New uranium mine for NT?


Jon Lamb, Darwin

As the spot price for uranium continues to climb, more mining companies are expressing interest in developing new uranium mines in the Northern Territory. On February 15, French mining company Cogema made public its interest in developing a uranium mine at Koongarra.

Koongarra is a large uranium ore body located near Nourlangie Rock in Kakadu National Park. It is situated upstream from the Woolwonga wetlands, an important part of the wetlands associated with the South Alligator catchment. The 1977 Fox Inquiry report on uranium mining in Australia strongly recommended against the development of Koongarra.

In April 2000, following consultations with the traditional owners, the full council of the Northern Lands Council passed a resolution rejecting a request by Cogema for mining and exploration of Koongarra. The resolution also stated that the issue of mining would not be addressed for another five years.

The end of this five-year moratorium is fast approaching, hence Cogema's recently expressed interest in beginning discussions with traditional owners and the NLC. Cogema is a wholly owned subsidiary of the world's largest nuclear engineering group, Areva. The company is spending in excess of $3 million annually looking for profitable uranium deposits across the NT.

According to a February 24 AFP report, Areva has also initiated a US$1.3 billion bid for a stake in Western Mining's Olympic Dam.

The NT Labor government's position is unclear. ABC Radio on February 16 quoted mines minister Kon Vatskalis saying that while he was "optimistic", there where variables to be considered, such as permission from the traditional owners and the impact on tourism in Kakadu.

The NT Minerals Council fully supports a new uranium mine, as does the Country Liberal Party opposition. CLP leader Denis Burke asked: "Why should South Australia export uranium to the world, using our railway?" adding that with "regulatory controls, with the agreement of Aboriginal owners, we're all for uranium mining".

On February 25, it was announced that a new agreement had been reached between Energy Resources Australia (ERA) and the Mirrar people, the traditional owners of the area that covers the controversial Jabiluka mine lease, also in Kakadu.

According to a statement issued by ERA, "While the Jabiluka mineral lease and the 1982 Jabiluka mining agreement remain in force, the Jabiluka long-term care and maintenance agreement obliges ERA (and its successors) to secure Mirarr consent prior to any future mining development of uranium deposits at Jabiluka."

ERA chief executive Harry Kenyon-Slaney stated that the company is still keen to develop Jabiluka, and is confident that "traditional owners and [ERA] can now work together to try and find a way forward that meets the expectations of all parties".

Mirarr Senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula said: "Jabiluka will never be mined unless the Mirarr give approval — in future the decision is ours alone for the first time."

From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.
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