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Australian uranium miner goes bust ‒ so who cleans up its mess in Africa?

By Morgan Somerville and Jim Green - posted Wednesday, 8 November 2017


Perth-based uranium mining company Paladin Energy was put into administration in July and the company is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Critics of the uranium industry won't miss the company if it disappears. Other uranium mining companies won't miss Paladin; in an overcrowded market, they will be pleased to have less competition.

But the looming bankruptcy does pose one major problem. Paladin's Kayelekera uranium mine in Malawi, the 'warm heart of Africa', needs to be rehabilitated and Paladin hasn't set aside nearly enough money for the job.

Under the leadership of founder and CEO John Borshoff, described as the grandfather of Australian uranium, Paladin has operated two uranium mines over the past decade. The Langer Heinrich mine in Namibia was opened in 2007, and Kayelekera in 2009.

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They were heady days ‒ there was an endless talk about a nuclear power 'renaissance' and the uranium price tripled between June 2006 and June 2007. The Australian Financial Review reflected on Paladin's glory days: "John Borshoff was once one of Western Australia's wealthiest businessmen. The founder of Perth-based Paladin Energy developed an enviable portfolio of African uranium mines supposed to satiate booming global demand for yellowcake. When the company's Langer Heinrich mine began shipments in March 2007, as the spot price for uranium eclipsed $US100 per pound, Paladin was worth more than $4 billion."

Paladin was once the best-­performed stock in the world according to The Australian newspaper. The company's share price went from one cent in 2003 to A$10.80 in 2007. Borshoff made his debut on the Business Review Weekly's 'Rich 200' list in 2007 with estimated wealth of A$205 million.

But the good times didn't last. The uranium bubble burst in mid-2007, and the Fukushima disaster in 2011 ensured that there would be no nuclear power renaissance and that the uranium industry would remain depressed for years to come. Borshoff left Paladin in 2015, and in 2016 Paladin's new CEO Alexander Molyneux said that "it has never been a worse time for uranium miners".

The loss-making Kayelekera mine in Malawi was put into care-and-maintenance in July 2014, leaving Paladin with the modest Langer Heinrich mine plus a number of projects the company describesas 'nonproducing assets' (such as uranium projects in jurisdictions that ban uranium mining). Paladin was put into administration in July this year, unable to pay its debts. Even if Paladin sold its 75% stake in Langer Heinrich, its only revenue-raising project, it couldn't repay all its debts.

Administrators from KPMG are attempting to sort out the mess and bondholders are reportedly being asked to fund a recapitalisation of Paladin. Bankruptcy would seem a much more likely option given the weakness of the company and the weakness of the global uranium market.

Paladin has said that a uranium price of about US$75 per pound would be required for Kayelekera to become economically viable ‒ almost four times the current uranium spot price, and well over twice the current long-term contract price. Even if the uranium price did rebound, Kayelekera would operate for only around four years; it isn't a large deposit.

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The likelihood of uranium prices reaching US$75 in the foreseeable future is near-zero. John Borshoff said in 2013 that the uranium industry "is definitely in crisis ... and is showing all the symptoms of a mid-term paralysis". Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd said in May 2014 that the industry is set for "a long period of relatively low prices, in which uranium producers will find it hard to make a living". Nick Carter from Ux Consulting said in April 2016 that he did not anticipate a uranium supply deficit until the late 2020s. Other industry insiders and market analysts have made similar comments about the bleak future for uranium ‒ and the bondholders being asked to recapitalise Paladin would surely know that their money would be better invested in a long-shot at Flemington.

Who cleans up Kayelekera?

Assuming Paladin goes bankrupt, who cleans up the Kayelekera open-pit uranium mine? The company was required to lodge a US$10 million Environmental Performance Bond with Malawian banks, and presumably that money can be tapped to rehabilitate Kayelekera. But US$10 million won't scratch the surface. According to a Malawian NGO, the rehabilitation cost is estimated at US$100 million ‒ ten times the amount set aside by Paladin. The cost of rehabilitating the Ranger uranium in the Northern Territory ‒ also an open-pit uranium mine, albeit larger than Kayelekera ‒ is estimated at just under US$500 million.

Paladin has ignored our requests to provide its estimate of the cost of rehabilitating Kayelekera, but we can safely say that the figure will be multiples of the US$10 million bond. Just keeping Kayelekera in care-and-maintenance costs US$10-12million annually.

As things stand, if Paladin goes bankrupt and fails to rehabilitate Kayelekera, either rehabilitation will be coordinated and funded by the Malawian government (with a small fraction of the cost coming from Paladin's bond) or the mine-site will not be rehabilitated at all.

Is it reasonable for Australia, a relatively wealthy country, to leave it to the overstretched, under-resourced government of an impoverished African nation to clean up the mess left behind by an Australian mining company? If the Malawian government cleans up Paladin's mess, that will necessarily come at the expense of other priorities. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to a 2013 U.N. report, more than half the population live below the poverty line, and about half of all children under the age of five show signs of chronic malnutrition.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop should intervene to sort out the situation at Kayelekera and to prevent a repetition of this fiasco. We imagine that the Minister's eyes might glaze over in response to a moral argument about the importance of Australia being a good global citizen. But there is also a hard-headed commercial argument for intervention to clean up Kayelekera.

It does Australian companies investing in mining ventures abroad no good whatsoever to leave Kayelekera unrehabilitated, a permanent reminder of the untrustworthiness and unfulfilled promises of an Australian miner and the indifference of the Australian government. Australia is set to become the biggest international miner on the African continent, perhaps as early as this year, according to the Australia-Africa Minerals & Energy Group. But Australian companies can't expect to be welcomed if travesties such as Kayelekera remain resolved.

'Overly sophisticated'

Back in 2006, John Borshoff told ABC television that Australia and Canada have become "overly sophisticated" with their thinking about environmental and social issues associated with the mining industry. Hence Paladin's focus on projects in Africa.

One advantage ‒ if that's the word ‒ of mining in Africa is that Paladin hasn't had to set aside sufficient funds to rehabilitate Kayelekera. The company's environmental and social record has also been the source of ongoing controversy and the subject of countless critical reports.

Paladin has lost money on Kayelekera, and the economic benefits for Malawi have been pitiful. Paladin has exploited the country's poverty to secure numerous reductions and exemptions from payments normally required by foreign investors. United Nations' Special Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter noted in a 2013 report that "revenue losses from special incentives given to Australian mining company Paladin Energy, which manages the Kayelekera uranium mine, are estimated to amount to at least US$205 million (MWK 67 billion), and could be up to US$281 million (MWK 92 billion) over the 13 year lifespan of the mine."

The official line from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is that "mining offers African countries an unparalleled opportunity to stimulate growth and reduce poverty. If well managed, the extractives sector can drive innovation, generate revenue to fund critical social services and upgrade productive physical infrastructure, and directly and indirectly create jobs."

The reality at Kayelekera is starkly different from the picture painted by the bureaucrats in Canberra.

Two years ago, then WA Premier Colin Barnett told a mining conference in South Africa that Australian mining companies have "brought both expertise and ethical standards. It is a matter of pride for many companies that the standards applied in Australia are also applied in Africa."

But standards at Kayelekera fall a long way short of Australian standards. Moreover, Barnett's claims sit uncomfortably with the highly critical findings arising from a detailed investigation by the International Consortium of Independent Journalists. The Consortium noted in its 2015 report that since 2004, more than 380 people have died in mining accidents or in off-site skirmishes connected to Australian mining companies in Africa (there have been six deaths at Kayelekera). The report further stated: "Multiple Australian mining companies are accused of negligence, unfair dismissal, violence and environmental law-breaking across Africa, according to legal filings and community petitions gathered from South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal and Ghana."

Not even Collin Barnett would argue that Paladin is a source of pride for Australia. Quite the opposite. Likewise, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop surely didn't have Paladin's open-cut mine in mind when she toldthe Africa Down Under mining conference in Perth in September that many Australian mining projects in Africa are outposts of good governance and that the "Australian Government encourages the people of Africa to see us as an open-cut mine for lessons-learned, for skills, for innovation and, I would like to think, inspiration."

Julie Bishop, the WA government, Paladin and its administrators from KPMG need to liaise with the Malawian government and Malawian civil society to sort the rehabilitation of Kayelekera. An obvious starting point would be to prioritise the rehabilitation of Kayelekera if and when Paladin goes bankrupt and its carcass is being divided up. Surely Kayelekera should take precedence over debtors such as French state-owned utility EDF, which is owed US$277 million by Paladin - all the more so since the French state has its own sordid history of uranium mining in Africa.

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About the Authors

Morgan Somerville is an International Relations student at La Trobe University.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. His PhD thesis dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debate over the replacement of its nuclear research reactor.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Morgan Somerville
All articles by Jim Green

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