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Uranium industry's record raises doubts
Mia Pepper l thewest.com.au September 16th, 2010
The Barnett Government recently announced that the Australian Centre for Geomechanics had won a tender to form an "independent panel on uranium mining regulations". Sitting on the panel are pro-nuclear lobbyists and behind the scenes are corporate sponsors including some that are anything but independent.
BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto are two of the sponsors - companies with operating uranium mines in Australia and uranium interests in WA.
There are now more than 140 companies with uranium interests in WA, four proposed mines in the environmental approvals process and many more companies exploring, negotiating and sometimes even fighting over uranium deposits.
But the industry's record in Australia should give us pause for thought.
BHP Billiton is proposing the Yeelirrie uranium mine in WA. BHP Billiton also operates the Olympic Dam uranium mine in South Australia and enjoys a raft of indefensible exemptions from the SA Environment Protection Act, the Natural Resources Act, the Aboriginal Heritage Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
Photos taken by an Olympic Dam mine worker in December 2008 show radioactive tailings liquid leaking from the "retention" system. The company's response to the whistleblower's evidence was to threaten disciplinary action against any mine worker caught taking photos of the mine site.
Last year, a whistleblower released documents which suggest that the company uses manipulated averages of workers' radiation exposures and distorts sampling to ensure its official figures slip under the maximum radiation exposure levels set by government. There is still no national radiation dose register for uranium mine workers in Australia despite promises from Federal Labor that the register would be in place by the end of last year.
Rio Tinto owns the Ranger uranium mine bordering Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory. There have been well over 100 leaks and spills at the mine.
The independence and track record of the mine's regulator, the Office of the Supervising Scientist, has been hotly contested for many years.
One incident which attracted widespread attention occurred in 2004, with 150 workers exposed to drinking water containing uranium levels 400 times greater than the Australian safety standard. ERA (a Rio subsidiary) was fined $150,000 - a rare example of a uranium mining company being prosecuted for breaching operating conditions...
- the pattern of secrecy, poor performance and inadequate regulation
- absence of reliable data on which to measure the extent of the industry's environmental impacts
- complaints by pastoralists and traditional owners who have not been told about uranium projects on their country... and who have not been told about projects that affect their property and water supplies.
- call to Barnett Government to hold an open public inquiry into uranium mining.
- key issues and fears about workers' health and safety, tailings rehabilitation, transport and groundwater impacts
Mia Pepper is the nuclear free campaigner with the Conservation Council of WA