Fueling uncertainty: Uranium and Australia’s nuclear landscape

Fueling uncertainty: Uranium and Australia’s nuclear landscape

A speech by Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation at the public forum, Who Will Stop Nuclear Next Use? This public forum was conducted by Nautilus Institute at RMIT on Sunday 20 October 2009.


Dave Sweeney

Dave Sweeney

Dave Sweeney: Thanks very much. Thanks very much, Richard. A very kind introduction. I’d like to begin today by acknowledging that we are meeting and gathering on the traditional lands of the people of the Kulin nations and that Australia’s indigenous owners have never ceded their sovereignty and never, never ceased their cultural identification and cultural practice.

This acknowledgment is important because it’s part of healing an unfinished business in Australia, a profound injustice, and a continuing one.

It’s also particularly appropriate, for this forum today, because it’s indigenous people in Australia and around world who have and continue to bear the disproportionate burden of the adverse impacts of the nuclear industry through weapons testing, uranium mining, or nuclear waste dumping on their traditional lands.

As has been said, my name is Dave Sweeney, and I work as a nuclear campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF). ACF is one of Australia’s leading non-government organizations in the area of the environment. We’ve been active in celebrating and defending Australia’s unique environment for over 40 years.

We have active programs and representation across Australia. We have modest programs in the wider Asia Pacific region particularly in Timor-Leste and in Papua New Guinea.

We operate across a range of issues and in a variety of styles, but concern about nuclear issues has been and continues to be a deeply held issue with ACF.

Australia’s historic involvement with uranium and the nuclear industry has been of a sort that reflects the false notion of terra nullius, which is the sense of the false notion of empty land, the legal and the ethical fiction that underpinned the white settlement of our country.

We have in this country at various times been a quarry for uranium, a platform for nuclear weapons tests, and a promising place to try and dump the world’s nuclear waste. And the nuclear fuel chain begins with uranium. With around 40 percent of the world’s reserves, Australia has plenty of it.

The issue of uranium mining remains a controversial and contested one. It is a controversial and contested industry in this country. It is an industry whose social license to operate remains uncertain and an industry where there is a real tension between those who see the dollar signs, those who see the danger signs, and those who believe it might be possible to chart a course between the two.

There are currently three operating uranium mines in Australia: BHP Billiton’s massive Olympic Dam or Roxby Mine in South Australia, a smaller mine called Beverley, also in South Australia, and Rio Tinto’s Ranger Mine in the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory. All of these mines are currently in the process of contested expansions.

In Australia as of April 2007, our two principal political parties now support uranium mining at a federal level. There is bipartisan federal support for uranium mining.

A year ago this week saw the election of the Conservative Barnett Government in Western Australia and the removal of a longstanding ban on uranium mining in W. A., which is a massive state–one third of mainland Australia. There’s been a rapid expansion of activity in that area.

In Queensland, the state labor government there is holding firm to its long held position of no uranium mining, although that is under challenge from industry and

There are deep concerns about uranium mining. It’s not just the Australian Conservation Foundation or Friends of the Earth and others that are saying this. In 2003 there was a detailed independent senate inquiry, which found the Australian uranium industry was characterized by operational underperformance, by regulatory non-compliance.

This inquiry called for urgent changes in order to protect the environment and its inhabitants from serious or irreversible damage.

All of the mines in Australia have a history of leaks, spills, breaches, accidents, and incidents. There are severe and continuing environmental, occupational health and safety, social, and cultural problems at these mines and severe and unresolved issues, particularly with water and waste management.

After it is ripped, our uranium is shipped. All of our uranium in Australia is exported, and we currently supply about 20 percent of the global market–about 10,000 tons of uranium a year.

Our uranium sector remains highly centralized with over 90 percent of the production and the export controlled by either the world’s largest resource group, BHP Billiton, or the world’s third largest resource group, Rio Tinto–both of whom are headquartered within two kilometers of this forum today. There is a direct applicability to our discussions here and the operations that are driven out of this city and out of this country.

As Dimity and others have said, earlier this week the Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties concluded its inquiry into nuclear non-proliferation, that it might welcome recommendations on the urgent need for action about a comprehensive test ban treaty, about advancing nuclear weapons abolition, about Australia leading on a Nuclear Weapons Convention.

However, that committee largely avoided the difficult domestic questions and international questions raised by Australia’s involvement in the uranium trade, the weaknesses in the global safeguards regime, the lack of effective sanctions on those countries that do not meet their nuclear treaty obligations, the lack of
separation between the civilian and military nuclear sectors, the unresolved issues of nuclear smuggling, terrorism, and waste.

It is ACF’s view that Australia is pushing increasingly secretive and irresponsible uranium sales. We have uranium sales or talks in train with all the declared nuclear weapon states, and all of these countries are currently in conflict with their international obligations on nuclear weapons.

It is ACF’s view that Australia can never really lead on nuclear non-proliferation and on disarmament while we are also exporting ever-increasing volumes of uranium into the global pool.

And while we cannot guarantee that Australian uranium will not find its way into nuclear weapons, we can guarantee that it will become nuclear waste. Behind all the industry logic is the radioactive reality that every gram of Australian uranium becomes waste.

There is still no proven or assured way of isolating this material from people or the wider environment for the extensive time periods over which it remains an environmental and human health threat.

Internationally, despite six decades of industry efforts and politicians promises, there is still not one high level waste disposal facility operating anywhere in the world. And long running disposal projects in Germany, and most notably, recently at Yucca Mountain in Nevada in the U.S.A. are under increased scrutiny or have been halted.

Closer to home our national labor government appears set on pushing ahead with the discredited plan of the former Howard government to impose a federal radioactive waste dump in the Northern Territory, despite strong community and indigenous opposition.

Four areas have been identified as potential sites with one, a site called Muckaty near Tennant Creek, looking increasingly likely to be selected.

In 2007 the then new Rudd government promised to end a decade of division on radioactive waste management and promised to remove and repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act, an undemocratic piece of legislation that overrides community, local, state and territory government opposition to a dump.

Labor promised to implement a fair, open and transparent process for dealing with this issue and promised to remove the threat of imposed radioactive waste

Now this position as you can imagine, was warmly welcome by many stakeholders including the Northern Territory government, traditional owners, land councils, environment, health, human rights groups and trade unions. And sadly to date, this promise has not been given effect. It has not been acted upon. Traditional owners
continue to live with the threat of a nuclear dump and the gap between Labor’s promises and Labor’s performance is growing.

The secretive site nomination process has been out of step with international support for genuine community consultation and consent in decisions about nuclear facilities. And this growing international consensus about the importance of community consent, was well articulated and well expressed in 2007 by the UK committee on radioactive waste management which said, “There is growing recognition that it is ethically unacceptable to impose a radioactive waste facility on an unwilling community.”

More recently the federal minister with carriage of radioactive waste in Australia, the extremely pro-uranium resource and energy minister Martin Ferguson, confirmed that he would indeed consult with aboriginal people about any dump but that this would happen after he had selected the site.

And in the eyes of many traditional owners, in the eyes of ACF and many others, this is not a consult, this is an insult. Imposing radioactive waste on indigenous lands, on the lands of indigenous people in the 21st century, is not responsible management.

It is shameful, political expedience. So against this national context of extensive uranium promotion, back-room dealing on radioactive waste, there are also private companies, former politicians, and media commentators pushing for Australia to become the world’s dumping ground for high level radioactive waste and pushing for the development of a domestic nuclear power industry in this country.

Now the fact that nuclear power is against Australian law, deeply unpopular, and cripplingly expensive, has not deterred a flood of media reports, newspaper editorials and posthumous speeches that have been promoting this troubled technology.

Recently though, it’s very revealing because, with very little media fanfare or attention, three high profile Australian businessmen, Ron Walker, Hugh Morgan, and Robert Champion de Crespigny, put an end to a company called Australian Nuclear Energy. A company that they had founded in 2006 to be the first private provider of nuclear power in Australia.

Now Ron Walker’s bold assessment of the groups prospects, what he said after three years of trying to get nuclear power up, “We decided it was just a waste of our time.”

Now I believe it would be useful for that assessment to be translated into Latin and turned into a tattoo for those who continue to turn their back on renewable energy solutions of which this country is blessed while offering up other people’s money and other people’s land for nuclear projects.

Now the old curse of living in interesting times in 2009 in Australia is very real. For over three decades people have worked to keep Australia’s uranium in
the ground. That is not a hackney position. That is not a left sacred cow. That is a sensible expression of a pivotal ecological principle, which is reduction at source. Rather than putting a filter at the end of the pipe, stop the contaminant going down it in the first place. Reduction at source translates into “keep in ground.” And these efforts to keep this uranium in the ground have been sustained, have been successful, and they will continue. We have halted mining at Jabiluka and the world heritage listed Kakadu National Park and at other sites. And I believe we have materially contributed to a safer and saner world.

And now I think it’s very clear that in this country in relation to this industry, the nuclear industry with its many tentacles, we are at a time of profound
importance and decision. Will our nation’s future be as a quarry and dump? Or will it be as a platform for the provision of safe and sustainable power? They are big questions with high and long-live stakes.

And the choice is ours and the challenge as it always does, continues. So today in closing I’d like to thank the Nautilus Institute and the organizers for the opportunity to speak today.

I’d like to thank the acknowledgment and the opportunity to plug in a little snapshot of the domestic face of this industry that has so many profound and interrelated international consequences.

I thank you for your attendance and your continuing concern but above all I thank you for you action in ways large and small to help build a future that is free from the threats of uranium mining and nuclear waste and nuclear weapons. Thanks very much.

About Dave Sweeney

Dave Sweeney spoke on behalf of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF).

He presented this speech at a public forum on nuclear disarmament, Who Will Stop Nuclear Next Use? The forum was organized by the Nautilus Institute at RMIT. It was held on Sunday 20 September 2009 at RMIT Storey Hall.