Fairfax online: Another million reasons to probe uranium mining
9th December 2013
Opinion by Dave Sweeney
A radioactive spill at a uranium mine in Kadadu should set off more alarms for a troubled industry.
It is deeply disturbing, but hardly surprising, that a million litres of radioactive material has been spilled at Energy Resources of Australia's Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu.
The mine, imposed against the wishes of the Mirarr traditional owners three decades ago, has a long history of trouble and error with more than 200 documented leaks, spills and accidents and long-term and unresolved difficulties with water and waste management.
Kakadu is Australia's largest national park and an area of such unique beauty and importance that it is double listed on UNESCO's World Heritage list. Both its continuing vibrant Aboriginal culture and its largely intact living landscapes are internationally recognised.
But Kakadu remains threatened by the ongoing operations of uranium mining – one of Australia's most contested and contaminated industrial activities.
The latest series of system and management failures is a further alarm that systems are failing at Ranger.
While ERA is losing contaminants and credibility, many others are losing patience.
The Mirarr have called Ranger a "hillbilly operation", while a growing number of environmental, industrial, indigenous and public health groups are growing hoarse with their oft-repeated and never addressed critiques and calls for review.
It should not take a million litres of highly acidic radioactive sludge to be spilt in the uranium mine in Kakadu before dozy regulators and complacent governments take action.
Uranium is a unique mineral with special properties and risks.
The need to manage radioactive materials over extremely long periods – along with specific nuclear safety and security, waste management and proliferation concerns and the high level of public interest in this sector – means uranium mining is different from other types of mining and requires a higher level of assessment, scrutiny and options for redress.
Instead, successive governments have put a company's interest ahead of the national interest. ERA has a track record and culture of profound under-performance and a reputation for being more concerned about share price than environmental responsibility.
The most recent independent assessment of the Australian uranium industry – a senate inquiry in October 2003 – found the sector characterised by underperformance and non-compliance, an absence of reliable data to measure contamination or its impact on the environment and an operational culture focused on short-term considerations.
And, even by a dollar-driven view, the returns simply do not match the risks.
The sector promises much and delivers little, accounting for only 0.29 per cent of national export revenue and less than 0.015 per cent of Australian jobs in the decade to 2011.
Uranium is the fuel stock of nuclear power and nuclear weapons and every gram of Australian uranium becomes radioactive waste.
Australian uranium directly fuelled the Fukushima nuclear crisis. It has been confirmed that it was a load of radioactive rocks from Kakadu and northern South Australia that were inside the Japanese reactor complex when it failed in March 2011. These rocks are now the source of radioactive fallout across Japan and beyond.
Following the Fukushima disaster the UN Secretary-General called on Australia to conduct an in-depth assessment of the net cost impact of the impacts of uranium mining on local communities and ecosystems. This has not happened. It urgently needs to.
The Australian uranium industry has been hit hard by Fukushima. A fall of about 50 per cent in the uranium commodity price and larger falls in the share value of uranium mining companies since the crisis began has seen uranium projects stalled, scrapped or deferred across the country.
Now in its rush to cut costs the sector is increasingly cutting corners. Workers, communities and the Australian environment are increasingly at risk.
The uranium industry has long caused trouble, now it is increasingly in trouble.
It is time for politicians to stop accepting industry promises and start genuinely examining industry performance.
An independent and open review of the operations and impacts of the embattled Ranger mine – and a wider cost-benefit assessment of Australia's uranium trade – would be a responsible and appropriate place to start.
The recent Ranger failure provides another million reasons why business as usual with a most unusual business is simply not an option.
Dave Sweeney works on nuclear issues with the Australian Conservation Foundation and is the co-author of Yellow-cake Fever: Exposing the uranium industry's economic myths.