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Dividing communities as well as atoms

Dave Sweeney ABC Environment 23 Apr 2013

Uranium mining may be attractive to those seeking to boost state coffers, but it leaves the land poisoned and communities divided.

A tourist snorkels amid coral in the Great Barrier Reef

COMMUNITIES IN REGIONAL Queensland are increasingly concerned about Premier Campbell Newman’s decision to open the Sunshine State to uranium mining — and with good reason.

The decision was made behind closed doors in response to pressure from industry lobby groups and — by the Premier’s own admission — without reference to independent economic analysis or advice.

The decision also broke a promise. In a letter to the Australian Conservation Foundation dated 11 October 2012 Premier Newman stated: “I take this opportunity to reaffirm my statements, made before the last election, that the State Government has no plans to approve the development of uranium in Queensland”. Two weeks later the Premier put out the welcome mat for the uranium industry.

Queensland is no stranger to mining, but uranium is different.

Uranium is a dual use fuel — it can provide the raw material for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. Its mining and export divides communities as well as atoms.

It is a high risk, low return sector that makes only a modest contribution to employment (around 0.015 per cent of Australian jobs) and economic activity (under 0.3 per cent of national export revenue) but brings significant and unresolved environmental, health and safety risks, and leaves significant toxic legacies.

Of particular concern in Queensland is the possibility of uranium being transported across the Great Barrier Reef.

One of Australia’s truly magnificent areas, the Reef faces growing pressure from coal ships, agricultural runoff, industrial disturbance, inappropriate tourism and climate change.

A report released last year by UNESCO, the United Nations’ peak environment and heritage body, expressed “extreme concern” about the pressure on the Great Barrier Reef from coastal development and increased shipping and cautioned Australia over the management of the reef.

Any plans for the MV Yellowcake to set sail would be reason for deeper concern from UNESCO — and from anyone who loves this irreplaceable Australian icon.

And there are such plans. The Queensland government refuses to rule out shipping uranium from a Queensland port.

The port of Townsville has already expressed its interest and the most recent federal white paper on energy makes it clear the federal government and the uranium industry are keen to develop a uranium export port on the east coast.

Industry at risk

Unlike the planned uranium trade, the reef is big business in Queensland.

Activities around the Reef generate billions of dollars, thousands of jobs and provide a sustainable livelihood for many. Adding a new risk to this already stressed environmental and economic asset is understandably raising concerns — and hackles — in Queensland and beyond.

Outside of Queensland concerns about the impacts and implications of uranium mining are been voiced in many regional and Indigenous communities that already live with the reality of uranium mining or the threat of future operations.

In the Northern Territory Aboriginal opposition has permanently ended plans for uranium mining by a French nuclear company at Koongarra in Kakadu and close attention is being given to Energy Resources of Australia’s plan to go underground at its aging and troubled Ranger mine site.

In Western Australia an alliance of Aboriginal landowners, environmentalists and trade unions is mobilising against Toro Energy‘s attempt to move from uranium ‘hopeful’ to ‘producer’ at its Wiluna site.

In South Australia community organisers who have seen BHP Billiton shelve a massive planned expansion at Olympic Dam due to high costs and low uranium prices are turning their attention to a series of smaller projects that would result in big problems.

An underperforming sector

Across the country the uranium sector remains underperforming and continues to lack community consent and a social license.

Ironically, but aptly, the industry that directly fuelled Fukushima has been badly hit by market fallout in the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan. Projects have been scrapped or deferred. Production and profitability are down, while community unease and resistance is up.

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 focussed on short term considerations.

The Inquiry concluded changes were necessary to protect the environment and its inhabitants from “serious or irreversible damage”.

In the ten years since that Inquiry, not much has changed. Unresolved concerns over site specific contamination, regulatory failure, worker and community health and safety, tailings management, radioactive waste and nuclear proliferation mean the Australian uranium sector continues to fail key sustainability criteria.

The current approach — company’s interest ahead of the national interest — must end. Before poorly informed back room deals allow more leaking tailings dams, contaminated groundwater or a radioactive Reef, decisions and policies that are driven more by industry enthusiasm than hard evidence should be reviewed and replaced.

This week is the anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

With Chernobyl in mind, and in the shadow of Fukushima, it is the right time for the federal government to establish an independent, transparent and robust cost-benefit analysis of Australia’s uranium trade — before the ship sails.

Dave Sweeney is nuclear free campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation


April 24, 2013 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Reblogged this on NuclearVox.

    Comment by NuclearVox | April 24, 2013 | Reply

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