It’s one of Australia’s best known natural icons — should we transport uranium across it?

Australia is ramping up its production of uranium, and this week Queensland’s uranium implementation committee released a report calling for an end to the 24-year ban on transporting uranium through the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.

Queensland Mining Minister Andrew Cripps has yet to comment specifically on the committee’s recommendations. Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters, who is against uranium mining in general, says the risks are too high to allow shipping of uranium through one of Australia’s most celebrated natural features. “Shipping safety standards are not yet tight enough … with the potential for an accident or spillage,” she told Crikey.

Australia currently exports around 10,000 tonnes of uranium per year, with the Australian Uranium Association expecting this figure to almost quadruple by 2030. This could put a significant amount of pressure on existing exportation channels.

Emeritus Professor Ray Frost from Queensland University of Technology, who says mining uranium for nuclear energy is a far safer option than coal-fired power stations, suggests transporting uranium is less risky than transporting, say, fertiliser or aluminium. He points out the coral of the Great Barrier Reef, composed primarily of calcium carbonate, has the potential to absorb such heavy metals as uranium should a spill occur.

However,  Dr Gordon Southam from the University of Queensland’s school of earth sciences says “the potential to spill uranium ore in ocean environments would represent an environmental liability”.

The potential for an accident (and accidents in uranium shipping are rare), however, is not the only concern, as the UNESCO World Heritage Centre has advised against shipping in general through the reef. Uranium mining exploration is currently taking place near the Mary Kathleen mine, located on the Selwyn Range between Mt Isa and Cloncurry. The closest major port to the mine is Townsville.

Port of Townsville acting chief executive officer Ranee Crosby says the port is not actively pursuing the uranium trade, though the organisation has “provided general information to the government about how the product could be handled and exported safely”.

Mined uranium is crushed and ground in order for the useful material to be extracted, before being concentrated and shipped. This in turn leaves behind tailings, which are semi-neutralised before being deposited for storage, generally classified as low-level radioactive waste. Tailings can contain the decay products of natural uranium, including radium 226, which has a half life of 1600 years. Spillage of tailings into the surrounding environment does occasionally occur, with damaging environmental consequences.

However, there are no recorded occurrences of spillage while shipping uranium. In 2011, Canadian exporter Cameco lost a number of barrels in the ship’s hold, and although no uranium ore concentrate made its way to the sea, the clean-up was estimated to cost about CAD$8 million.