It was my pleasure to again perform the official duties in Adelaide for the AusIMM International Uranium Conference 2017 on behalf of Conference Chair Mark Chalmers and AusIMM President Colin Moorhead.
Now in its 12th consecutive year, the AusIMM International Uranium Conference continues to be the premier event within the Australian and international uranium industry.
There was a common theme running through this year’s event – about the importance of ‘keeping the conversation going’ – that notwithstanding the decision by the SA citizen’s jury to reject hosting a purpose-built high-level nuclear waste repository, there is still a conversation to be had. There was an enormous body of work undertaken by the SA Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle in 2016; this output needs time to be fully understood, and in order to comprehend it we need to keep our minds open to factual debate.
This year’s conference, which took place on 6-7 June, was truly international, with 119 delegates from 16 countries participating. This uranium conference series is very important to the AusIMM and not because of its size or profile. But because it embodies the core purpose of the AusIMM – a commitment to providing a platform for professionals to share information and innovative ideas across all disciplines who work in and provide services to the uranium industry.
It really was an interdisciplinary conference, with more than 50 speakers, many of them international, covering topics as broad as: geology, processing, mining, best-practice water management, market outlooks, economics, power generation, traditional owner engagement, rehabilitation, the latest in 3D modelling techniques, spent fuel storage, ISR, exploration and regulations, to name a few.
One of the highlights was the very frank and powerful keynote given in the opening session by the head of the SA Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, the Hon Kevin Scarce, in a presentation titled ‘What the Nuclear Fuel Cycle has to offer Australia’. The feeling amongst delegates was of excitement about the potential benefits for South Australia, but also mindful that everyone in the industry has a duty to be advocates by raising public awareness and enhancing the perception of our industry.
There were many important technical presentations throughout the conference, as well as several keynotes stressing the importance of a measured and systematic process when it comes to public consultation and social licence.
Ben Heard discussed in his poignant keynote a ‘Fork in the road – will Australia make a brighter world through growth in the nuclear fuel cycle?’ issues such as:
‘combatting climate change with nuclear technologies which have the near-lowest greenhouse emissions of any technology, are the only technologies to match the reliability and scalability of fossil fuels, are the only technologies that have been deployed fast enough to arrest fossil fuels, are favoured in many nations for reliable, non-polluting power. But the pressure to use fossil fuels instead is constant. One reason is because there is no comprehensive service provider for taking the used nuclear fuel – this is the opportunity South Australia (and Australia) has.’
Dr Paul Heithersay from the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, Government of South Australia spoke very positively about ‘Uranium in South Australia – exploration for expansion’. He mentioned new initiatives for major expansion of uranium exploration in South Australia as well as the state government’s aims to increase transparency and reduce unnecessary bureaucracy by migrating to fully digital systems for exploration and mining permits. He also announced some of the exciting new automation and innovation strategies which are underway, including the Tonsley innovation precinct and core farm, and the Deep Exploration Technologies Cooperative Research Centre (DET CRC) in Adelaide.
The Government of South Australia also has an informative document titled ‘The facts about uranium mining in South Australia’ that contains more information about the history and current status of the state’s uranium sector.
Agneta Rising, Director General, World Nuclear Association spoke of fear of the unknown in her presentation ‘Opportunities for Australia in a growing global nuclear energy future’ – in which she discussed how the Swedish public are very happy and comfortable with nuclear power generation but are reticent when it comes to the mining of uranium, whilst in Australia it is the reverse situation.
‘Uranium, nuclear power and Australia’s energy debate’ was the title of Daniel Zavattiero’s presentation. As the Executive Director of the Minerals Council of Australia, Dan presented information such as:
‘Australia’s uranium industry exported 8417 tonnes in 2015-16 according to ASNO’s annual report, at a value of $926M.
This is equivalent to 103% of Australia’s electricity production, in just around 40 containers per month.
And the advances with the GenIV SMR’s (small modular reactors) which show great potential for Australia with the tyranny of distance, arid environment and sparse populations. These low-cost, small, simple modular units have inherent safety design, and can be factory/assembly line built and delivered to site for installation as opposed to major on-site project construction.’
He also highlighted to delegates a very useful website www.electricitymap.org which gives a good guide to the varying energy mix of countries around the world, with real time rankings of emissions.
Martin Fairclough, Uranium Specialist with the IAEA, painted a positive picture of the ‘Global uranium resources – how much is left?’ in which he asserted the very likely upcoming shortfall in the supply of uranium globally.
It was also great to hear from ‘Australia’s next uranium producer’. Keith Bowes from Boss Resources stepped us through the methodical, robust, staged, technical approach the company has taken to de-risking the SA Honeymoon Uranium Project to get it ready for production.
Kate Turner, from the Office of the Supervising Scientist, described ‘The establishment of site specific water quality objectives for the Ranger uranium mine’. She also took the time to thank the AusIMM for providing this platform; having spent her working career very focussed in one particular part of the uranium sector, she gained great value from the breadth and scope of the different disciplines of presenters over the two days.
We are all aware of the cyclical nature of the resource industry and uranium is no different. As conference Chair Mark Chalmers pointed out in his presentation at the conference, in uranium we deal with super-cycles, spot prices and huge swings in supply and demand. While there are positive signs on the horizon, particularly in this carbon-restricted world, it was encouraging to see and hear that the quest for technical and scientific excellence in the nuclear sector has not abated.
Several delegates also mentioned the importance of encouraging young people, our future innovators and leaders, to study STEM subjects in primary and high schools. In this way, they will have effective pathways into the specialties that will form the foundations of the ‘future workforce’ to support nuclear sciences, engineering, and design.
I would like to make a special mention of a few groups to thank. Firstly, the IAEA for sending multiple international delegates and speakers. And to Heathgate, a long-term supporter of this series, for really stepping it up a notch this year, sending along 18 delegates, presenting three great technical talks all along the theme of leadership through ‘Technology Driving Change’, as well as hosting a Beverley site visit for 15 international delegates following the conference.
Again thanks to all our keynote speakers, The Department of the Premier and Cabinet, Government of South Australia and our remaining exhibitors and supporters.
The enthusiastic organising committee members all did a fantastic job under the leadership of our passionate Chair, Mark Chalmers, the original instigator of this series and Chair for each of the past 12 years. He proved this year that it doesn’t matter where he is in the world, we will find him, as he led the conference committee from his base in Denver.
I look forward to Uranium 2018 and to ‘keeping the conversation going’ between now and then.
Events such as this help us all to be better advocates – providing factual, reliable, scientific knowledge to provide the skills and confidence to continue raising public awareness and the perception of our industry in a respectful and mindful manner.