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Issue #1536      22 February 2012

Our uranium fuelled Fukushima

Australian uranium fuelled the Fukushima nuclear disaster yet our governments have just approved the world’s largest uranium project in BHP Billiton’s proposed new pen pit mine at Roxby Downs.

“We can confirm that Australian obligated nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors – maybe five out of six, or it could have been all of them; almost all of them”.

This frank smoking gun admission by Dr Floyd, the Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade came some seven months after the Fukushima crisis had started to unfold. It is quite likely this Australian uranium came from Roxby Downs in SA.

Denial runs deep in the nuclear industry. The nuclear utility TEPCO and the Japanese government lacked capacity and preparedness to respond to the inherent nuclear risks that reactors imposed on their society. Fire fighters from Tokyo had to risk their lives and health to try to control the failing Fukushima nuclear reactors as they exploded and burnt and the reactor cores melted down spewing radiation over nearly 10 percent of Japan.

Uranium mining companies in Australia are in denial. They cited “commercial in confidence” so as not to disclose their contracts and not to reveal which reactors were fuelled with their uranium.

The radioactive tailings produced by uranium miners need to be isolated from the environment for far longer than recorded human history – in effect forever.

However, Olympic Dam mine is a dam designed to leak an average of three million litres of liquid radioactive waste a day from the tailings storage facility through decades of mining up to 2050.

The federal and SA governments agreed to surface dumping of the tailings rather than to require best practice disposal into the pit.

They agreed that the company does not have to rehabilitate the proposed one kilometre deep pit that will be left to form a hyper-saline contaminated lake of some 350 metres in depth as a permanent scar on the landscape. Some 3.5 million litres a day of saline groundwater will be lost to the pit in perpetuity as it cuts through the local aquifers.

The world’s largest and richest mining company has been allowed to avoid paying for environment protection measures and mine rehabilitation costs of some many hundreds of millions of dollars.

The federal government gave election policy commitments that they have failed to deliver:

“Labor will accordingly only allow the mining of uranium under the most stringent conditions”.

And: “Ensure that Australian uranium mining, milling and rehabilitation is based on world’s best practice standards”.

How did the SA government perform in exercising their responsibilities after Fukushima?

Indigenous people bear a disproportionate burden of impacts from uranium mining and this will certainly continue to be the case in SA under the Roxby Indenture deal “negotiated” by the state with BHP Billiton that is being pushed through Parliament with bi-partisan support.

BHP Billiton is not bound by the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 in the “Stuart Shelf Area” of some 1.5 percent of the area of SA around the Olympic Dam mine.

Aboriginal heritage obligations that apply to every other miner or developer do not apply to the Big Australian for the 70-year extended period of the Roxby Indenture, and the state further agreed that this can only be changed in future with the agreement of the company.

In response to a question by Mark Parnell, Greens MLC in the Legislative Council, a Minister acknowledged that:

“I have been advised that BHP insisted that the current arrangements continue and they were not prepared to consider changes to that ... and the government did not consult further than that”.

Olympic Dam has an option to produce and trade in copper and gold and leave the uranium and the rest of the radioactive wastes at the mine site and not fuel further nuclear risks around the world.

The state owns the minerals but chose to approve a project that seeks to lock in uranium sales. In 2007, BHP Billiton proposed a switch from processing a copper product on the mine site, as has been the case at Roxby since 1988, to the new open pit mine producing a uranium-infused bulk copper concentrate for direct sale to China.

This precedent sale of uranium in concentrates is not sanctioned under any of Australia’s nuclear treaties and bilateral uranium sales agreements and BHP Billiton’s plan requires a new or amended nuclear treaty with China that would further undermine our so-called “nuclear safeguards”.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke signed off on the company’s plans and granted approvals for the proposed infrastructure, processing and transport for the concentrate, pre-empting the negotiation and signing of a nuclear treaty, its presentation to the Federal Parliament and a required inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, and a subsequent decision on whether to ratify, to amend or to reject the treaty.

Commercial vested interests of uranium mining companies are writing the script for Australia’s uranium sales deals under both Liberal and now ALP federal governments.

Now Prime Minister Julia Gillard wants to write down Australia’s commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the NPT) to sell uranium to India – locked in a nuclear arms race with Pakistan and facing the rise of nuclear terrorism.

India has an ongoing nuclear weapons program, has failed to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and reserves a right to further test nuclear weapons, and its so-called civilian nuclear sector has extensive military links.

A nuclear deal with India would suit BHP Billiton’s interests in potentially providing a second market country for the uranium-infused bulk copper concentrate from their proposed new open pit mine, and to allow them to lay off some of the increased uranium yellowcake production from the pit onto one of very few remaining potential nuclear markets in the shadow of Fukushima.

The illusion of protection in uranium sales will further unravel as the book-keeping exercise in ASNO’s so-called “nuclear safeguards” may fail to track uranium in concentrates in non-transparent China, as the developing world struggles with nuclear risks that Japan was unable to contain, and as Australian uranium continues to fuel nuclear insecurity across the world.

It does take some five to six years to dig the pit just to reach the radioactive ore at Roxby.

South Australia should come to its senses and recognise our society’s responsibilities to get out of the uranium trade and not be made complicit in nuclear risks for BHP Billiton’s vested interests.

Source: Adelaide Voices   

Next article – Australia’s policies failing long term jobless and people with disabilities

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