Uranium: Labor approves another toxic mine

By Shua Garfield

On July 14, federal environment minister Peter Garrett approved the construction of the Four Mile uranium mine, 550 km north of Adelaide. Along with the three uranium mines currently in operation — Olympic Dam and Beverley in South Australia and Ranger on the Northern Territories — and the Honeymoon mine now under construction in SA, Four Mile will bring Australia’s total number of uranium mines to five.

Four Mile mine is a joint venture of Alliance Resources, a Melbourne-based company which will own a 25% share of the mine, and Quasar Resources, based in Adelaide, which will own the remaining 75% share and manage the mine. Quasar is owned by General Atomics, a San Diego-based weapons and nuclear energy company which, according to the July 16 Sydney Morning Herald, holds $877 million in Pentagon contracts and whose billionaire chair, James Neale Blue, “helped devise the Predator unmanned aircraft being used in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq”.

Garrett’s July 14 media release announcing the approval of the mine said that it highlights “the Australian Government’s commitment to world best practice environmental standards”. Garrett was quoted in the July 14 Herald Sun as being sure that the new mine “poses no credible risk to the environment.” But the recent history of uranium mining in Australia makes a mockery of the government’s supposed “commitment to world best practice environmental standards” and suggests that the environment is not just being “credibly risked”, but actually damaged by the uranium mines already in operation.

Four Mile mine will be constructed 8 km from the Beverley mine, owned by Heathgate Resources — which is also owned by General Atomics. Waste from Four Mile will be processed at Beverley. Sydney Morning Herald environment reporter Ben Cubby wrote on July 16 that: “The Beverley mine … has recorded 59 spills of radioactive material in the past decade, according to the South Australian Department of Primary Industries and Resources.” The largest include a “spill of 62,000 litres of contaminated water in January 2002 after a pipe burst, and the spill of 15,000 litres of contaminated water in May 2002”, according to an October 2006 article by Jim Green, national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth — Australia (FoE).

According to Green, the frequency of spills at Beverley is in part due to its use of the acid in-situ leach (ISL) technique, a technique that Four Mile and Honeymoon will also use. The ISL technique involves pumping an acidic solution (usually sulphuric acid) into wells or groundwater bores in uranium ore deposits. Green writes: “This dissolves the uranium ore and other heavy metals and the solution is then pumped back to the surface. The small amount of uranium is separated at the surface. The liquid radioactive waste — containing radioactive particles, heavy metals and acid — is simply dumped in groundwater … [T]he radionuclides and heavy metals are now bioavailable and mobile in the aquifer.” Monash University hydrogeologist and environmental engineer Gavin Mudd wrote in a 2007 article published by FoE that: “The aquifers in the vicinity of Honeymoon are known to be connected to aquifers used by local pastoralists to water stock.”

Olympic Dam and Ranger

The recent records of Australia’s other currently-operating uranium mines do little to add confidence that Four Mile will not pose a “credible risk to the environment”. The Olympic Dam mine, operated by BHP Billiton near the town of Roxby Downs, is located on the world’s largest known uranium deposit. Olympic Dam’s tailings — which now amount to 100 million tonnes and which are growing by 10 million tonnes per year — are stored above ground. According to a summary of the mine’s environmental problems published by FoE in May: “The tailings contain a toxic, acidic soup of radionuclides and heavy metals. There have been numerous spills and leaks — most significantly in 1994, when it was revealed that about three billion litres had seeped from the tailings dams over two years.

“The problems have not been resolved. Photos taken by an Olympic Dam mine worker in December 2008 show radioactive tailings liquid leaking from the rock ‘armoury’ of the tailings ‘retention’ system. The leaks were ongoing for at least eight months and probably amounted to several million litres, but were not publicly reported by BHP Billiton or the SA government. BHP Billiton said that mine workers taking and releasing photos of the mine would be subject to ‘disciplinary action’.

“Large numbers of bird deaths have been recorded in the vicinity of the evaporation ponds — over 100 deaths in one four-day period in 2004. BHP Billiton says ‘several measures used to deter fauna from visiting the Tailings Storage Facility over the past decade have met with varying degrees of success, but none have resolved the issue.’” Olympic Dam extracts 37 million litres of water from the Great Artesian Basin every day which, according to Green’s October 2006 article “has adversely impacted on the fragile ecology, including unique Mound Springs fed by the underlying basin.”

Australia’s other currently-operating uranium mine, Ranger — operated by Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), which is majority-owned by Rio Tinto — is located in the Kakadu wetlands of the Northern Territory. According to Green, since it opened in 1981, it “has generated over 30 million tonnes of tailings waste, and there have been more than 120 documented leaks, spills and licence breaches”. Green documents some of the worst cases: “In the 1998-99 wet season, high uranium concentrations in water discharged into the Coonjimba and Magela Creeks was discovered. Contaminated water was released into the creeks for three subsequent seasons before the problem was addressed.

“Between December 1999 and April 2000, an estimated two million litres of tailings water containing high levels of manganese, uranium and radium escaped from a broken pipe and the Restricted Release Zone. ERA failed to comply with its reporting responsibilities. One incident which attracted widespread attention occurred in 2004, where 150 workers were exposed to drinking water containing uranium levels 400 times greater than the Australian safety standard.”

Nuclear power: waste and weapons

Despite the history of environmental damage wreaked by uranium mining in Australia, its promoters have attempted to portray uranium as a “clean” alternative to fossil fuels for electricity generation. Quasar’s website features the slogan “clean energy for the world”. The claim that nuclear power is “clean” is based on the fact that the fission of uranium and plutonium — unlike the burning of coal, oil or gas — releases energy without producing carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases (GHGs) which lead to global warming. But while nuclear fission produces no GHGs, it does produce radioactive waste and material that could potentially be used in nuclear weapons — the implications of which could be as apocalyptic as global warming.

To meet the world’s current electricity demands with nuclear power would require at least a six-fold increase in nuclear power generation. This would lead to the annual production of around 80,000 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste, which remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. No long-term repository for high-level nuclear waste exists anywhere in the world.

A six-fold expansion of nuclear power, using current technologies, would also lead to the production of 420 tonnes of plutonium per year — sufficient for 42,000 nuclear weapons, each powerful enough to destroy a small city. Former US Vice President Al Gore said in May 2006 that: “For eight years in the White House, every weapons proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”

Despite claims by the Rudd government that it wants to see stricter compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), Australia sells uranium to “declared” nuclear weapons states — the US, UK and France — which have failed to fulfil their NPT obligation to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament”. The US, for example, spends US$40 billion a year to field, maintain and modernise nuclear weapons, including an arsenal of 10,000 warheads, 2000 of which are on hair-trigger alert. Proposed exports to the “declared” nuclear-armed states of Russia and China are similarly problematic. Australian uranium is also exported to South Korea, even though nuclear weapons research projects were secretly carried out there from the 1980s until 2000, in violation of Seoul’s commitments under the NPT.

A solution to climate change?

A nuclear power plant takes approximately 10 years to build. An expansion of nuclear power on the scale required to replace all fossil fuel-fired electricity generation would take several decades and would quickly deplete the world’s easily-recoverable uranium reserves. But, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies director James Hansen, the rapid phasing out of coal-fired power stations needs to begin within the next decade if we are to have a chance of returning atmospheric GHG concentrations to safe levels. Thus, nuclear power cannot currently provide a realistic solution to the problem of GHG emissions.

Meanwhile a number of renewable energy sources are available for immediate utilisation. Proponents of nuclear power claim that renewables cannot provide sufficient power to replace fossil fuel-fired power generation. The promise of “clean” nuclear power — along with “clean” coal — is used by the owners of mining and power corporations to discredit or divert attention from renewables as a solution.

However, an article published in the July 7 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA by Xi Lu from Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, Michael McElroy from Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Juha Kiviluoma from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, paints a very different picture. Assimilating wind data from thousands of meteorological stations, they calculated that “a network of land-based 2.5 megawatt wind turbines restricted to non-forested, ice-free, nonurban areas operating at as little as 20% of their … capacity could supply [more than] 40 times current worldwide consumption of electricity [and more than] 5 times total global use of energy in all forms.” According to a 2005 report to the Cooperative Research Centre for Coal in Sustainable Development by five CSIRO Energy Technology Division scientists, if solar radiation were “harnessed by existing technology, approximately 1.5 per cent of the world’s desert area could generate the world’s entire electricity demand”.

But under capitalism, it is the profit motive, not rational planning, which determines investment decisions. According to the July 14 Herald Sun, Australian uranium oxide exports are already worth $900 million per year. With the governments of India and China planning to quadruple their nuclear energy capacity by 2020 and with Australia holding 30% of the world’s uranium ore, Australian capitalists are drooling over the opportunities to expand exports.

The Four Mile and Honeymoon mines are just part of this expansion drive. Applications for exploration licences are increasing in number and some of these will inevitably lead to applications to construct new mines. Garrett approved the expansion of Beverley in August 2008. On July 20, the Australian Mining website reported that the NT and federal governments have given ERA approval for further drilling and exploration at the Ranger site.

BHP Billiton is currently seeking approval to expand Olympic Dam. While Olympic Dam currently uses underground mining, BHP plans to convert it into an open-cut mine by digging a 14.4 cubic km pit. This would make Olympic Dam the largest open cut mine in the world and would increase annual uranium exports from the mine from 4500 tonnes to 19,000 tonnes. The accumulation of tailings would accelerate almost six-fold, to 58 million tonnes per year. Extraction of water from the Great Artesian Basin would increase to 42 million litres per day.

Radioactive racism

As well as damaging the natural environment, Australian mining companies have also been at the vanguard of the Australian ruling class’ unrelenting drive to dispossess and quash the rights of the continent’s indigenous peoples. Four Mile’s neighbour, Beverley, is one of the worst recent examples. The opening of the Beverley mine in 2000 followed years of divide-and-rule tactics used by Heathgate against the Adnyamathanha traditional owners. Adnyamathanha woman Jillian Marsh explained in a submission to a 2002-03 Senate inquiry how Heathgate “deliberately chose to consult privately with several individuals … knowing fully that these individuals could not possibly be representative of the entire Adnyamathanha community (some 2000 people or more)”.

Only one public meeting was held to “facilitate consultation with the wider Adnyamathanha community”, according to Marsh, but it “was held under appalling conditions. [Heathgate] censored the entire meeting with the assistance of Graham Gunn (local member of Parliament) and the State Police. One Adnyamathanha man that stood up and asked for an independent facilitator from the floor to be elected was immediately escorted by two armed Police holding him on either side (by his arms) to the outside of the building. The Police took this action at the request of Graham Gunn, who had been appointed by Heathgate Resources to chair the meeting.

“The meeting was orchestrated to intimidate people … [N]o Adnyamathanha were allowed to hold the floor, no person from the floor was allowed to facilitate, and when attempts were made to raise issues that challenged the company or the mining proposal, Heathgate employees savagely intimidated these people … It was clear on the day that this meeting was intended as a one-way information session where the company, Heathgate Resources told the community what they intended to do …

“A public protest held at the mine site shortly after”, at which police used pepper spray against an 11 year old Adnyamathanha girl, “became subject to a recent investigation that found Police brutality unnecessary and inappropriate.” The 2003 Senate committee report on uranium mining recognised “evidence of inadequate consultation”, noting evidence that Indigenous-Heathgate negotiations were characterised by “intimidation rather than collaboration”. But the pattern of abuse continues — Adnyamathanha community members have alleged “that their voices have not been heard during negotiations for the Four Mile uranium mine” according to a July 15 ABC news report.

Mass movement needed

Much criticism of the approval of the Four Mile mine — and of other environmentally destructive projects which Garrett has approved since the Rudd government was elected — has focused on decrying Garrett as a “sell out”. In his career as singer for rock band Midnight Oil, Garrett sang numerous songs critical of mining companies, the nuclear industry and the dispossession of Aboriginal people. He also spent two stints as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1989-93 and 1998-2004 and was on the international board of Greenpeace from 1993-95. Thus his pro-uranium decisions are certainly a betrayal of the values that Garrett still claims to “hold dear”. However, an excessive focus on blaming Garrett for the Four Mile mine approval risks letting the capitalist system, to which Garrett has abjectly prostituted himself, off the hook.

The capitalist media, politicians and reformist environmental activists often promote “working within the system” of pro-capitalist political parties as a better strategy for achieving progressive change than building independent movements. Garrett — whose decades of environmental and Indigenous rights activism was always within the reformist framework — took this to its logical conclusion by joining one of the Australian ruling class’ political parties and pursuing a parliamentary career, supposedly to try to influence Labor to be more pro-environment. But there are no long-term career prospects in pro-capitalist politics for those unwilling to do the bidding of the capitalist ruling class — which the mining industry is a powerful component of in Australia. Garrett’s sell-out was the result of working within a system designed to maintain the power and privileges of a tiny, wealthy minority.

Victories for the anti-nuclear and environment movements have come not from individuals working within the capitalist power structures, but through building movements independent of these structures. It was mass protest and rank-and-file trade union action that pushed the ALP to adopt anti-uranium mining policies in 1977. However, by the time the Hawke Labor government was elected in 1983, this movement had subsided and fragmented, with many of its leaders being coopted into electoral campaigning and lobbying. This enabled the ALP to abandon its anti-uranium mining policy in favour of the “three mines policy” in 1984, which allowed the uranium mines then operating in Australia to continue. Thus, the uranium industry survived and in 2007, Labor finally abandoned opposition to new uranium mines.

The only significant victory for the anti-nuclear movement in Australia since the 1970s came in 2005, when ERA was forced to scrap plans for a uranium mine at Jabiluka. This was won, not under a Labor government, but under the Howard Coalition government, by a sustained mass campaign, led by the Mirrar people in collaboration with environmentalists throughout Australia, a campaign that included street protests, blockades and occupations. However, as the Four Mile mine approval shows, any progressive victory can only be counted as temporary and vulnerable to reversal as long as the capitalists economically and politically rule society.