Uranium: Leave it in the ground!


With global warming increasingly dominating mainstream political discussion, the debate about solutions has intensified. While PM John Howard has thrown his weight behind the lie of "clean, green" nuclear power, the ALP has maintained its opposition to this deeply unpopular option.

However, both the Coalition and Labor support uranium mining for export to make fuel for other countries' nuclear power plants. At its upcoming national conference, to be at the end of April, the ALP is set end its "no-new uranium mines" policy and back an expansion of uranium mining, particularly BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam mine, which has the world's largest known uranium ore deposit.

On February 25, Ian Loftus, policy and public affairs manager for the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies, told News Corporation's perthnow website: "I'm sensing that those in the ALP opposed to reform are really being pushed to the margins."

Earlier that day, deputy ALP leader Julia Gillard told the Ten Network that she supported ALP leader Kevin Rudd's push to dump the 'no new mines policy", arguing that an expansion of uranium mining would bring "economic prosperity" to South Australia in particular.

Gillard, a leading member of the ALP's "left" faction, said this did not mean Australia should not build nuclear power stations, as advocated by the Howard government, because "the issue of waste is unresolved and I think that would deeply concern the Australia community".

The toxic waste generated by the nuclear power industry is apparently of no concern to Gillard — as long as this waste stays overseas.

Conveniently ignored by both Labor and the Coalition, however, is the devastating environmental impact of uranium mining itself.

While the legacy of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s and '80s has meant that there are only three uranium mines currently operating in Australia — Ranger in the Northern Territory, and Olympic Dam and Beverley in South Australia — with mining at the Honeymoon site also in SA set to commence soon, the immense environmental cost of limited mining gives a horrifying insight into what a uranium free-for-all would look like.

In 1982, the South Australian parliament passed the Roxby Downs Indenture Act, which exempted 1.5 million hectares of land around the Olympic Dam mine from being accountable to some of the most important environmental, Indigenous rights and freedom of information legislation.

The Indenture Act allows BHP Billiton veto power over the release of information regarding its activities at the mine and its surrounds. It has also put BHP in the extraordinary position of being able to determine every aspect of its relations with Aboriginal traditional landowners with regard to cultural heritage concerns, as well as decide which Aboriginal sites the company will recognise and what level of protection these sites receive.

As a result of the Indenture Act overriding the Environmental Protection Act 1993, the body directly responsible for BHP's environmental conduct is Primary Industries and Resources SA, which is dedicated to the promotion of mining rather than environmental protection.

The result is an environmental disaster. Every day the Olympic Dam mine extracts 33 megalitres of water, at no charge, from the Great Artesian Basin — the source of water for many pastoral properties and unique ecosystems. Meanwhile, residents in South Australia pay almost $150 per year just to access water as well as the standard charge of $470 per megalitre.

The BHP mine also uses a full 10% of the state's electricity output, making it responsible for the annual generation of about 1 million tonnes of global-warming carbon dioxide.

So far the mine has created 60 million tonnes of radioactive tailings, with an additional 10 million tonnes being produced each year. These tailings will remain dangerous for thousands of years. BHP has not developed any long-term plan for the management of these tailings other than dumping soil on top of them.

In 1994, it was revealed that at least 5 million cubic litres of radioactive water had leaked from the mine's waste-water dams over two years, wreaking unknown damage on the local environment and endangering the safety of groundwater.

BHP is currently seeking a four-fold, $5 billion, expansion of the mine's operation. The company wants to convert it into an open-cut mine, making it one of the biggest of its kind in the world.

The March 3 Sydney Morning Herald reported that the conversion will require the removal of 1 million tonnes of rock every day for four years in order to reach the mineral-rich ore 350 metres below ground level. The mine would also require a further 120 megalitres of water per day, which would be provided by a purpose-built desalination plant of a similar size to the one planned by for Sydney (which will create the greenhouse gas equivalent of an extra 250,000 cars on the road).

Last September, SA Labor Premier Mike Rann gave final approval to Southern Cross Resources to begin uranium mining operations at the Honeymoon mine site, contravening the ALP's no-new-mines policy. SCR will use the most environmentally destructive method of extracting uranium ore — in-situ leaching (ISL).

This method risks contaminating surrounding aquifers with radioactive particles, heavy metals and remnants of the sulphuric acid that is used to dissolve the unrefined uranium ore. Environmentalists are also concerned that the approval of the ISL technique at Honeymoon will result in the method being used at other new uranium mines.

The Ranger uranium mine, located in the NT's Kakadu National Park, has been a blight on the environment for the last two and half decades. There have been at least 120 breaches of operational guidelines, including the leakage of radioactive material.

During the annual monsoonal rains and flooding, contaminated water from the mines waste-water dams can and has overflowed into the surrounding environment.

In May 2000 there was a major leak from the mine, contaminating the surrounding area with uranium and radium. Energy Resources Australia, the mine's owner, didn't report the leak for a month. An internal report at the time noted, "There has been a long term issue with the management and ultimate disposal of water on the lease that has not been adequately addressed. The Ranger staff face an increasing intractable water management problem."

In 2004, 24 workers at the mine became ill after drinking water that was found to be almost at the highest allowable limit of radioactive material. A group of scientists and Indigenous people also drank the water.

The NT's Rum Jungle uranium mine, which operated from 1950 to 1971, is still contaminated with radioactive tailings despite millions of dollars being spent by the federal government to clean up the site (The mine's operator, Rio Tinto, refused to fund any rehabilitation work). About 100 square kilometres of the
Finnis River flood plain has been affected by contaminants (heavy metals, uranium, radium and sulphur), with 10km of the Finniss River downstream from the mine almost lifeless.

In the 1970s, Rum Jungle was known the world over as a notorious example of environmental pollution from uranium mining. Since then the big mining companies and the Australian governments that serve their profit-making interests have worked hard to bury the lesson of Rum Jungle.

That lesson — that uranium mining leaves a long-lasting legacy of toxic waste — needs to be brought again to the surface of public debate. The only way to resolve the nuclear industry's unresolved problem of the radioactive waste is to tackle it at its source — by leaving the uranium ore the fuels the industry in the ground.