Dollars for death: why uranium mining should end

March 20, 1996

The Liberal-National Coalition intends to replace Labor's three-mines uranium policy with an open-slather approach. Mining giants Energy Resources of Australia, Western Mining Corporation, Denison/Cogema and CRA have been preparing for a change in either government policy or government for some time. Australia reportedly has 37 potential uranium mines. And now that the spot price of uranium has increased from US$10/lb last year to US$15.75 last week, mining companies can add economics to their ideological argument that uranium should be treated as just another mineral.

Labor's environment minister, John Faulkner, in his final hours in office, removed one of the last remaining barriers to Western Mining Corporation doubling its uranium production at Roxby Downs in SA. (While he put off signing the Roxby Downs Review during the election campaign — for obvious reasons — he had given the go-ahead to a Commonwealth State review of the expansion plans.)

The Coalition parties' coyness about their support for Australia being an integral part of the international nuclear fuel cycle is the result of the pubic's deep scepticism about uranium mining — a sentiment boosted by French nuclear tests in the Pacific and Australia's continued export of uranium to France.

Despite claims to the contrary, the Howard government does not have a mandate to expand uranium mining and exports. The mines most likely to proceed are: Jabiluka and Koongarra in the World Heritage Kakadu region of the Northern Territory; Beverly and Honeymoon and areas to the east of Lake Eyre in SA; and Kintyre at Rudall River and Yeelirrie in WA. The opening of these mines will not only pose a threat to the immediate environment, but will add to the dangers of nuclear power and waste disposal and the production of nuclear weapons. NORM DIXON summarises the case against uranium mining.

Polluting and wasteful

According to the Movement Against Uranium Mining's Uranium Mining in Australia, no matter how uranium is mined, there will be radioactive contamination of the environment. Uranium tailings are the greatest long-term threat, while leaks, spills and ground water problems are short-term concerns.

Uranium tailings contain 80% of the radioactivity of the original ore because they contain uranium decay products such as thorium and radium. They are easily dispersed by the weather and require containment for hundreds of thousands of years. Tailings containment systems at most uranium mines have a life span of 200-500 years. Tailings dams from past mines have been left to collapse and pollute the areas near Rum Jungle and Moline in the NT.

Mining and processing of uranium consumes vast amounts of raw materials. For example, to produce 3596 tonnes of uranium oxide in 1988-89, Ranger used 4822 tonnes of pyrolusite, 41,217 tonnes of sulphuric acid, 17,311 tonnes of lime, 636 tonnes of ammonia, 625,050 litres of kerosene, and 17,662 litres of tertiary amine.

For each tonne of ore at the Ranger mine, only three kilos of yellowcake are recovered. Huge quantities of waste rock and low grade ore that are not milled, and millions of tonnes of tailings, are produced during the milling process. For every 3600 tonnes of uranium oxide, Ranger produces almost a million tonnes of tailings. Tailings are pumped into a dam after being treated with lime to reduce the solubility of the heavy metals present.

Regulated releases of about 2 million cubic metres of contaminated water from Ranger each wet season carry radioactive radium and toxic pollutants including selenium, copper, lead, cadmium and arsenic down nearby Magela Creek and into the flood plain, contaminating the precious Kakadu ecosystem. After each successive wet season, radioactive wastes have become increasingly concentrated in plants, water and animals. A new mine at Jabiluka would also threaten Magela Creek.

The tailings dam of the now-closed Rum Jungle mine, near Darwin, was breached by monsoon rains, and pollution now extends over 100 square kilometres, including the Finnis River. At Mary Kathleen in the NT, where operations ceased in 1982, 1 million litres of radioactive liquid were deliberately released in February 1984 from the mine's evaporation ponds during an unexpectedly intense wet season. The Fox Report in the 1970s recommended against opening the Koongarra site, located inside a World Heritage Area, in order to protect the South Alligator River.

Uranium mining and milling release large quantities of radioactive radon gas into the atmosphere, as well as ammonia, nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid mist, which kill plants and corrode rock faces. Mt Brockman near the Ranger mine has already suffered corrosion only a few years into the 30-year life of the mine.

Between 1956 and 1972, mining at Moline created 246,000 tonnes of tailings. Within 10 years of the closure of the mill, the tailings dams collapsed, releasing 63,000 tonnes of tailings. When the Office of the Supervising Scientist — established by the federal government to monitor the environmental impact of uranium mining in the NT — surveyed the site, it found significantly higher than normal levels of radioactivity in the flood plains of the creek below the mine and high concentrations of radionuclides in the sediments of the flood plain, as well as high rates of erosion from the tailings dam.

A health hazard

A study of Navajo Indians in the western US found an unusually high number of birth defects, including hydrocephaly, microcephaly, Downs syndrome, cleft lip, cleft palate and epilepsy among more than 500 babies born between 1967 and 1974. Earlier surveys had found a serious increase in bone, ovarian and testicle cancer among children living in areas of former mining activity. The area around the Navajo lands is marked by more than 350 abandoned open-cut uranium mines.

There was also a significant increase in acute leukemia and chronic myelocytic leukemia in Grand Junction, Colorado, where uranium tailings were used in the construction of 6000 homes, schools, shopping centres and footpaths.

The worst tailings-related accident happened in June 1979, when tailings spilled from the Church Rock tailings dam in Colorado into the Rio Puerco River, releasing 3.8 million litres of acidic tailings and 1200 tonnes of solid tailings. The spill extended 64 kilometres downstream through Navajo country, past the town of Gallup, and into the neighbouring state of Arizona, rendering the water in the river and in wells near it unfit for consumption. To this day, water from the Rio Puerco can not be drunk, and livestock from the area cannot be sold.

It's been known since 1920 that uranium miners suffer high mortality from lung cancer caused by exposure to radioactive radon gas during their work. Radon, which decays from radium 226, is an inert gas, heavier than air, with a half-life of about one week. When inhaled, radon gas and its decay products lodge easily in the human lung, emitting energetic alpha particles which affect the vulnerable layer of cells lining the fine tubes in the lung.

Between 1920 and 1957, as new evidence came to light from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, radiation protection authorities revised the maximum permitted radiation dose drastically downwards. However, despite mounting evidence that the current dose is too high, authorities remain reluctant to change the standard. In 1980, the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found "a clear indication that cumulative exposure to radon and its decay products is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer".

NIOSH added that there is "no margin of safety" and called for the permissible exposure limits for all uranium and nuclear workers to be reduced to 1/10 the then current level. Rich ore bodies, such as the one at Jabiluka, which have to be mined underground emit more radon gas and pose a greater threat to workers.

A study done of the Register of Deaths shows that 40% of those who worked underground at the Radium Hill mine in South Australia have died of lung cancer.

Threat to Kakadu

In an interview with Green Left Weekly in September 1994, the NT Environment Centre's campaigns coordinator at the time, Jamie Pittock, outlined what the proposed new mine at Koongarra and Jabiluka would mean for Kakadu's fragile environment.

"Koongarra is in the catchment of the South Alligator River. Kakadu National Park was created for the sole purpose of protecting at least one entire tropical river catchment — the South Alligator — and it defeats the entire purpose of the park to have a uranium mine in that river catchment area. The Koongarra mine is also very close to Nourlangie Rock, which is one of the major visitor attractions of Kakadu.

"The Jabiluka mine poses a more serious threat to the local environment. The original proposal was prepared by a different company. It involved a major surface pit and processing facility at Jabiluka. Energy Resources of Australia [the owners of Ranger] has since bought the Jabiluka lease and is proposing an underground mine with an all-haulage road to the current facilities at Ranger. The Jabiluka mine is near major wetlands, and this road would need to be constructed across Magela Creek, which obviously has major ramifications in the event of an accidental spillage.

"Secondly, the Jabiluka site contains gold as well as uranium, which means that a cyanide processing facility would need to be added to any processing plant. Thirdly, the Jabiluka mine is one of the richest uranium ore bodies in the world, so it is very highly radioactive. It is very unlikely that Jabiluka can be mined without reducing worker health and safety standards ... Of course, most experts are now saying there is no safe dose of radiation."

Nuclear power

Uranium's main use is as fuel in nuclear power stations. Nuclear power station accidents can be as catastrophic as the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine. MAUM researcher John Hallam in Third Opinion in 1994 pointed out that eight years after the Chernobyl accident, nearly 5 million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia live on contaminated land. Even in Britain (which started receiving Chernobyl fallout six days after the accident) there are still 600 farms from which meat consumption is restricted.

Friends of the Earth (Ukraine) said the immediate radiation effects of the accident have already claimed more than 32,000 lives. And in 1993 the World Health Organisation reported a 24-fold increase in thyroid cancers in children. More than 250,000 hectares of contaminated farmland have had to be abandoned.

In 1979, a reactor at the Three Mile Island complex near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, came within 30 to 60 minutes of a meltdown, which would have released massive amounts of radiation. Australian paediatrician and anti-nuclear activist Dr Helen Caldicott told a Washington anti-nuclear rally a month afterwards: "Three thousand people would have died immediately. Ten to a hundred thousand would be going bald. They would be getting ulcers on their skin, severe vomiting and diarrhoea, and, as their blood cells died, they would be dying of massive haemorrhage or infection ...

"Thousands of babies would be born with small heads, because radiation affects the developing brain. Thousands more babies would be born mentally retarded for life. There would be an epidemic of leukemia five years later, and hundreds of thousands of cases of cancer would appear 15 to 50 years later. [A meltdown] would have killed approximately half a million Americans."

The Indonesian government plans to build 12 nuclear reactors in central Java — an earthquake zone — and Australian uranium will almost certainly fuel them. An accident due to earthquake or equipment failure would harm millions in Indonesia and affect northern Australia. Indonesia is moving into nuclear power at a time when costs, accidents and the problems of waste disposal are closing down reactors in the First World. About 76 have shut down, mostly in North America, Europe and Japan, and new reactors proposed are rarely moving beyond the drawing board. The nuclear industry is reacting by targeting Third World countries.

In recent months, there have been two significant reactor accidents reported. On December 8, Japan's first power-generating fast breeder reactor, at Monju, leaked sodium from its cooling system. While the government-owned Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation attempted to cover up the seriousness of the leakage, had the cooling system failed, a catastrophic meltdown could have taken place.

On January 31, there was an accident at a research reactor in Dimitrovgrad in the Ukraine. A construction crane hit vital safety equipment, causing the boiling water reactor to shut down. An estimated 1 tonne of radioactive steam narrowly escaped contaminating the outside environment. Plant officials reported that the radioactive steam contained cobalt, radioactive iodine and manganese.

The nuclear industry has yet to solve the problem of disposing safely of waste from reactors. In Australia, there is ongoing controversy over the accumulating radioactive waste at Lucas Heights, where it has been estimated that the cost of building a repository could be as much as $17 billion. While the US has promised to take back the spent fuel rods, the chairperson of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that before doing this "the US would first have to resolve its own environmental issues and select an acceptable storage site".

Nuclear waste remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. There is no safe way to store waste for such long periods. US environmental researcher Peter Montague reports in Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly that in December 1994, the US Department of Energy revealed deadly plutonium inventories were being held at 35 locations in the US in containers prone to leaks and ruptures.

The more than 64,000 containers included plastic bags, glass bottles and metal canisters, "some of which were unlabelled and unmarked. Many of the containers were ruptured or broken; consequently plutonium was reported to have contaminated floors, walls, piping, and doors at several facilities."

"In sum", Montague concluded, "even the wealthiest, most technically advanced nation in the world evidently does not have what it takes to manage these materials safely. Plutonium is among the most toxic materials every discovered ... Somewhere between 28 and 80 micrograms is thought to cause cancer in a human 'with certainty' ... Worse, recent scientific studies reveal that plutonium causes genetic damage to humans, but it's a new kind of damage which may not become evident for several generations."

Nuclear weapons

Under Labor, Australian uranium became an important component of the international nuclear club, including, in at least a few cases, French weapons production. Under the Coalition, it is likely that Australian uranium will find its way into nuclear weapons.

India tested an atomic bomb in 1974. The explosion used plutonium developed in a "civilian" research reactor. There can be no effective way to prevent uranium supplied as fuel turning up in nuclear weapons. Nuclear reactors produce plutonium, suitable for weapons production, during normal operations.

It has been argued that the Australian government's refusal to supply uranium to countries which have not signed the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) prevents its misuse. Yet the French, Chinese and US — all NPT signatories — are still maintaining and modernising their nuclear arsenals.

The near-impossibility of preventing Australian uranium finding its way into military programs or unsafe reactors is underlined by the practice of "flag swapping". In February 1988, a dismissed employee from Nukem, a West German uranium brokerage firm then embroiled in a bribery scandal, leaked confidential company documents to West German magazine Der Spiegel.

The leaked Nukem documents detailed deals in which uranium supplies were given false origins in order to appear to comply with safeguards.

One documented deal resulted in Australian uranium being enriched to weapons grade for use in the Institut Laue-Langevin reactor in Grenoble, France, in violation of Australian government "safeguards". By the time this happened the uranium concerned was, on paper, of US origin.