Uranium mining, processing, transport & waste disposal industries – Reducing the Risk

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Uranium mining, processing, transport & waste disposal industries in the NT

Reducing the Risk: What are we in the NT doing?

MAPW Alice Springs 2007

O. Fried May 07

Responsibility for the regulation of environmental impacts of uranium mining in the NT is shared between the Commonwealth and Australian governments via a series of intergovernmental working arrangements.

Because of their close proximity to World Heritage National Park, existing NT uranium mines have been subject to stringent regulation and monitoring.  Ranger is subject to several NT and Commonwealth Government Acts.

The Commonwealth Atomic Energy Act 1953  authorized uranium mining at Ranger and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC) is the principle legislation for approving projects and regulating environmental impacts.

Other laws include the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1978 enacted in response to the 1976 Ranger Uranium Environmental (Fox) Inquiry, which set up the Office of the Supervising Scientist (OSS).

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 protects human health and environment from the harmful effects of radiation; it has Codes of Practice for Transport of Radioactive Materials; Radiation Protection and Waste Management.1976.

The Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976 covers applications for mining on Aboriginal land, but the Commonwealth Government has foreshadowed changes to it.

Despite this raft of laws, there have been numerous problems including leakage of tailings materials into nearby waterways and contamination of water used by mine workers.

Mc Arthur R is a lead and zinc mine in the Gulf country near Borroloola.  The initial EIS in 1992 was “fast tracked” (<6 months) and much was hidden from public view as a result of being “commercial in confidence”.

Its expansion and change to open cut mining requiring a 5.5 km diversion of the river itself required another EIS under NT law and also activated the Commonwealth EPBC.

The NT Government initially rejected the proposal and EIS under its new EPA, however this was overturned later that year after commonwealth govt and Industry lobbying, and the extent of monitoring and transparency significantly reduced.

The mine expansion is likely to have huge environmental, social and cultural impacts.

Mine site rehab in the NT has a very poor history.  Rehabilitation bonds for mining were introduced throughout Australia in the 1970’s, but mining companies have not complied.

The Rum Jungle uranium mine deposited huge quantities of heavy metal contaminated tailings into the Finiss River, with some clean up effort made by the commonwealth government after the company folded, and prompted regulators to see that mining companies should meet their rehabilitation responsibilities.

Mining bonds were not useful in the case of the Redbank copper mine, which ceased operations after copper prices fell leaving the mine site to deteriorate; copper poisoning now exists 30 kms downstream.

The Mt Todd Gold Mine which operated on and off between 1994 – 2000 had its bond ($900,000) waived by the NT govt, who wanted to encourage business, and has left an acid drainage problem which is estimated would cost $20 million to rehabilitate.  Gouldian finches…  Sacred site desecration…

The huge copper and uranium Olympic Dam Mine near Roxby Downs in SA, set to be the largest in the world, presents an instructive case history for us in the NT.  Since it was first explored in 1975 it has been subject to controversy.

Governments have enacted specific legislations in order that WMC were able to bypass existing legislative controls on mining.  The mine has grown significantly over recent years, and now control a huge area, much larger than the mine site itself, and the latest plans to further increase their production and the size and type of the mine has been accepted.

It has free access to vast quantities of fossil water from the Great Artesian Basin which has already impacted on the existing Mound Springs and which can never be replaced.  In this time of drought, with increasing concerns about climate change and water conservation, this raises many environmental concerns.

The safety record from Olympic Dam is very poor.  The tailings retention system covers an enormous area, it was 165 hectares ten years ago and stood 10 meters high, and there have been numerous spills and leaks, the most significant of which was in 1994, when 3 billion liters of tailings effluent leaked from the retention facility.

Although these extensive tailings will be radioactive for tens of thousands of years, WMC have only made provisions for maintaining the tailings for 200 years.

Miners are exposed to ionising radiation, but their health outcomes are not known, or not made available, and there is to my knowledge no independent health monitoring of the Roxby Downs community.

The cultural impacts on Indigenous landowners have also been significant, and were widely protested by the Arabanna people.

Expansion of uranium mining, with its associated processing and export industries, and the development of a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory will all require a significant expansion in the transportation of hazardous wastes.

The safety of such transportation across the vast distances of the NT has been questioned, particularly as there have been a number of significant transport industry incidents in recent years.

These include the derailment of the Ghan Train last December, and at least two recent cyanide spills, one of the Tanami Highway, which was only found incidentally, and the other this February, which closed the Stuart Highway for nearly a week.

Only last week there was a major road train accident involving a gold mining truck transport.

Concerns raised at the time about the potential safety hazards of transporting nuclear materials and wastes across the vast distances of the NT were answered with a general reassurance that there were special regulations for the transportation of nuclear materials, so that you cannot compare transport of say cyanide and radioactive waste.

The IAEA has published advisory regulations for safe transport of radioactive materials and the Australian Government’s Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency has a similar Code of Practice.

There are about 20 million transports of radioactive materials world wide every year and it is said that there has been no accident involving spillage of highly radioactive materials in over 40 years.

The safety record is exemplary, so should we worry?

The main thrust of safety is in providing adequate packaging for radioactive materials of varying types.  The consigner has the responsibility for the packaging.

I’m not sure how much monitoring there would be of packaging, handling, training for handling.  Adequate packaging is supposed to prevent environmental contamination, even in the event of an accident, as the contents of the package would not be dispersed.

I think this may be open to question.  Uranium oxide (yellowcake) is considered low level material and is transported in 200 l drums only.

And what if there were a destructive fire such as with the recent road train accident?  I’m also not sure what measures might be in place to prevent diversion.

 

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The NT does of course have a Disaster Response Plan that includes radiological disasters, although I don’t know which ones.  The document is “controlled” ie not for public access, so of course I don’t know how comprehensive or adequate or even manageable it might be.

I do understand that its focus is on terrorism rather than accidents or natural disasters.

Elsewhere, a major outcome of disasters of any kind has been hysteria, and a useful public health response would need to include an approach to reactions in the public domain.

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How do we do this?  Well education would seem to be the basis of any useful response, but to the extent that such information exists outside the public domain, it cannot become linked with any educational program.

One of the biggest worries is how little we know about the effects of exposure to radiation.  While the populations exposed to direct nuclear bombings, ie at Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been extensively studied, we only have limited information about the health of workers or of  local populations exposed to radioactive contamination, most of it after nuclear testing.

– For 30 years the French conducted nuclear testing in Polynesia, both above ground and, after protests in the 1970s below ground.  The French have refused to permit independent testing of radiation levels, and there was no known follow up of exposed personnel.  Local people have significant health concerns which they believe are related to these tests.  An IPPNW study on the Environmental Effects of French Nuclear Testing has been published (1991).

– In 2006, the Australian Department of Veteran’s Affairs published a study of Australian participants in British Nuclear Tests in Australia at Maralinga and Monte Bello Islands, which found significantly higher incidences and mortality from cancer.  Although the authors disputed any link to the tests 54 years prior, the department now funds all cancer treatment for these vets.  Health outcomes for civilians, mostly Aboriginal people, are unknown.

– A recent study of NZ vets of Operation Grapple., the 1957-58 nuclear tests in the Pacific in the region now known as Kiribati, demonstrated they had long-term genetic damage.

The health of workers in the uranium mining industry or populations in the environment of uranium mines has not been studied.  A recent analysis of Northern Territory cancer data, which was submitted to the Government’s Nuclear Energy Review (UMPNER Report 2006) showed that Aboriginal people living near the Ranger Uranium mine have twice the rates of cancer of other Aboriginal people.

We have been assured that the mine was being managed safely (although we know there have been numerous incidents there).  This data has not been widely reported and there is currently no research in place which might further explore the issues raised, nor has there been any health monitoring planned for the future.

The data for that submission came from the NT Cancer Registry, but this is not set up or funded to conduct the kind of monitoring that might be needed, and any data found by the Registry would be too broad and perhaps too late to provide any useful analysis or response.

There are now many sites where uranium mining is proposed in the Northern Territory.  The Angela and Pamela deposits are only 25 kms from Alice Springs, and are within our water catchment area.  So what about Alice?

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