Nabarlek uranium mine's hidden history

Issue 

By Jon Land

In 1978, former PM Malcolm Fraser granted approval for uranium mining at Nabarlek in the Northern Territory. Situated in Arnhem land, 20 kilometres north-east of Gunnbalanya, Nabarlek is adjacent to an Aboriginal sacred site and within the catchment of Buffalo and Coopers Creeks which discharge into East Alligator River.

Mining at Nabarlek finished in 1990, leaving Ranger and Roxby Downs the two remaining uranium mines under Labor's three mine policy. Green Left Weekly's JON LAND looks at the largely hidden history of the Nabarlek mine and the land rights, workers' health and environmental problems which plagued it.

The deposit at Nabarlek was discovered in 1970 by Queensland Mines Ltd, in the wake of the exploration drive for uranium reserves which began in the NT in 1967 (in expectation of widespread deployment of nuclear reactors around the world).

The Oenpelli people, the traditional owners, made a land claim over the area. Of particular importance to the Oenpelli was the Gabo-Djang site, which means Green Ant Dreaming. They were concerned that the mine would disturb the eggs of the Great Green Ant which, according to their beliefs, would then re-emerge to consume the Earth.

The company was keen to push ahead with the mine as quickly as possible, before the passage of legislation recognising Aboriginal land rights.

Queensland Mines' dealings with the Oenpelli people were deplorable. In June 1970, the company dug exploration holes without permission, desecrating the Green Ant sacred site. Repeated actions such as this prompted the solicitor representing the Oenpelli to write to the NT administrator in 1972, stating: "Our clients are most concerned that Queensland Mines Ltd has in the past shown a complete disregard for their traditions and way of life ... and has shown no willingness to cooperate or even communicate with our clients."

Other than direct confrontation, the company "communicated" its intent to mine by attempting to buy off the traditional owners with offers of sums which rose from a paltry $5000 in 1970 to $3 million by February 1974. When these offers were refused, Queensland Mines launched a malicious media campaign.

In a submission to the Ranger inquiry on uranium in August 1976, the Oenpelli Tribal Council told the commissioners that "If Oenpelli had the power to make the final decision, it would oppose mining". Despite the lengthy and determined opposition of the Oenpelli, Queensland Mines was finally given approval to go ahead in 1978.

Union action

The ore body at Nabarlek was relatively small — 10,858 tonnes of uranium oxide were extracted from the deposit by open cut within a year of operation. It was milled on site over the next 10 years.

The ore was a very rich grade and hence highly radioactive. The company's own research prior to mining found that without protective clothing, a worker could only stay in some areas of the mine for one hour per week before receiving the maximum permissible dose of radiation.

A Friends of the Earth booklet on uranium mining described the protective measures planned by the company as like "something from a science fiction novel". As awareness about the dangers of uranium increased, trade union officials became concerned about worker safety at the Mary Kathleen, Nabarlek and Ranger mines.

In August 1980, the Darwin branch of the Waterside Workers Federation refused to load Nabarlek yellowcake. In March 1981, the Darwin branch of the Seamen's Union of Australia voted unanimously against carrying yellowcake. That month there was also a spillage of radioactive water from the mine retention pond, resulting in a 10-fold increase in the contamination of surrounding soil and water downstream. (The incident was only brought to public attention through leaked company documents several months later.)

A combined union picket to prevent the shipment of yellowcake from Darwin was initiated in October '81 and lasted six weeks until the ACTU executive stepped in and argued for the bans to be lifted. It claimed that Energy Resources of Australia, which had just opened up the Ranger mine in Kakadu, and Queensland Mines would take action under section 45D of the Trade Practices Act, resulting in heavy fines against unions and officials.

After the Hawke Labor government came to power in 1983, Labor abandoned its opposition to uranium mining and adopted the three mine policy, thereby allowing uranium to be mined at Nabarlek, Ranger and Roxby Downs. Labor argued that once these mines were exhausted the uranium industry would be "phased out". The policy was devised as a "compromise" between the pro- and anti-uranium lobbies, and was to remain at the centre of factional brawls at Labor national conferences (until this years' conference).

In a move designed to maintain some credibility in the eyes of the anti-uranium movement and prevent disgruntled members leaving the party, Hawke announced that Labor would maintain its ban on the export of uranium to France. The policy, which had been adopted at the 1982 national conference, stated that the sale of uranium to France could only be contemplated when that government ceased all nuclear testing in the Pacific.

This had a significant impact on operations at Nabarlek as France was the major purchaser of the uranium mined and processed there. Queensland Mines was forced to stockpile its yellowcake from June 1983.

Labor reaffirmed the ban at its national conference in 1984 (where delegates also voted against subsidies, tax incentives or compensation of any kind to the uranium industry), and again in 1986.

But within six weeks of the 1986 conference the policy was ditched, supposedly to meet the needs of the August budget. According to Gareth Evans, minister for resources and energy at the time, the decision "was taken in the light of the need to explore every available avenue to achieve spending reductions and revenue returns". Yet the same budget announced an 18% tax cut to Australia's highest income earners and an increase by $730 million in defence spending. Lifting the ban saved the federal government $25 million in compensation to Queensland Mines.

Movement Against Uranium Mining campaigner, Glen Foard, commented in Chain Reaction in 1986 that: "A much more plausible motive for the government's actions lies in the leadership's determination to expand the uranium industry wherever possible. The contract between QML [Queensland Mines] and Electricte de France would, it is understood, have lapsed later this year if supply commitments were not met ...

"It is also likely that the quandary facing Western Mining Corporation, joint owner of Roxby Downs uranium mine, was in the forefront of federal cabinet members' minds. WMC has yet to negotiate a single contract for the sale of Roxby uranium and is desperately seeking buyers in a depressed market. France represents one of the last possible hopes."

With the restriction on sales of uranium to France lifted, Queensland Mines was able to sell its 2600-tonne stockpile by 1989 and the mine ceased. The company then attempted to have prospects it controlled outside the original Nabarlek lease included as part of the three mine policy. This was opposed by local Aborigines and denied by the federal ALP government.