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Jabiluka: alarming precedents are being set.

A renewed and reinvigorated antinuclear movement is emerging around Australia in response to the Federal Government's aggressive push to expand the uranium industry. Thousands of people in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, and Brisbane have been joined by protesters in rural and regional Australia--including in Wagga Wagga, Byron Bay and Lismore--opposing the proposed Jabiluka uranium project. People all over the country are seeing that renewable energy, indigenous !and rights and environmental protection are to be valued over uranium's perceived economic benefits. With 30 to 40 per cent of the world's proven uranium reserves, and global energy consumption continuing to grow exponentially, Australia is at the crossroads of its involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle. The election of the unashamedly pro-uranium Federal Coalition Government just over two years ago has seen a flurry of uranium mine proposals being lodged by mining companies. Following the abolition of the previous Labor Government's socalled Three Mines Policy, there are now no restrictions on the number-of uranium mines Australia may have. In addition to the push for an expansion of uranium mining there are plans for a permanent radioactive waste repository in South Australia and a replacement research reactor at Lucas Heights, situated in Sydney's outskirts. If the Federal Government has its way, Australia will be open for business to the most toxic industry known to the planet--without sufficient public debate or consideration of its long term consequences.

The Jabiluka project is the first proposal to receive Federal Government approval. This is a serious indictment on the deficiencies of Australia's environmental safeguards--Jabiluka is within the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park, and the project, if allowed to proceed, would leave a radioactive waste legacy for several hundred thousand years. Jabiluka's legally recognised traditional owners, the Mirrar people, are unequivocally opposed to the project, citing their poor experience with the nearby Ranger uranium mine, operating in Kakadu since 1980. Project proponent Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), majority owned by resource giant North Ltd., continues its push to open the controversial mine in the face of growing national and international opposition. Situated within the ecological, although not legal, boundaries of Kakadu National Park, Jabiluka has been the subject of appeals to international treaties relating to its World Heritage status, as well as condemnation from both the European Parliament and the Australian Senate.

The Mirrar people are continuing legal challenges to the mine and, in partnership with national environment groups, are currently mounting direct action against construction of Jabiluka, the scale of which has been compared to protests surrounding the Franklin Dam. Several hundred people have already passed through the blockade since it began on 23 March. One spectacular highlight has been a dawn concert on the edge of the Jabiluka mineral lease featuring Midnight Oil, Regurgitator and Coloured Stone.

Other uranium proposals are moving quickly through State and Commonwealth processes designed to facilitate their rapid approval. The Beverley and Honeymoon proposals, in the northeast of South Australia, have set some concerning precedents about the level of environmental and social safeguards surrounding the uranium industry. The South Australian Government has approved trial uranium mining for up to one year at the Beverley and Honeymoon sites. Neither proposal has as yet passed through the Commonwealth Environment Impact Statement (EIS) process. South Australia has a legislative framework designed to facilitate mining developments and to protect mining companies from undue scrutiny of the environmental and social impacts of their operations. One example of this is the exemption of uranium mining from the Environment Protection Act under South Australia's Radiation and Protection Control Act.

The company pushing for Beverley to open, Heathgate Resources, is 100 per cent owned by US utility General Atomics which is heavily involved in the US nuclear industry. The Honeymoon deposit is owned by Canadian company, Southern Cross Resources. Trial mining at Beverley and Honeymoon is being undertaken using a technique known as In Situ Leaching (ISL). ISL involves the injection of a leachate (sulphuric acid in this case) into the aquifer (water table) containing the uranium deposit. This dissolves the uranium, which is then pumped back to the surface for extraction.

Major concerns exist about the potental for groundwater contamination--both from the uranium solution, and the highly acidic leachate--during the mining process. It is also unlikely that mining companies are either willing or capable of undertaking rehabilitation to restore groundwater quality following the completion of mining operations. Both of these concerns are backed up by international experience with ISL. In Konigstein, Germany, for example, the contamination of groundwater by heavy metals during ISL poses a serious threat to the region's drinking water supplies. It poses similar risks to regional water supplies in Bulgaria, Czechslovakia and the Ukraine.

Traditional owners of the area which includes the Beverley and Honeymoon uranium deposits are concerned about the cultural and environmental impacts ISL could have on their communities. Mining companies, however, are continuing to pressure Aboriginal communities to sign mining agreements; and some traditional owner groups are believed to be negotiating over the Beverley and Honeymoon proposals.

Apart from promoting itself as Australia's economic saviour, the nuclear industry has also been busy claiming it is the solution to greenhouse woes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nuclear power releases four to five times more carbon dioxide than an equivalent power production from renewable sources and up to twenty times more than saving the same amount of power with energy efficiency measures. Aside from being the raw material for nuclear weapons, uranium is predominantly used for large-scale electricity generation, with small quantities used in medical, research and testing equipment. At every stage of its cycle the material is radioactive and has the potential to irreparably contaminate large areas. The nuclear power industry is the most dangerous industrial process on the planet. It continues to produce highly radioactive waste, for which there is still no known safe method of permanent storage and disposal.

International opposition to uranium is growing. The German farming communities of Ahaus and Gorleben have turned out in their thousands in recent months in an attempt to stop the transportation and interim storage of nuclear waste in their predominantly agricultural towns. The storage of radioactive waste is costing the German government millions of dollars, with a heavy police presence--including helicopter surveillance--required to counter massive local opposition. Government officials have reluctantly agreed with farmers' concerns that waste transport and storage will emit harmful neutron radiation, thereby posing unacceptable risks to surrounding communities. In light of the impending German federal election, activists campaigning against the waste storage want a complete phase-out of nuclear energy in Germany over the next decade. The strength of opposition in Germany is a powerful reminder that uranium mined in Australia has the potential to end up as additional unsafe and unwanted material in communities like Ahaus or Gorleben.

If the Federal Coalition Government is permitted to continue its push to open a myriad of new uranium mines, Australia will be firmly cemented in the nuclear fuel cycle. This fate, however, is not inevitable. Starting with Jabiluka, Australians have the opportunity to firmly state their case on uranium. Senior traditional owner of the Jabiluka deposit, Yvonne Margarula has stated hers;

The Jabiluka deposit is ten minutes from our communities, five hundred metres from a major wetland system and is enclosed within Kakadu National Park. One spill from the proposed mine will mean that natural and cultural values of Kakadu National Park will be obliterated forever... We want the Australian Government to understand and act on obligations which belong to all of us to protect our country.

At a time when many Australians are appalled at the Coalition's Wik legislation, Jabiluka offers an opportunity to defend native title in a very tangible way. The Mirrar are the native title holders of Jabiluka, and they are saying no to uranium mining On their country. It is up to the rest of Australia to heed their invitation to walk with them on the road to a future predicated on respect for Aboriginal land and culture.

For further information about the Jabiluka blockade, including how you can offer practical or financial support, contact Friends of the Earth on (03) 9419 8700 or the Jabiluka Action Group on (03) 9417 6660.

To support the Mirrar's struggle to protect their country, regular transport to the ongoing direct action at Kakadu is being organized by the National Jabiluka Alliance. Phone (03) 9417 6660 for details.

Sarojini Krishnapillai is a campaigner with Friends of the Earth and the Jabiluka Action Group.
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Title Annotation:Australian land rights and mining
Author:Krishnapillai, Sarojini
Publication:Arena Magazine
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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