In Australia uranium mining has been plagued with leaks, spills, accidents and met with fierce opposition from First Nation communities and the public. There is a national review of Australia’s environment laws which threatens to defer powers to state and territory government and reduce the scope of environmental protections. Below are details about why we need stronger, not weaker, laws to protect the environment from uranium mining risks.
Associate Proffessor Gavin Mudd has written extensively on the failures of uranium mining in Australia in a recent article “Expensive, Dirty and Dangerous.” and calls for ongoing federal oversight.
On a regular day uranium ends up as nuclear waste on a bad day uranium ends up as nuclear fall out. Uranium mining in Australia accounts for 0.2% of national export revenue and accounts for less than 0.02% of jobs in Australia – less than a thousand jobs. This marginal sector puts workers, communities and the environment at risk here at home in Australia and the countries where it is exported to.What starts in a dump truck in the outback ends up as a radioactive legacy fuelling risks at nuclear power reactors and pilling up as nuclear waste and weapons grade material around the globe.
First Nations Opposition
First Nations communities have led the fight against uranium mining in Australia at Ranger on Mirrar country, Olympic Dam on Kokatha country, Beverley mines on Adnyamathanha country, Mulga Rock, Yeelirrie and Wiluna on Wongatha country and Kintyre on Martu country. Some communities have been fighting for over 40 years to stop mines others for over 40 years and been forced to live with mining. For more on the First Nations led resistance to uranium mine see the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance.
One of the greatest risks of uranium mining is the tailings. Tailings are the waste from uranium processing, they sit in tailings ponds until mine closure when they are supposed to be rehabilitated. The best national standard for tailings is at the Ranger uranium mine – where there is a requirement to “the tailings are physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years.”
However, during the operation of the Ranger mine ERA and Rio Tinto have failed to secure those tailings, with evidence showing that up to 100,000 litres of tailings leak from the site everyday. Ranger is preparing for rehabilitation to begin in 2021 it is expected to cost close to $1 billion dollars.
In 2019 the Australian National Committee on Large Dams (ANCOLD) gave BHPs Olympic Dam uranium mine tailings a ranking of “Extreme” consequences category, a ranking that is given for facilities that, if the dam fails, would cause the death of 100 or more people. Despite this extreme risk BHPs proposed additional tailings facility at Olympic Dam was granted approval in 2019 without an environmental assessment.
Uranium tailings threaten the environment, public and workers health and safety across generations. What make them even more dangerous is the push to weaken environmental regulations.
Uranium Mine Rehabilitation
There is no example of a uranium mine in Australia that has been successfully rehabilitated. Mary Kathleen (QLD) and Rum Jungle (NT) Narbalek (NT) have all undergone, to varying degrees, rehabilitation and are all sites with ongoing pollution. The NT and Commonwealth government are now preparing for a third attempt to rehabilitate Rum Jungle which is expected to cost well over $300 million dollars – and it is only expected to reduce, not eliminate, the pollution. For more details on the legacy of Australian uranium mining read the joint submission to the 2020 Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation review.
Australian Uranium Fuelled Fukushima
In October 2011 Dr Robert Floyd, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed “that Australian obligated nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors.”
The UN Secretary-General called on Australia and all uranium producing countries to conduct “an in-depth assessment of the net cost impact of the impacts of mining fissionable material on local communities and ecosystems.”
Uranium Mining and Health
There is a dangerous trend in seeking to normalise uranium which has consequences for health and safety. Establishing a culture that seeks to normalise radioactive material and diminishing the risks puts workers at harm. This is evident in a paper written by consultant radiologist and ARPANSA Radiation Health and Safety Advisory Council member Dr Peter Karamoskos who identifies that it “is estimated that up to 50 per cent of underground uranium miners in Australia do not use their masks, and thus drastically increase their risk of lung cancer while underestimating their actual radiation dose (since this is calculated assuming PPEs are used).”
The most widely accepted model for understanding radiation exposure and health outcomes is the “linear no threshold” which suggests that the greater the radiation exposure the greater the risk of adverse health outcome. Richard Monson Professor of Epidemology at Harvard School of Public Health explains that “The health risks – particularly the development of solid cancers in organs – rise proportionally with exposure. At low doses of radiation, the risk of inducing solid cancers is very small. As the overall lifetime exposure increases, so does the risk.” Workers are exposed to low doses every year.
The BEIR VII report concluded that “there is a linear dose-response relationship between exposure to ionizing radiation and the development of solid cancers in humans. It is unlikely that there is a threshold below which cancers are not induced.”
In March 2020 the uranium price began to increase the rise was short lived and has begun to come back down. Following decisions to closure two rectors 10 and 20 years earlier than expected was another blow to the uranium price. Arena reports that “the near-term outlook for the uranium market held by many traders, producers, and utilities immediately shifted from a cautiously optimistic outlook to a more bearish view.”
Cameco the worlds largest uranium producer has said “the decisions many producers, including the lowest-cost producers, have made to preserve long-term value by leaving uranium in the ground.”