Will Australia open uranium floodgates?

Wiluna WA (Western Australia)

The Australian government is about to decide whether Western Australia’s first uranium mine will go ahead, potentially setting a huge precedent for the rest of the country, where two other states have dropped decades-old uranium mining bans. Australia is the world's third-ranking producer, behind Kazakhstan and Canada and possesses 31% of the world’s reserves.  Uranium and nuclear power is never much of a public issue in Australia in terms of the dangers.


It would be good if some of you in Europe or elsewhere where nuclear disasters have happened wrote about them on Australian Indymedia, http://indymedia.org.au/, to wake people up here.


Maybe yours is among the countries that buy uranium from Australia, as Europe, North America, China, Japan and other Asian countries do, soon to be joined by the United Arab Emirates and likely to be joined by India, where the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, has just negotiated on the issue.


So, as this directly affects you, too, you might feel like joining an appeal by the Australian Greens to hold back the nuclear floodgates.


Australia's uranium has been mined since 1954, and four mines are currently operating (be skeptical of this link because it is run by the industry). Three are in South Australia, the fourth in the Northern Territory, which means the uranium has to be transported for hundreds of kilometres to the nearest ports for export. I don't know when and how and there are certainly no protests along the routes.


Australia uses no nuclear power, but with high reliance on coal and likely carbon constraints on electricity generation, it remains a possibility and there are increasing calls for it. 


All uranium mining happens on Aboriginal land and the issue tears their communities apart between those who fear the health hazards and those who want the money. In one of the worst crimes ever perpetrated on Aborigines, their country was atom-bombed between 1955 and 1963. More about that below.  


Australia generally is addicted to mining of all kinds. It is the world’s biggest coal exporter and mine tailings are polluting country all over the place – with arsenic in gold mining, for example.


Big Mining is probably the country’s most powerful political lobby.


The mine proposed in Western Australia is near Wiluna, on a lake bed that floods. It threatens to drive some species to extinction.


The state government and the South Australia based Toro company are trying to rush the approvals process before the March Western Australia state election and haven’t given the Labor federal environment minister, Tony Burke, the information he requires by law.


A lot of people around the country are watching the Toro project, because it's the first mine application to be made to the Conservative Western Australian government since the nationally governing Labor Party overturned its longstanding policy against more uranium mines in Australia.


The Conservative governments in QLD and NSW are watching to see if the Toro backers can get away with a shoddy approval process, because they have recently broken election promises to overturn long-held bans on uranium mining.


Uranium mining is not like any other mining. It’s dangerous to workers and the environment for generations.


The Mary Kathleen site in Queensland – closed since 1982 – still leaches radiation into the water table. The Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu routinely seeps radioactively contaminated water. Rum Jungle uranium mine continues to cost millions of dollars to clean up – more than forty years after it closed. The bomb testing sites are still contaminated and continue to make Aborigines ill.


The Toro mine could be the first step in Labor’s uranium export expansion push.


Uranium accounts for just one-third of 1% of Australia's export revenue and an even smaller contribution to employment in Australia – much less than 0.1%. Still, parts of the prime minister’s party are determined to send more uranium across Australia to export, even though some Australians understand the risks and are clamouring to build a genuinely renewable energy economy instead.


Greens Senator Larissa Waters says the Australian government has told the Senate they are planning to amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act on December 7 to return to the states all environment decision making powers except those relating to uranium mining in Big Business’ push to strip away environmental laws.


As the governments of WA, QLD and NSW have demonstrated in their uranium rush, state governments cannot be trusted with sole custodianship of the Australian places and wildlife that are too precious to lose.


The Australian Uranium Asssociation, the industry’s lobby, is thrilled at developments: “Our Prime Minister’s initiative – in changing her party’s and her government’s policy – has elevated uranium to a strategic policy issue for Australia,” wrote their CEO, Michael Angwin.


 “This is not surprising given the increases in demand for nuclear power, especially in Asia, over the next 25 years; and given Australia’s massive uranium endowment. 


“It is hard to envisage how Australian uranium development can for much longer remain subject to low-politics domestic political division given the contrasting high-politics international political relationships that it now supports.


“While political parties in some States still have to catch up, Australia now has what is beginning to look like a complete and fully articulated national uranium policy: domestic uranium development and production within a ‘best practice’ framework with exports in Australia’s national interest to help build international relationships.” 


Back to the bombing of the Aborigines.


Between 1952 and 1963 the British government, with the agreement and support of the Australian government, carried out nuclear tests at three sites in Australia – the Monte Bello Islands off the Western Australian coast, and at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia, just over 1000km northwest of Adelaide, its capital


Aborigines were not informed.


Seven major nuclear tests were performed and the site was also used for hundreds of minor trials to investigate the effects of non-nuclear explosions on atomic weapons. Maralinga was officially closed following a clean-up operation in 1967.


The site was horribly contaminated with radioactive materials, and several cleanups have failed to give assurance that the area is clean. Debate continues over the safety of the site and the long-term health on traditional owners of this land.


The psychological, spiritual and terrible health effects on the area’s Aboriginal people have been so great, cancer has been genetically inflicted in some communities.


The people of Maralinga suffered horrific cancer deaths and continue to be genetically stricken, with appalling cancers found in unusual places on the body. Children born today continue to be stricken with terrible deformities.



More than a decade after the previous Conservative federal government declared the clean-up of Maralinga to be finished, the present government continues to support remediation work at the former British nuclear weapons test site.


Confidential federal government files released under freedom of information also show Canberra bureaucrats have at times been primarily concerned with ''perceptions'' of radioactive contamination, while rejecting a request by the Maralinga Tjarutja Aboriginal community for a site near the Maralinga village to be cleared of high levels of toxic uranium contamination.


Files released by the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism show that erosion of the massive Taranaki burial trench north of Maralinga, described by federal bureaucrats as ''a large radioactive waste repository'', has required significant remediation work. Other burial pits scattered across the former nuclear test range have also been subject to subsidence and erosion, exposing asbestos-contaminated debris.


While the released documents indicate ''no radiological contamination of groundwater'' has been detected, the federal government has been obliged under its 2009 agreement with Maralinga Tjarutja for the hand-back of the Maralinga test site to initiate a range of further remediation work.


Strong opposition has surfaced following an expression of interest by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, the country's wealthiest Aboriginal organisation worth hundreds of millions of dollars, into uranium mining exploration in that state. Some local Indigenous land rights groups have spoken out with environmental concerns about uranium mining.


However, some have suggested that uranium exploration could be highly beneficial in enhancing jobs and industry for remote indigenous communities, where there is little or nothing else of economic value.


Whilst it maintains that decisions are yet to be made, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council or ALC says a debate is vital.  


Queensland Premier Campbell Newman lifted the 30-year ban on uranium mining in his state after Prime Minister Gillard was in India selling the benefits of Australian-produced uranium.


Newman said that Queenslanders should not miss out on the economic opportunities and jobs that uranium mining can deliver. The Qld govt says there are no plans to develop nuclear power or allow the disposal of nuclear waste, but experts are concerned that the environmental risks involved with uranium mining have not yet been discussed.



For these and other reports on uranium developments go to http://www.thewire.org.au/results.aspx?SearchFor=uranium&submit=++Search++, the site of "The Wire", a radio programme offered daily to more than 270 community radio stations across Australia.


Australian anti-nuclear sites: