Australia on Monday took a significant step towards boosting its production and exports of uranium as the leader of the opposition Labor party suggested abandoning the country’s long-standing restrictions on mining the controversial metal.
The surprise U-turn by Kim Beazley, the Labor leader, follows a recent call by John Howard, the prime minister, to turn Australia into an “energy superpower”. Mr Howard said last week that Australia, as the world’s largest holder of uranium reserves, should consider developing its uranium enrichment activities, even if that might upset Washington’s efforts to contain nuclear proliferation worldwide.
Ahead of a speech in Sydney on Monday night, in which he was expected to announce formally the policy review, Mr Beazley said: “We must move from a focus on no new mines to a focus on the terms and conditions under which we export uranium.”
Mr Beazley’s new stance is certain to spark a fierce debate within his party, which was responsible for introducing in 1984 a “three mines” policy that has restricted Australia’s uranium production to three specific sites. Meanwhile the country’s only nuclear reactor, south of Sydney, has been used for research purposes only.
The Labor party has long argued that Australia does not need nuclear energy when it is already sitting on huge coal and gas reserves, and Mr Beazley on Monday insisted that his back-flip over uranium mining should not be seen as an endorsement of a domestic nuclear industry. “While we debate uranium exports, Labor will not change our long-standing policy on a domestic nuclear power industry in Australia,” he said.
The issue of how Australia should manage its vast natural resources at a time of booming commodities markets, as well as respond to worldwide concerns about energy supply and security, has climbed up the political agenda ahead of next year’s federal elections.
But Mr Beazley denied he had been forced to reignite the debate over uranium within the Labor party by Mr Howard’s recent focus on energy, which has also involved the launch of a comprehensive panel review of Australia’s energy policy, expected by the end of the year.
Mr Beazley suggested that tough export safeguards for uranium could provide a more appropriate policy and than the existing “three mines” restrictions. But he also recognised that there would inevitably be a backlash within his own party to any attempt to scrap the mining restrictions.
“I’m not leading a debate in the Labor Party about uranium mining and export safeguards because it’s easy. I believe it’s right for Australia’s future,” he said.