Uranium flashpoint in WA

Jim Green

Chain Reaction #115, August 2012, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction

Interesting times in the uranium sector. The mining companies have had a few wins since the March 2011 Fukushima disaster, but they’ve had more to commiserate.

Bill Repard, organiser of the Paydirt Uranium Conference held in Adelaide in February, put on a brave face with his claim that: “The sector’s hiccups in the wake of Fukushima are now over with, the global development of new nuclear power stations continues unabated and the Australian sector has literally commenced a U-turn in every sense,” Mr Repard said.

Yet for all the hype, uranium accounts for a lousy 0.03 percent of Australian export revenue and a negligible 0.02 percent of Australian jobs. The industry’s future depends on the nuclear power ‘renaissance’, but global nuclear power capacity has been stagnant for the past 20 years and if there is any growth at all in the next 20 years, it will be modest.

The uranium price tanked after the Fukushima disaster and so far there is no sign of a bounce. Current prices are too low to allow the smaller uranium wannabes to proceed with any confidence.

In South Australia, BHP Billiton’s plan for a massive expansion of the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine has yet to be approved by the company board, with recent rumblings that the project may be put on the slow-track. Japanese company Mitsui recently pulled out the Honeymoon uranium mine as it “could not foresee sufficient economic return from the project”. Marathon Resources’ plan to mine uranium has been terminated by a state government decision to protect the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary − a decision made all the easier by the company’s licence breaches during exploration.

The industry also has problems in the Northern Territory. A Traditional Owner veto has put an end to plans to mine Koongarra, and plans are in train to incorporate the mining lease into Kakadu National Park. Energy Resources of Australia has abandoned plans to use heap leach mining at the Ranger mine, though an exploratory drilling program has recently commenced. Water management problems continue to plague the mining and milling of uranium at Ranger. At various times in recent years, both the NT Country Liberal Party and the Labor Party have opposed plans to build a mine at Angela Pamela, a short distance from Alice Springs and an even shorter distance from the town’s water supply.

In Queensland, the new Liberal National Party government has so far stuck to its pre-election promise to prohibit uranium mining. That may change, but in any case Queensland is home to no more than around three percent of Australia’s uranium reserves. The NSW Liberal Party government has recently passed legislation to permit uranium exploration − but exploration in earlier decades yielded little of interest.

Western Australia

Western Australia is now the key uranium battleground. The Liberal Party state government supports uranium mining. State Labor policy is to oppose uranium mining but party leader Mark McGowan says that any mines that have received state government approvals would not be stopped by an incoming Labor government.

As elsewhere, it has been a miserable year for the uranium mining wannabes in WA. At least two projects have been put on hold. The only company with any chance of receiving government approvals before the 2013 state election is Toro Energy, which is pursuing plans to mine about 12,000 tonnes of uranium at Wiluna in the Goldfields.

You’d think that Toro Energy might keep a low profile given the political sensitivities. Not so. The company has been loudly defending TEPCO, the notorious operator of the crippled Fukushima plant − even in the face of overwhelming evidence of TEPCO’s record of safety breaches and cover-ups.

Still more controversially, Toro Energy has paid for a number of speaking tours by fringe scientists who claim that exposure to low-level radiation is harmless or even beneficial to human health. Fourty-five Australian medical doctors recently signed a statement calling on Toro Energy to stop promoting junk science and noting that recent scientific research has heightened concern about exposure to radon, the main source of radiation exposure to uranium miners.

The WA Conservation Council is leading the battle to stop Toro Energy opening up the state’s first uranium mining, and has established a website to challenge the company’s claims. The Conservation Council has also produced a detailed ‘Alternative Annual Report’ raising a host of concerns about Toro Energy and its plan to mine at Wiluna. A ‘Toro Watch’ website has been established to hold the company to account for its jiggery pokery and shenanigans (www.toro.org.au).

The history of uranium exploration in the Goldfields is one of the obstacles facing Toro Energy. Uranium exploration in the 1980s left a legacy of pollution and contamination. Radiation levels more than 100 times normal background readings have been recorded despite the area being ‘cleaned’ a decade ago. Even after the ‘clean up’, the Wiluna exploration site was left with rusting drums containing uranium ore, and a sign reading ‘Danger − low level radiation ore exposed’ was found lying face down in bushes.

In August 2000, Steve Syred, coordinator of the Wiluna-based Marruwayura Aboriginal Corporation, said that until about 1993, 100−150 people were living at an old mission three kilometres from the spot where high radiation levels were recorded. Mr. Syred told the Kalgoorlie Miner that the Aboriginal community had unsuccessfully resisted uranium exploration in the area in the early 1980s. Since then many people had lived in the area while the Ngangganawili Aboriginal Corporation was based near the site. Elders still hunted in the area.

More than 5,000 tonnes of radioactive tailings from the Yeelirrie uranium deposit, near Wiluna, were buried just north of Kalgoorlie after BHP stopped processing ore there in the 1980s. Earlier this year, damage to a security gate allowed children to enter the site on dirt bikes. BHP Billiton said it would improve security.

There is also concern in Kalgoorlie about plans to establish a uranium transport hob in the suburb of Parkeston, a few hundred metres from the Ninga Mia Aboriginal Community. That concern may be premature − it remains to be seen  if there will be any uranium to transport.

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.

EPA approval of Wiluna mine appealed

In June, nine appeals were lodged against the WA EPA’s approval of the Wiluna uranium mine proposal the previous month. The appeals will be heard by an appeals committee and considered by WA environment minister Bill Marmion.

Notwithstanding the EPA decision, further state government approvals are required before mining can proceed as well as Commonwealth approvals.

The Environmental Defenders Office lodged a detailed appeal on behalf of the Conservation Council of WA. CCWA director Piers Verstegen said: “We do not believe that the EPA assessment adequately deals with critical environmental risks including the management of radioactive mine tailings, contamination of groundwater and the transport of radioactive material through WA communities.”

Aboriginal elder and Wiluna resident Glen Cooke lodged a separate challenge. Mr Cooke’s video appeal is posted at wanfa.org.au and at youtube.com/user/BUMPcollective. Mr Cooke said: “Toro Energy they only talk to a few people, always the same people. It’s not right, the people from Bondini sometimes they don’t know about meetings, or their not invited to meetings or they can’t get to meetings. This is not right.” (Bondini is the community closest to the proposed mine.)

“Marmion and [federal environment minister] Burke they will be making a big decision that will affect our community our dreaming and our health. Before they make a decision on what happens in our community, before signing away our country from many thousands of kilometres away they should come and look us in the eyes.”

You can help Mr Cooke and his community stand up and say no to uranium mining by signing the online petition at ccwa.org.au/saynototoro