public stance on uranium, Mr Garrett told ABC radio he expressed his views when "appropriate" and had had strong views in party forums.
"I am now a cabinet minister, the decisions I am taking are consistent with policy that the Government took and continues to take to the people," Mr Garrett said. "I accept that some people won't think highly of the decisions of this kind."
He said his task as Environment Minister was to ensure the highest possible environmental standards. "I think that I am doing that job both properly and diligently and I expect to be judged on that basis."
Four Mile, like the nearby Beverley deposit, will be mined by "in-situ leach", which works by pumping a weak acid solution underground into the uranium-bearing formation through a series of wells.
The solution dissolves the uranium and leaves other substances behind. The uranium-rich solution is then returned to the surface where the uranium is extracted and treated.
Unlike the hard-rock mining methods used at Ranger and Olympic Dam, there is no need for big trucks and massive earth moving.
That is reflected in a speedy timetable and relatively low development cost of $90 million at Four Mile.