Fighting uranium mining in WA Aboriginal communities

Issue 

The Martu people oppose the building of the Kintyre uranium mine in Western Australia. The WA State Governments proposed uranium mine, and its inevitable environmental damage, is causing extreme social disharmony in remote communities.

Martu country extends over 15 million hectares of the Western Desert encompassing the Gibson, Great Sandy and the Little Sandy Deserts. The traditional owners have lived here for up to 60,000 years.

In 1985, Rio Tinto discovered uranium 60km south of Telfer. Since 2008, the site, known as the Kintyre uranium deposit, has been owned by Cameco and Mitsubishi Development. In March, WA Minister for the Environment Albert Jacob conditionally approved mining activities on the site. This plan to mine uranium comes on the heels of WA Premier Colin Barnett and Prime Minister Tony Abbott saying they will close 150 Aboriginal communities.

The Kintyre uranium deposit site is surrounded by the Karlamilyi National Park and the Rudall River catchment area. The mining site is close to water holes, rivers and salt lakes. Cameco proposes to transport uranium concentrate through these natural sites to the Port of Adelaide. This journey is about 3800km over land, from the site to Port Hedland via Marble Bar and then to Kalgoorlie via the Great Northern and Goldfields Highways and onto Adelaide via the Eyre Highway.

There is a global push towards cleaner energy production, with the need to reduce carbon emissions. China, South Korea and India, who are Australia’s largest importers of metals and minerals, are constructing infrastructure for nuclear power. Yet, there are grassroots groups in Australia driving policy change towards increased use of renewable energy. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian net energy supply of uranium dropped 7% from 2009 to 2011. In the same time period, renewable energy production increased by 16%.

The uranium discovered at Kintyre has a measured energy production equivalent to 170 years. But, according to Geoscience Australia, the Western Desert has a large capacity to generate solar and geothermal energy. The domestic energy supply could be sourced by renewable energy.

Uranium is a radioactive material with highly soluble carbonate complexes. When the material is oxidised it is more mobile and deposits itself in surrounding groundwater and soil. Contamination is not something that disappears quickly. The isotope U-235 — the one that generates nuclear power — has a half-life of 704 million years. Isotope U-238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, and the by-product from nuclear reactors — Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.

After a nuclear accident the mess cannot be cleaned up. We are exporting a product that can result in nuclear disasters, like the ones seen in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 — disasters that have the potential to destroy all living things. After the Chernobyl disaster 50,000 people had to be evacuated and three decades later people are still suffering from cancers and kidney damage.

The fight against Kintyre uranium deposit is far from over. There is too much at risk if the mining goes ahead. The options of energy and land use, need to be discussed with the people of the land. The public and the Martu people deserve a real say over uranium mining at Kintyre.

A decision regarding the mine is still pending from Federal Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt. There is a call for people to contact Hunt to say they oppose the uranium mine.

For more information visit the Conservation Council of Western Australia’s website.

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